Book: Intrinsic Immortality
Intrinsic Immortality Copyright © 2019 by Variant Publications
Book design and layout copyright © 2019 by JN Chaney
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.
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Book 2 in the Sol Arbiter Series
J.N. Chaney Jia Shen
In a world where the human mind can be given a synthetic body, the line between man and machine is blurred.
Despite the authority of the Sol Federation, major corporations hold most of the power. When the head of one such company, Chief Executive Julian Huxley, is killed, his body is left undiscovered for over three years.
Arbiter Tycho Barrett is sent to investigate the executive's death, but what he finds reveals more than he could have imagined.
Now, Tycho must search for an android who was once human, forcing him to question everything around him.
There are secrets here, written in blood and polymer, and they threaten to fundamentally change mankind's place in the universe.
After all, if so much of the body can be replaced by wires and circuitry, what does that say for the human soul?
Get ready to experience the second volume in the bestselling Sol Arbiter series. If you're a fan of Altered Carbon, Dredd, or Blade Runner, you'll love this engrossing cyberpunk epic.
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About J.N. Chaney
The wall in front of us wasn’t all that high, but the active denial cannons mounted along the top swiveled ominously, scanning the surrounding area for any threat from rival corporations, or even one of Earth’s legitimate governments. Here on the Moon, there were plenty of both to contend with, and they often overlapped in dangerous ways.
We were there to arrest some important people who didn’t want to be arrested. That’s a dicey proposition under the best of circumstances. If anyone up here started shooting, the consequences could spiral of control before anyone had a chance to even ask themselves if it was worth it. The man beside me was probably thinking along the same lines.
Senior Arbiter Byron was wary, holding his combat rifle in the ready position and eyeing the craters surrounding us. The terrain on Luna, like most moons, was ripe for ambush. Shadows were pure black, and no atmosphere meant no sound to tip you off. There was a very real chance that at any moment a hundred killers could slip from the dark and overrun us. Between Byron's demeanor and the automated weapons over our heads, I got the impression that someone was about to die regardless of whether it made any sense.
He gave the order. “They’re not answering. Do it.”
I inserted my skeleton key into the corporate security gate, immediately bypassing their defenses. The outer airlock slid open and a cultured female voice said, “Welcome to the Lua Campus, home of Huxley Industries. Let’s conquer the future!” Somewhere inside, an alarm would already be sounding. They couldn’t stop us from entering without starting a war the company wouldn’t win. That didn’t mean they couldn’t kill us.
I keyed up my dataspike and told our car’s AI to park inside. We followed behind it and once we were in, the outer airlock closed and a timer started. I caught myself absently thumbing the safety on my rifle before glancing to Byron and noticing he’d already disengaged his.
The timer hit zero and the inner airlock slowly opened.
As we stepped through into the campus, I had the distinct impression I was walking into enemy territory.
The Lua Campus of Huxley Industries is legally a territory of Earth, but from the blatantly hostile stares and tense body language all around me I might as well have been on some outer world, just waiting for someone to lose their nerve. That was when the shooting always started.
That didn’t usually happen here, though. People didn’t just start shooting each other, not even when they really wanted to. Here on Luna, the potential fallout of a clash made people particularly cautious about killing anyone. Still, walking through the Lua Campus didn’t feel much different from walking through the dark corridors of Tower 7 on Venus just before the first sniper spotted us.
Byron stepped up to the elevator and hit the button, then flashed me a look that said be ready for anything.
I gave a nod. We entered the elevator, leaving our escorts staring as the doors closed, and rode up to the top in a spartan silence. Byron stared at the walls as the elevator ascended, lost in whatever thoughts he wasn’t choosing to share with me.
The elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and we found ourselves looking down the barrels of cutting-edge weapon prototypes in the hands of several nervously assertive guards. Byron looked at them like puppies that had just made the potentially fatal mistake of waking the big dog from his nap.
A well-dressed exec strolled over, said, “Stand down, gentlemen,” in an almost-bored tone, then looked at Byron and me. “Yes?”
The guards did as they were told, lowering their weapons and backing off slightly. We stepped out of the elevator, and Byron brought up a holographic image for the exec to look at.
The man leaned in to glance at it then shook his head. Along the top of the image, I could see the words ARBITRATION WARRANT. “I don’t understand.”
“We’re Sol Federation Arbiters. We have an arrest warrant for three of your executives. Combatives A.I. Division Chair Anton Slotin, Ballistics Development Chair Stefan Graves, and Generative A.I. Division Chair Lucien Klein.”
The exec smiled. I don’t know what it was exactly, but something in his face creeped me out, like a rictus grin on a living head. “Whatever the fine is, the Federation will lose much more in the lawsuit that follows,” he said. “Even if you win the lawsuit. It’s just not worth it.”
Senior Arbiter Byron Harewood stepped closer then, intentionally violating the man’s personal space. Byron was a dark-skinned man with a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache, and eyes so serious you could easily mistake him for always being always angry. As large and as heavily armed as he was, this would have frightened most people into panicky compliance.
“Do I look like a civilian to you? These are federal charges.”
The exec shrugged, then held his wrist up to his mouth. “Shelly, this is Nguyen. Could you send Anton, Stefan, and Lucien down here please? There’s a misunderstanding they need to clear up. No, they’ll make their two o’clock.”
Byron frowned. He wasn’t the sort of man to put up with any disrespect. “These are criminal warrants. They won’t be going to any two o’clock meeting.”
The exec just shrugged again. He didn’t seem to believe it, or if he did, didn’t seem to care. To a corporate power, the forces wielded by any nation state in the solar system were little more than a nuisance. The Sol Federation was supposed to be the exception, but we hadn’t yet convinced every company of that fact.
One of the guards stepped forward—the one most interested in getting a promotion, I would imagine. “I’m going to have to ask you to step back, sir. Sir, step back.”
He put a hand on Byron’s chest. My partner turned, swiped the hand away with his right arm, and tossed the guard to the floor in a joint lock so quickly and easily I didn’t even see how it was done. The man’s face went a white, and he started tapping Byron’s arm with his free hand in an absurd attempt to admit defeat. Byron waited for the message to sink in before letting him go, and the guard curled into himself with a look of shock and pain. Ngyuen frowned. No promotion for you.
A corporate campus is like another world. The guards are used to being obeyed, but as far as we were concerned, they had no authority. That was the theory at least, but authority is nothing more than superior force. Taken all together, did the guards have enough force to assert their authority? They seemed to think they might. The only thing holding them back so far was their orders. They looked to their boss for some kind of guidance, but he wasn’t about to tell them to start a war.
The executive turned to us, and his smug little smile became even more self-assured. “Unnecessary brutality? Well. This will all be resolved in court eventually. May I have your names and badge numbers?”
Byron simply ignored the man, and the three men we were there to arrest came strolling down the corridor with even more security in tow. Anton Slotin and Stefan Graves both held back upon seeing us, but Lucien Klein came barreling forward.
He was a large man, with a broad and somewhat fleshy face. Neither fat nor muscular, he gave the impression of someone who frequently yelled at waiters for not getting his food just right. His skin was flushed, and his eyes flashed angrily with what he probably thought of as a dominant look.
“What’s going on here? I have a call with… Oh.”
Nguyen gave the man his creepy smile. “They have a warrant. Something about weapons trafficking. Is there something you need me to tell the Board?”
From the look on his face, Lucein Klein had seen this coming—but only in his nightmares, where the consequences he had never experienced before in his entire life somehow caught up with him. He sputtered for a few seconds, then turned away suddenly as if to bolt. I shifted my weight and bent slightly at the knees. If he tried to run, we would have to put him down on the ground one way or another, but Nguyen caught him just under his arm.
“Come on now, Lucien. You know you need to do this. We’ll send the lawyers, and you’ll be back in time to make your two o'clock.”
It was 12:15.
Byron had apparently had enough, because he spun Lucien Klein around and manacled him before he could say another word. Byron’s teeth were clenched, and his eyes glared fiercely as if daring the guards. They wanted to do something, but Nguyen wasn’t giving the order. If they made a wrong move, I could easily have seen Byron shooting a few of them just to make a point.
Why is he doing this? He wasn’t there with me in Tower 7, and he didn’t lose anyone to Marcenn’s androids. This was just an arrest, one part of a larger investigation. Why all this anger?
I thought of saying something but decided it should wait for later. Instead I stepped forward and manacled Anton Slotin and Stefan Graves over their loud and indignant objections. Phrases like “Do you know who I am?” were thrown around, along with a few classic variations like “You’ll be checking ship registrations somewhere in the Oort Cloud.”
I wouldn’t have manacled them, because it isn’t exactly standard procedure on the rare occasion we arrest a corporate executive, but in this scenario I couldn’t avoid it. Byron had already manacled Lucien Klein. If it was necessary for one of them it was necessary for all of them, or our justification for restraining Klein went out the window.
As for Nguyen, he kept on smiling, probably just as happy to see a few power rivals get taken away by Arbiters as he would be when the company won its lawsuit against us.
“Don’t worry about a thing.” He smiled, but there wasn’t a hint of sincerity or even sympathy for his colleagues in that soulless grin. “You’ll be out in an hour or less. Hang tight for the lawyers. None of this will change a thing.”
I wanted to hit him, irritated with his lack of respect for the law. For any kind of broader society. For anything but the bottom line, and his own swift climb to the top of the corporate ladder. I could have driven my knuckles into his teeth and it would have done no good, so I didn’t do anything. I just turned away, nudging my prisoners into the elevator ahead of me.
Their eyes kept darting between Byron and me, as if they were afraid we might kill them all at any moment. Arbiters are frightening to the average civilian, an image we cultivate intentionally to cover up for the fact that we don’t have the authority to commit acts of violence without consequences. As we left the elevator and walked back through the busy main floor, they looked so hopeful I almost felt bad for them. They all seemed to expect some kind of rescue, perhaps by Huxley security commandos, but if it hadn’t happened yet then it was obviously never going to happen.
The Board of Huxley Industries had cut them loose, which meant it had probably already decided to use them as scapegoats. Someone at the company had given the order to sell illegal heavy weaponry to August Marcenn, and someone had to pay for it. It might as well be these three as anyone else.
Once we were in the car, with the prisoners safely stowed in the back, the car pulled out to return us to the waiting shuttle. We couldn’t see outside unless we used the screen, but Byron preferred to have an overhead tactical map displayed at all times. I watched our green dot crawl across thin blue topographic rings. I turned to him to speak, Byron seemed to know what I was going to say.
“Either spit it out or lock it up, Barrett.”
He may smile occasionally, but it looks more like a quiet grimace. It was often hard for me to tell whether he what he said was rhetorical or genuine, so I’d made a habit of waiting a few beats before responding. That seemed to work most of the time.
“You’re a Junior Arbiter,” said Byron. “Emphasis on the junior. I’m the Senior Arbiter. I call the shots.”
“Don’t you think…?”
He held a hand up. “I do. That’s exactly the point, Barrett. It’s my job to think, because I’m the Senior Arbiter in this drop-team. Your job is to do. That’s a different and necessary job. You follow my lead wherever it goes, and you don’t hesitate or question it. Not out loud, not to yourself. Don’t even dream about it. Are we clear or unclear?”
“Of course, we’re clear. You should have used more tact, that’s all.”
He frowned. “More tact? I don’t know how you handled things with Gabriel Anderson, but I call the shots. The amount of tact I decide to use is up to me, and you will follow that decision to the best of your ability, and then some.”
He was coming on so strong, I decided it must be personal. He must be under the impression that I was challenging his authority, and he wasn’t about to let that go.
I held up both hands in mock surrender. “Yes, Sir. Just trying to learn the correct procedures.”
He nodded sagely. “The correct procedure is: You arrest who I tell you to arrest, shoot who I tell you to shoot, and let me worry about how much tact to use.”
“Copy that, Sir. Understood.”
I lay back in my seat and closed my eyes. The easiest way out of this conversation was to disengage and let him feel like the bigger man.
Byron snorted quietly. From his point of view, I was just another Junior Arbiter who needed guidance from a more experienced veteran like himself.
After everything I’d seen on Venus.
Until my next promotion, I might as well be a raw recruit on his first jump. If I didn’t like it, I was free to go on not liking it for all the good it would do.
The ongoing investigation into what had happened on Venus led us to the rarest of all combat drops. Our target was on Earth, in a secluded place far from both the Equatorial Desert and the Arctic Farm Zones. Nestled among blue-green trees, in one of the last remaining wildernesses, was the private estate of Huxley Industry’s Chief Executive, Julian Huxley. Byron and I moved through the dense forest in heavy armor, on our way to pay Julian a visit. Not surprisingly, our target’s android proxies had their own opinions about that.
Byron’s voice came through my dataspike. “On the ridge. See? They’re not factory issue.”
Full dropsuits would normally not have been authorized for a terrestrial operation, much less on Earth of all places, but Arbitration Command had made an exception. The woods around Julian Huxley’s remote estate were swarming with proxies, and according to our intel they were not any known model. The unknown is dangerous, so we’d been authorized to take action.
I zoomed in, and sure enough there did seem to be something different about the androids I saw moving along the ridge. They had the same basic shape as normal droids: vaguely human and vaguely insect-like. What was really different, the thing that made it obvious they weren’t factory issue android proxies, was the way they moved.
Androids are clumsy. Not clumsy in the sense that they’re going to trip over their own feet at any moment, but heavy and deliberate. These droids were different, slipping through the trees with a graceful fluidity that was almost beautiful to watch.
I say “almost,” because the elegant movement of these combat androids had the potential to be a problem.
“Yeah. I see it. Do you think they’re custom?”
Byron exhaled. Like most Arbiters, he didn’t really do a lot of speculation. “Could just as easily be prototypes.”
“That’s a scary thought.”
Gabriel would have understood exactly what I was saying here. I shook my head, a subtle gesture that would cause no visible movement on the outside of the massive dropsuit I was wearing. Every time the combat technology available for sale becomes more sophisticated, it represents a problem for Arbiters. We maintain the advantage by having the best tech available, so the people we have to deal with can’t shoot through our armor, hunt us down, or hide from us. When the tech gap narrows, more Arbiters are going to die. It’s a simple equation, even if my new partner couldn’t understand why I would describe it as “scary.”
Byron pointed along the ridge. “They’re on a patrol, but if it follows the line of the ridge they’ll be at our location in about an hour.”
“We could go down the slope now and slip right past them. They’re leaving a huge gap in their lines by coming up here.”
“No, we can’t. They’ll overlook us when they get up here, and when they see us among the trees, they’ll be able to drop whatever they want on us.”
“Those sidearms they’re carrying will never pierce our dropsuits,” I pointed out.
“They aren’t meant to, and they won’t have to. Didn’t you see the scopes? Those aren’t just rifles, Barrett. They’re target markers. They can paint us for artillery fire.”
“Yes.” He didn’t seem concerned. "Check the schematics on his house. Huxley has missile batteries as well as mid-range anti-vehicular cannons.”
I brought the schematics up and saw that he was right. Huxley had enough firepower to cause problems for a full infantry regiment, and just maybe enough to stop two Arbiters. My dropsuit could probably handle a proximity blast, but a direct hit by one of his artillery shells would almost certainly kill me. Then there were the cannons, and the added danger from falling trees once the shells started exploding.
No wonder they had authorized these dropsuits. No civilians nearby meant no risk of collateral damage and the bad publicity that went along with it, which would probably have resulted in an order to tie our hands behind our backs and go in light. Without that risk, our lives were suddenly at least a little bit of a priority.
“Well, shit,” I said.
“It’s not a big deal. You just can’t let them get you in their sights. I know you’re not used to that kind of gunfight, but it’s always that way when you’re not wearing armor.”
Not a big deal. In Byron’s world, being targeted by a precision artillery system is not a big deal. All you have to do is get out of the way.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked.
“We engage and destroy. Make contact from as close as possible, so they can’t use their artillery without blowing up their own android proxies.”
As expensive as they must be, would Huxley hesitate? After all, his estate was under attack. Then again, Huxley wasn’t in that much trouble. At least not yet. Our orders were to detain him, but not on criminal charges. He’d been called to appear in front of a Sol Federation Inquiry on the 2/77 Incident and he had ignored the subpoena.
A contempt of court charge is all this really was, although it could potentially lead to much bigger things. If the Inquiry proved he was behind the weapons dealing, the company could even be shut down completely. Not that it was likely any of that would happen, but Huxley didn’t seem to want to take the chance. Not when he could ignore the subpoena and hide out here in the woods with all his killer androids.
Refusing the original summons wasn’t technically illegal, but the subsequent enforcement order had made it a legal issue. Under normal circumstances, this wasn’t something that would require two Arbiters armored up like biped tanks to overcome artillery batteries before bringing the man in for the formal hearing.
When we finally grabbed Huxley, I was going to ask him why he was being such a jackass. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for everyone involved if he had just decided to comply in the first place.
“Can we even get that close to them?” I asked.
“Don’t see why not. I can move pretty quietly in this thing when I have to. Can you?”
Our scramblers were on, preventing the android proxies from scanning for our presence. Unfortunately for us, that also meant that we couldn’t scan for theirs. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of movement on the slopes below us. Had the androids flanked us?
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing down toward the trees below. Just as Byron turned to look, I saw an android aiming his weapon up at us in silence.
Then we heard a whistling.
“Artillery strike!” called Byron. “Break off now!”
I ran along the ridge, lumbering as only a man in a dropsuit could. When the shells hit, I was only aware of it because the world fell over, with the sky tumbling end over end in a crazy spinning kaleidoscope of sky and trees. I fell a few dozen meters down the hillside, smashing through a tree in the process. When I sat back up, there were shapes moving in front of me. I couldn’t see what they were, but they were rapidly closing in.
The android proxies. I couldn’t aim from where I’d fallen, but I didn’t need to. The gun in my dropsuit was practically artillery in its own right, and more than enough for a squad of androids. I opened fire, and trees between me and the inbound machines became clouds of dust and splinters. I didn’t know how many of the proxies had been closing in on me, but I did know that anything downrange from my gun was now a mangled ruin.
I still had to move, or the next artillery strike would land directly on me. Not far away, I saw rockets streaking across the sky. A section of the ridge burst into flames, and I guessed that Byron was somewhere up there. Maybe he was running, or maybe he was burning alive. I had no time to find out.
I got to my feet, but the effort took too long. By the time I was running, if that’s the right word for it, I heard the whistling sound again. The shells landed just behind me. I could almost see the blast wave as it stripped the leaves from the trees around me. I stumbled and caught myself, landing hard on both knees. Something popped up among the branches then disappeared again, and I realized an android had spotted me. I got back to my feet, fired wildly in all directions, and started running again. This time I was lucky, and the A.I. controlling the artillery misjudged my likely direction of retreat. The shells burst nearby, but the strike wasn’t nearly close enough to be any kind of threat.
I caught another glimpse of movement and aimed ahead of where it was likely to run. I had better luck than their A.I., or maybe all that nonsense about superior human intuition has a grain of truth to it. The android I hit was ripped apart, shredded into burning scrap.
As I stumbled out into a clearing, I saw them closing in on me from every direction all at once. They weren’t far away, but they all seemed to be aiming their weapons without pulling the triggers. They were calling in a strike, regardless of the fact that they were right underneath it.
Byron was wrong. Androids don’t have a self-preservation instinct; they just do whatever you program them to do. When you’re as rich as Julian Huxley, being protected from minor legal irritations is easily worth the sacrifice of any number of expensive androids.
I held the trigger down and ran straight ahead while fanning my weapon from side to side, hoping to break through their encirclement and escape the artillery strike before it hit. As I raced toward freedom, the whistle sounded again. This was it. I was about to take the full force of a direct hit from a home defense cannon. I got ready to die, but I didn’t stop running despite that fact.
And then I somehow burst through the line, pulling two androids with me as they held onto my arms and legs in an effort to hold me in place. The strike landed not far behind me, and the blast wave lifted me off my feet. I was knocked unconscious. It had to have been for only a few seconds, but I was so disoriented when I opened my eyes again I might as well have been asleep all day.
I probably had a concussion, though nothing else seemed especially damaged. I tasted iron in my mouth and felt my sinuses running, sure sign of a nosebleed. I turned and saw something nearby, but it was much too large and unwieldy to be one of the androids. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, then I heard Byron’s voice.
“Lawson’s Gambit. Not bad, Barrett.”
Lawson was an Arbiter who had escaped an ambush by tricking the enemy into firing on their own position. Byron thought I had done it intentionally, and I wasn’t going to correct him. As I stood up, I could feel blood catching in the back of my throat and spat reflexively before I could think better of it. Viscous blood stained my visor.
I unlatched my helmet, a slow and uncomfortable process made more difficult from the pounding in my head. When I finally got it off me, I could clearly see android limbs and heads scattered across the forest floor.
Byron was looking at me, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking with his helmet still on. Then he pointed behind me. “There’s a stream over there. Rinse it out and we’ll head on up.”
I walked over to the creek and rinsed out my helmet as best I could. The highly advanced technology inside was insulated well enough to protect it from the water, and I soon had it cleaned out and back on again.
Byron pointed up into the trees. “When we go up the hill, remember there could be others. And not just androids. He could have mined the grounds, or there could be booby traps inside the house. These are the kinds of things you can easily overlook, and they can kill you just as easily if you don’t watch out for them.”
I could always count on Byron to tell me things I already knew. Especially if they were depressing or anxiety-inducing. But I had another concern. “Those proxies ambushed us. They crept up without us seeing them and called in a strike.”
“Yes, the patrol on the ridge was just a decoy. It was a clever trick.”
“Don’t you see what this means? Huxley has tech that could be highly dangerous. Androids that can engage Arbiters. That can kill Arbiters.”
“We already knew that.”
He was right, of course. A heavy weapons android had killed Gabriel Anderson and had kept me pinned down for hours in Tower 7. Still, this combination of mobile proxies and static artillery was a potential game changer, and I couldn’t understand why he would not acknowledge that. A large enough force of this type could defeat an Arbiter unit, and it could only be a matter of time before the new combination became widely known and widely used.
I gazed up the slope, thinking with petty satisfaction that at least the view from Huxley’s front porch would never be the same again. Trees had been blasted apart all along the valley floor, and the ridge was still burning fitfully. By the time we were done, his property values would probably be half of what they were before.
Small-minded, I know, but the man had just tried to kill me, even if indirectly. Destroying his landscape was a small compensation.
“I’ll take point,” I said, and Byron fell in behind me without another word. Our heavy feet marched up the slope, and I fully expected to run into another pack of androids. Fortunately for us, no second attack ever came. No landmines, no booby traps. I guess if a man can’t feel safe in his own home surrounded by android proxies, a missile battery, and a home defense cannon, then he just can’t feel safe at all.
Julian Huxley’s home was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I’d been all over the solar system. When I was a kid, I once took a trip to a science museum with a Rube Goldberg exhibit. There was a device to cook eggs that had twelve separate moving parts, and a device to paint a wall that had twenty-seven. I don’t remember who took me to the museum, but I do remember they were irritated by what we saw. They couldn’t see the point in those ridiculous machines, but I found them fascinating.
That was probably the closest thing to what we found when we finally entered Julian Huxley’s estate, except that a Rube Goldberg machine is more complicated than it has to be. The individual machines in Huxley’s house weren’t especially complicated, but those machines did everything whether it needed to be done or not.
The front door was locked, but my skeleton key got us in without any difficulty. Upon entering, the first thing I saw was an android. I almost blasted it, but the thing reached out a hand to me and said, “May I take your coat, sir?”
I still almost blasted it. I couldn’t like the droids, not after everything I’d seen them do. If you program an android to take your coat, it will take your coat. If you program an android to slaughter all humans, it will slaughter all humans. They just can’t be trusted.
The android lowered its arm, and I couldn’t shake the impression that it felt resentful about the whole thing. We stepped around it and found ourselves in an open living room with a row of floor to ceiling windows overlooking the forested hills outside. If Huxley was here, he might well have been standing at this window and watching us while we battled his androids in the sea of evergreens.
As it was, I could still see the orange flames flickering among the shattered trees outside. Whole sections of the ridge had been stripped of their greenery, leaving only the blackened stumps behind.
Throughout the house, androids walked or slid or crawled or climbed, tending to household chores or maintaining the AI system that ran the house itself. Some of them looked like metallic snakes, segmented and as shiny as chrome. Some of them scuttled around on multiple legs like crabs or lobsters. Some of them loped along like monkeys or toddled around like creepy dolls.
It felt like art, but I suspected it was really just Huxley’s hobby. Like many entrepreneurs, he had turned his basement project into a massive empire on the strength of his own genius. Now that he could afford to, he seemed to have decided to go back to tinkering. He must have made all those things himself, programming them all to do some useful chore.
As far as I could tell, nothing in the house was purely ornamental. These androids each appeared to have exactly one task. One was polishing the floor, which already glowed with a mirror like sheen. Another walked along searching for dropped items, staring at the floor like it expected to find a ball of paper or a pen there at any moment. One mopped the kitchen floor, creating what seemed to be the slickest surface in human history. One crawled along the wall, opening panels occasionally and making adjustments to whatever was inside.
There was far too much for me to describe it all. It was an army of servants, slaving away on endless tasks that all seemed to have been completed a long time ago. The kitchen floor was far too shiny, and if any items had ever fallen on the floor, they had long since been dealt with. As fascinating as it must be for Huxley to build these strange little automata, there was something sad about the whole thing.
Along one wall, there was a row of computer monitors displaying a constant stream of information—everything from stock prices to personnel reports, updates on open projects, and even the news of the arrests. The house’s A.I. system seemed to be handling it all without human oversight, and it occurred to me for the first time that Huxley might not even be here.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked.
Byron grunted. “Probably not.”
I gave up and started checking the rooms one by one. It took a while, because none of them were truly uninhabited. They were crawling with androids, toiling away at every piece of furniture and surface. In one of the rooms, they had actually worn a hole in a desk. The android in charge of polishing that spot was still working, too—it had its hand in the hole and just kept moving it back and forth, a sight I found strangely unsettling. Huxley had created a monument to futility, and it went on and on with no need for input.
We eventually found the genius in the bedroom, staring up at the ceiling with empty eyes. The man was dead, but that wasn’t immediately obvious. His androids didn’t just keep that place clean, they kept it sterile. With no germs or insects, Huxley was decaying very slowly. His skin was stretched tight across his cheekbones, and his lips were pulled back from his teeth in a leering grimace. He was a mummy, which meant he’d been dead for a long while.
“How long?” I asked.
“Three years or so,” said Byron.
I looked around and thought about all his staff of androids. He had left them working, and because he had never given them the order to stop, they would never stop. When enough time had gone by, they would polish and clean the house to nothing. The walls would collapse, the ceiling would come down on them all, and, if there were any survivors, they’d be out there polishing the rubble.
Byron went over and examined the condition of the body, then he looked around at everything else. “Yeah, three. Look, we need to assess for a minute.”
I agreed. If Byron was right, then Huxley could not have been responsible for 2/77. Not unless the conspiracy went back further than I thought. “What do you make of it?”
“Well, let’s review what we know from the briefing. Huxley Industries is one of the biggest defense contractors in the solar system.”
“And they have ongoing business relationships with all the major players, including the North Atlantic States and the Sol Federation. That’s not illegal, not yet, but it means selling weapons to both sides of what will probably be the next major war.”
I didn’t want to believe that. A war on Earth, using all the technologies now available, would be beyond horrific. Still, Byron was right. The Sol Federation aimed to rule the solar system, and its authority was at least minimally acknowledged on every world and colony. The North Atlantic States were wealthy and powerful, enough so to stand a fighting chance against that claim. Would they really go down without a fight?
Byron continued. “So, we’re probably talking about a divided loyalties situation.”
“I think it goes beyond probably. Especially considering that they’ve been selling some of their cutting-edge androids and other weapons on the black market. August Marcenn being the prime example.”
“Maybe. We don’t know that there isn’t a worse example. But anyway, none of this is helped by the fact that their founder and Chief Executive, this corpse here, was a recluse. Everyone assumed that he was behind it all, but this… this find suggests he had nothing to do with it.”
“And that raises another question…” I pointed out. “If he had nothing to do with it, then why is he dead and how did he get that way?”
Byron nodded. “Sure. Murder, suicide, or something else?”
It didn’t look like murder, at least not in any obvious way. “He’s lying in bed, and nothing has been knocked over or ransacked.”
Just as I said that, I brushed against a vase on Huxley’s bedroom desk and knocked it tumbling end over end. It’s hard not to do that sort of thing when you’re wearing a dropsuit. Before it could land with a crash and shatter on the floor, a nearby android stepped forward and caught it, then placed it carefully back where it had originally been.
I stared at the android for a moment.
I shook my head. “If there was any kind of fight, the androids would just have cleaned up all the evidence.”
Byron’s eyes moved from the bed to the vase, then back to the body. “We can’t rule it out one hundred percent, I’ll grant you, but I’m not seeing it. He’s just lying here, and there’s no wounds or blood stains on him.”
“That doesn’t explain everything,” I said. I was trying not to move, knowing how likely it was that I would knock over something else if I so much as shifted my weight, but without even thinking, I gestured with my left hand when I said the word everything and knocked what looked like an ancient Chinese sculpture over.
I was glad about the androids, or that jade horse would have seen the last of its days. A moment later, the horse was back where it had originally been. The android looked at me, standing there in my massive dropsuit, then moved the sculpture a few inches back from the edge. The little bastard didn’t trust me.
“What doesn’t it explain?” asked Byron, oblivious to my clumsy destructiveness.
“The fact that no one seems to know he’s dead. I mean, they didn’t announce it, they didn’t even send anyone over to pick up the body. They just left it here to mummify. How could something like that even happen in the first place?”
“Let’s go back to the living room. And try not to knock over anything else. You might not get lucky next time.” So maybe he wasn’t so oblivious.
We lumbered back to the living room, and Byron pointed to the rows of monitors. “See those screens? That’s how he runs his business. He doesn’t run it. Everything’s automated, same as it is here.”
I thought about Young, the expert hacker I met back on Venus. He would have loved the idea of Huxley’s place, but I doubt he would have considered it “automated.” Someone with a highly developed intelligence had set all this up, and if it seemed automatic now it was only because he put everything in place beforehand. This whole house didn’t strike me as the creation of someone who wanted everything done for him. It struck me as the creation of someone who wanted total control, even over things he couldn’t be there for in person.
“He probably wrote those scripts himself…”
“Exactly,” said Byron. “He could have programmed them to use the same strategies and issue the same types of orders as he would have.”
“So, what are you saying? That nobody knows at all? I find that hard to believe.”
“If somebody knew, wouldn’t they have done something about the body in the bedroom?” he asked.
“I guess they would have had to, but then the secret would have gotten out. If they’d sent in a cleanup crew, there’s no way they could have kept it secret after that. The story is just too juicy.”
“So, if somebody did know, and they also knew that most of what he did for the company was automated anyway, they’d be better off not moving it. Just leave it here, let the androids and the A.I. system keep doing what they do, and no one’s the wiser. They can reveal it later in their own time. If ever.”
It was a ghoulish scenario, but it could have happened that way. “Okay, let’s follow that thought for a minute. I’m a corporate executive, maybe someone he had out here occasionally for meetings or strategy sessions. I stumble across Huxley’s body, realize he’s dead, and wonder what the hell to do about it. I think of calling someone to come and deal with the corpse, but I decide not to. Why?”
“The oldest motive. Money.”
“If there’s any way I could profit off that, sure. But I don’t see how there would be. I can’t vote on his behalf; he already has the A.I. to do that for him. I can’t just rip the company off either. The A.I. is watching and it knows everything Huxley knew. He was clearly a genius, so could anyone who worked for him just go in and reprogram what he created?”
“So, what are you saying here, Barrett?”
“Either no one knows, or whoever does know hasn’t changed a thing. Their motive is not to rip off the company, or to give themselves a big promotion. Their goal is to keep everything exactly the same, to keep everything going without interference.”
“Maybe. I think you’re giving them all a little too much credit. If somebody knows about this, there has to be a way for them to benefit personally. If we can figure out how, we’ll figure out who.”
“This has to have something to do with what happened on Venus.”
Byron didn’t reply. He probably just thought of it as empty speculation, but to be fair his whole idea about a conspiracy to keep Huxley’s death a secret was just as speculative. You see stories in the news, like an old lady who dies alone and doesn’t get found until the neighbors complain about the bad smell. Isolated out here among the trees and guarded by his proxy army, there was no one to even notice the smell.
Huxley’s tech obsession had ensured that he could die without anyone noticing. His need for control had led to a lonely and pointless death, and there was no reason to see a conspiracy in that. When it came right down to it, we had no reason to think anyone even knew. Huxley’s systems had fooled the world.
It reminded me of something from the Academy. “You know, this is kind of like a Turing Test.”
“Turing Test. It’s something they talked about at the Academy.”
“Dr. Richter, Fundamentals of A.I.?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. People used to think that a computer should be considered sentient if you couldn’t tell its conversation apart from a human’s.”
“That’s just stupid,” said Byron. “Computers aren’t sentient, not even if they can fake it.”
“Some of them are pretty good at faking it,” I said.
He shrugged. “So what? It’s all just programming. It doesn’t mean anything.”
That was certainly the conventional wisdom at this point, but Dr. Richter hadn’t been so sure. He used to say that people believed whatever they wanted to believe, whatever was most convenient for them to believe. We use A.I. for so many things, the idea that it might have a will of its own is going to make us uncomfortable. No one talks about the Turing Test anymore, but is that really because the idea wasn’t valid? Some of what I had seen on Venus made me question our assumptions.
“Computers might not be sentient, but Julian Huxley has been running Huxley Industries from beyond the grave for years now and the vast majority of people have no idea. The decisions he’s making, the things he’s saying… they’re plausible enough to fool just about everyone.”
“So, it’s almost like he’s still alive. Huh. You have an interesting way of thinking, Barrett. Even if it’s wrong.”
That might be the only compliment I ever got from Byron Harewood.
Once we got back to Command, there were several long hours of debriefing from multiple levels of officers who wanted to know what we had found, how we had come to find it, and why we had done this instead of that. Director Park sent out a cleanup crew to remove Huxley’s body and had to decide what if anything to do about the fact that he was dead. We had nothing to do with any of that, so Commander Urich gave us each a day off while leadership considered their next move.
As I often did after Venus, I decided to use my free time to visit Sophie Anderson. Gabe and I were friends, but he kept his family life sealed off from his work. I never even met Sophie until she was Gabriel’s widow and they sent me to bring her his badge and a folded flag. Now I went over and spent time with her every few weeks or so. We would have coffee and just talk in the way only people with a shared loss could.
The first few times we mostly talked about Gabe. How the two of them had met. How he had recruited me for the Arbiter Force. How hard it had been for her when he was away all the time. How he had become my assigned partner when I got out of the Academy. How good he was at storytelling, making you feel like you were there with him when it happened.
Over time, we ended up having more in common than just our memories of her fallen husband. We started talking about our own lives, our childhoods, and our hopes for the future. Sometimes we hardly even mentioned Gabe at all.
When I got to Sophie’s house, I parked on the street and looked around at the trees that ran along both sides of the quiet lane and the comfortable little house with its white fence. They were starting to become familiar to me, and I was starting to associate them with my friend and his life even though I had never seen them before he died. I walked up to the door holding a bottle of red wine. A nice, fat bottle—enough to get both of us good and tipsy.
When I rang the button, it took Sophie a few minutes to answer. I started to wonder if she wasn’t home, or if she was home but deliberately not answering—which would have been weird. She opened the door and smiled like she did whenever she saw me. Then she saw the bottle.
“You brought wine? Thank you, Tycho.”
“Well, you know, it’s healthier than coffee.”
She laughed a little, then we went into the living room and sat on the couch. The easy chair was empty, but I knew from the first time I’d come over that she didn’t want anyone to sit in it. It was his.
I heard the clink of glasses from the kitchen, and the quiet pop as she pulled out the cork. When she came back into the room, she handed me my glass and sat down across from me in a wooden rocking chair.
It wasn’t all that delicious, really. I had picked something Danish, but it turns out the Danes can make bad wine too when they put their minds to it. It had a metallic aftertaste, and I could see her trying hard not to grimace when she sipped it. I must have looked like a cheapskate, but Arbiters don’t get paid as much as you might think.
She brushed her blonde hair back from her face. Her eyes were sad, just like they had been the first time I met her.
“Is Gabe on your mind a lot today?”
She smiled and nodded. “Always. But you’ve been such a good friend, and such a big support to me. Not like everyone else—the people who just sent a money or maybe a casserole before they forgot all about me. I truly appreciate it.”
I took a large sip of my wine, and now it was my turn to grimace. “Sorry about the wine. This stuff is awful.”
She laughed quietly. “At least it’s not retsina. That’s what Gabe would always insist we drink. When he told my father he liked the stuff, Dad actually walked out.”
“Oh, your Dad is a bit of a wine snob?”
“No. Just a reasonably civilized human being.”
I laughed, and then had to wipe a mouthful of wine from my chin with the back of my hand.
“So how are you doing, Soph?”
She smiled. “Soph. I like that. Like we’re a couple of kids, and that’s your little nickname for me. I’m okay, but I do have something I want to ask you.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“It’s like I said. You’ve done more for me than anyone else. You’ve been a friend to me, a real friend. I like our talks; they help me process everything I’ve been through. But I’m worried about you. Why is it I never hear about a woman in your life? You deserve to be happy, have a family. But you never talk about it.”
I set down my glass of wine and took a deep breath. This wasn’t something I wanted to talk about. “Well, Sophie, that’s just something I can never do again.”
She set her glass down and leaned forward with her hands folded in front of her. “Come on, Tycho. What do you mean by that?”
All right, cards on the table.
“I need to tell you a story, something I’ve never told anyone. Not even Gabriel.”
“Go ahead, Tycho.”
“Well, I was married once.”
“It’s not something I talk about.”
She reached a hand out across the gap between us and placed it gently on my arm. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll tell you.”
She pulled her hand back again. “Okay. I’m honored that you would share something so personal with me.”
I took a breath.
“I haven’t always been an Arbiter. Any one of us could say the same; we all come into the Force from something else. For some it’s the military, for some it’s law enforcement, but not for me. In fact, my life used to be about as different from what it is now as it could possibly have been.”
“Don’t tell me you were an insurance adjuster.”
“No.” I laughed. “An engineer. That’s what I always wanted to do, what I always imagined myself doing. I met Daphne when I was still in school. Both of us expected to spend our lives together. We dated all through college, got engaged as soon as we graduated. You know how it goes.”
She watched me intently. “Yes. I do. What was she like?”
The question caught me. “It’s hard to remember. That’s the toughest part of it all, that I can’t really remember her. I remember her being angry, I remember her being kind, I remember her being sleepy… it’s all bits and pieces. It doesn’t add up to a whole person. I’m always missing her, but what I’m missing are just… moments.”
“I’m sorry, Tycho.”
“Thank you.” I thumbed the glass in my hand as I continued. “So, I finished school and was headhunted almost immediately. Mechanical engineering for a luxury sports vehicle manufacturer. My big break, to get recruited by a company like that when I was still so young.”
“Was Daphne happy?”
“I don’t think she cared. She never had any interest in careers or promotions. She just wanted to be married, to start a family together. And I wanted that too. I worked my way up through the company, always moving toward bigger projects. Bigger responsibilities. It took me away from her, and things got hard between us. Distant and tense, like there was always an invisible wall between us.”
“That sounds like what happened with Gabe and me,” she said. “We talked about it.”
“Yes. But then Daphne got pregnant, and I thought maybe that would bring us back together.”
“Did it?” Her eyes were sympathetic.
“I guess it did. I proposed to her, and she accepted. Everything was pretty wonderful, for a little while.” My voice faded out a little on those last few words.
“You don’t have to tell me, Tycho. You really don’t.”
“Just give me a sec.”
I had some more of the wine and then leaned back. Her eyes were getting to me. Something about how sad she was for me. It was hard to look at.
“So, we were engaged. I gave her a present, a cutting-edge car I’d designed myself. The perfect vehicle, designed to my own specs. Every last detail.” I saw that Sophie was holding her breath. She must have seen what was coming.
“She loved it, of course. She drove it everywhere, showed it off to everyone. It was built for safety. That was my gift to her, to know that she and the baby could go anywhere they wanted, and they would never have to worry about anything. But I still had to follow the codes.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Professional ethics, code of conduct. I’ll get back to that in a minute. So anyway, she got really into organizing the wedding. It kept her busy, so the fact that we weren’t spending a lot of time together stopped being a problem for about two months or so. And as for me, I stayed focused on work. I can’t even imagine it now, because I hated that job. I used to joke around with Gabe about it, how I wasn’t cut out for that life. But I didn’t know that back then. I thought that was the only kind of life there was. I even had an office and some stupid motivational poster hanging on the wall…”
“You mean like that one?”
She was pointing toward her study, where there was a poster showing the Milky Way beneath the one word: DREAM.
I shook my head and laughed. “Yeah. Sophie, you should have heard me ranting about those posters when we were on Venus. You’d kick me out right now. I don’t know why, but the sight of them just fills me with a crazy rage. Maybe because they remind me.”
“I shouldn’t have interrupted you,” she said. “Keep going.”
“So, there we are. Our wedding day comes, we have a quick little honeymoon, then back to work. She’s getting big now, we’re past the point where there should have been much of a risk. But then one night, I get home from work late and she’s on the floor. There’s a puddle of blood underneath her.”
“Tycho! Oh, I’m so sorry!”
“Daphne was okay, but she had just had a miscarriage. The baby was gone, and the baby was the whole reason we got married in the first place. We’d been drifting apart for a good long while. We had nothing left at that point, and we were both too young and dumb to work it out. ‘We might as well admit it,’ she told me the morning after she got back from the hospital. ‘This whole thing was a mistake.’”
“This just gets worse and worse…”
“I moved out of our place and got a lease on a little studio. I kept trying to see her, but she never backed off from what she was saying. The whole marriage was a mistake, a bad decision, it was doomed all along. We should get out now, before anything else happened. I got the impression that she saw the miscarriage as a punishment, like we’d done something we shouldn’t have and we had to pay the price for it.”
“That’s irrational,” said Sophie.
“Yeah. But does it matter?”
“It does. It’s important for you to know that. Losing your baby was random chance; no one was trying to punish you.”
I didn’t know what to say, because I hadn’t even gotten to the worst part yet. “She filed for divorce, and the day of the hearing was set. She still had that car, and even though I wished she would sell it I didn’t plan to insist on it. She needed a vehicle after all, and I wouldn’t have to see her riding around in it. When that hearing was done, we could walk away from each other as if nothing had happened. Like we had never even met.”
Sophie’s voice was soft. “It’s okay to be sad, Tycho. You don’t have to be strong.”
I didn’t know why she kept saying things like that. It’s not like I was melting down or anything, but maybe she could see something in my face I didn’t know was there.
“On the way to the hearing, Daphne got caught up in a major accident. A monorail had malfunctioned, and it wasn’t stopping for oncoming traffic. The car couldn’t stop; there wasn’t enough time. All it could do was redirect, driving her straight off the road and into the river. I designed it to be the safest car she could possibly drive. I worked in lots of little features, anything I could think of that would make her safer. But I still had to follow the Code of Conduct.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“There’s an A.I. in every car, and it has to make life or death decisions if the situation comes up. Like whether to plow straight into the maglev train, which would quite possibly have killed dozens of people but would have been survivable for the driver. Those cars have a lot of impact-resistant plating on them, and the prototype model Sophie was driving had even more. She might have lived.”
“Are you saying the A.I. decided to kill your wife?”
“That’s exactly what happened. It calculated the likely loss of life and drove her off into the river rather than letting her just hit that train. She probably drowned, but I don’t really know the details. To oversimplify, it decided that the minimal loss of life from an impending collision would come at her expense. So yeah, it killed her.”
“Oh my god, Tycho! That is so horrible!”
“It isn’t great. I needed to understand it, maybe because I half-suspected that what had happened was my fault. I used my company access to upload everything that was in the car's black box and examined the telemetry. I ran countless simulations, countless scenarios, and they all ended the same way. If a collision had happened, there was a 50% chance the car would have just derailed the maglev but not plowed right through it. Daphne would have been hurt, and the injuries might have been life changing, but she would probably not have died.”
Sophie furrowed her brows. “So why isn’t that what happened?”
“Because I had changed the design of the vehicle. Those extra plates along the front of the car? They altered the outcome from 75% survivability for the maglev passengers and 50% for the driver, to 15% for the passengers and 75% for the driver. The plates had turned the car into a high-speed missile and guaranteed that any major crash would result in mass casualties. To keep that from happening, the AI ran her off the side of the river embankment instead.”
“Tycho,” she said as she reached out to touch my arm again. “You have to know this isn’t your—”
“—I don’t have to know anything. I do know this. The changes I made to the car are what killed my wife.”
“Just a few minor design differences would have been enough to alter the outcome of that day in almost every way. She would have made it to the hearing, she would have started a new life. She would have lived. I killed Daphne, and the fact that I didn’t do it intentionally doesn’t make any difference at all if you ask me.”
She didn’t ask me. Instead she just stood and put her arms around me in a long, warm hug.
“Tell me something, Tycho.”
I nodded. I was suddenly too exhausted to object even if I had wanted to.
“Is that why? Did you become an Arbiter as an act of contrition? Sacrificing your life to… to pay her back, maybe?”
I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I just let her hold me.
So much for my day off. The visit to Sophie’s house was just as exhausting as any workday, but I did feel like we were suddenly much closer because of it. I left her house in a daze.
When I got in my car, I was ready to be done with this whole “day off” concept and get back to work. The drive back to my place was going to take a little while, so I decided to bring up the dossiers on the three men we had arrested on Luna. Maybe I would see something that would move the whole case forward somehow, or maybe I would just improve my background knowledge. Either way, it was better than thinking about Gabriel’s widow and a hell of a lot better than thinking about Daphne.
I brought the files up from my dataspike. Combatives A.I. Division Chair Anton Slotin, Ballistics Development Chair Stefan Graves, and Generative AI Division Chair Lucien Klein.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Overt links to organized crime, some sign of unsustainable debt, anything that might make sense of their actions. From what I saw in their files, these three just weren’t that interesting.
Slotin had a military background before he went into private industry, but he seemed to have spent most of his service moving from one cozy little desk job to another. Graves had a long family history of weapons manufacturing, going back to the now-defunct Graves-Wormbach Manufacturing company. When Huxley Industries absorbed GWM, Graves moved into Huxley’s top echelons as part of the deal. Klein’s background was in A.I., but he wasn’t so much an A.I. genius as a money man with some knowledge of artificial intelligence. His primary job would be better described as mediation, keeping an eye on the geniuses for Board and keeping an eye on the Board for the geniuses. Neither side would like or trust him, but both sides would need him if they wanted to avoid dealing with each other directly.
There was nothing obvious here, and if not for how disoriented I was feeling after that conversation with Sophie, I would probably just have dropped it. The case would be closed soon, and we’d get another one, most likely on some remote colony.
I didn’t need to do anything here. Whatever the truth was, the three executives were no longer my responsibility. They had already been transferred to Federation detention, and, as far as Command was concerned, all outstanding matters related to the Tower 7 arbitration were now resolved. Their main concern at the moment was what to do with the knowledge that Julian Huxley was dead. No one back at headquarters was tossing and turning over what had motivated these three men to commit such serious crimes.
I closed the dossiers, laughing at myself for my own immaturity. I was playing detective, trying to get all worked up about something that no longer had anything to do with me.
But there was something odd about the whole situation at Huxley. This wasn’t a case of some disgruntled janitor selling access to confidential material, or some blackmailed executive handing over a prototype blueprint to a rival company.
All three of the suspects had been linked to the weapons transfers by a paper trail that wasn’t even that hard to crack. All three were involved in the projects that developed the heavy androids Marcenn bought, the nanosuits his Eleven had used in the final battle at the top of Tower 7, and so on. How could three executive-level positions be involved without direct orders from the boss himself?
But the boss was dead, and if Byron was right that someone knew about it, then it was probably these three men. The question was why.
All three were top-level executives at Huxley Industries, and all three were paid as well as you would expect for men in that position. Why would any of the three have risked everything they had by selling weapons to a private party on an inner colony? They must have worked closely together to commit the crime, a situation of tremendous risk.
Were they planning to short the company after the news finally broke? Were they all working for someone else, the real mastermind who called the shots? If that was Huxley, why had they gone so far to cover up his death? Why had they continued to work together to fulfill his agenda, whatever that really was?
Now that my mind was moving, I connected to the Arbiter Force internal network and reviewed Huxley Industries' investor report. Everything about this case suggested a larger conspiracy, but I was no closer to really understanding it than I had been when I first discussed the issue with Gabriel on our way up Tower 7. If everything went back to Huxley Industries, then there had to be something here. Some little thread I could unravel.
I scanned through the document, but all I could see at first was the same meaningless pablum you would normally expect to see in an investor report. Here’s everything that’s going fairly well for us, here’s a list of excuses about the things that aren’t going so well along with some tortured explanations for why it’s all just fine, and here are some wildly optimistic projections for the next few quarters. I don’t even know why the investors read these things, unless they’re either just that gullible or that much better at reading between the lines.
Our forensic financial investigators had already turned up a list of keywords and phrases that referred to the black-market arms dealing. When I glanced through the transaction records, I found these keywords easily. The evidence was there. Even though the transactions themselves had involved serious crimes, the company had still logged them just like they would have logged anything else, relying on an almost childish code system to disguise the true nature of the most sensitive transactions.
If that was their method, then it stood to reason they’d use the same method with other clients. If Slotin, Graves, and Klein had their own little arms ring going, I expected to find the same semi-amateurish misdirection in reference to other deals. But I couldn’t find anything, not even when I had my dataspike perform a series of semantic filter searches through the Huxley Industries financial records. My filters did turn up a number of transactions, but they were all the transactions we already knew about.
If these three were criminals, they were criminals with exactly one client: August Marcenn.
When we’d confronted the last eleven members of the Tower 7 Nightwatch under the control of Marcenn’s broken mind, they’d spoken a lot of gibberish. Or so I thought at the time, but now I was starting to wonder if there was more to it than I realized at the time.
What was it they said? I closed my eyes and thought, picturing them perched up on the top of a building and speaking in that eerie, coordinated way of theirs.
“The great work of the human race is in terrible danger. We acted to protect the glory. We would do so again. Do not prevent the work.”
New working hypothesis, for what it was worth: August Marcenn wasn’t alone. His murderous fanaticism wasn’t just a personal savior complex, but an ideology shared by other powerful and well-connected people. The slaughter on Venus was not a simple case of megalomania, but a deadly ideology with other followers, other true believers.
It was starting to look like we’d been right the first time, when we guessed that a death cult was behind the incident on Venus. But what exactly did the cult believe? The Eleven had rambled about a threat to “the glory,” by which they seem to have meant the glories of human civilization. And who was responsible for this threat?
“Insidious powers, old and dispassionate.”
An epic battle between good and evil, not an atypical ideology when it came to death cults. Unsurprisingly, the self-proclaimed good guys in this scenario were the ones committing mass murder.
So, that was one way to look at it. A conspiracy, driven by some bizarre ideology. But it was kind of far-fetched, which had always been the weakness of the cult hypothesis. If you were starting a death cult with plans to kill vast numbers of people, how would you go about recruiting the wealthy and powerful to your cause?
It didn’t feel right somehow, and there was another possibility. The three men had been set up, fall guys for someone else with a more easily understandable agenda such as an extremely large sum of money. The paper trail had been too obvious, the code they’d been using too easy to crack. The arrogance of the corporate elite, or evidence of a frame-up?
I wanted to know, and that didn’t have as much to do with being an Arbiter as with simple curiosity. Never mind the old saying about that.
Something hit the car with a jarring impact, shocking me out of my wandering thoughts. The hit was a hard one; I could feel it in the base of my spine. I was stunned at first. Car accidents are rare. Daphne’s death in one was a freak event. I had never even met anyone else who had lost someone in a car accident. What was going on? My car’s AI should have seen any trouble, made the necessary corrections, and avoided the impact.
The car sped up, and I was thrown violently against the door and then just as violently the other way. With a mounting sense of dread, I realized that the car’s AI was taking evasive actions. Someone was chasing us.
My voice was shaky as I spoke to the onboard computer. “Street view and sitrep.”
The screen lit up, and I saw the street outside. We weren’t alone on the road. There were people on the sidewalks and other cars racing by, all of which were trying to get as far away from us as possible.
The A.I. spoke, a soothing female voice with a British accent. “Sitrep as follows: we are pursued by an armored vehicle, and it is attempting to force us off the road. If we continue at this speed, we will impact an approaching monorail. To prevent this outcome, we may be forced to accept impact with the armored vehicle. Survivability is dependent on the angle of impact but is no greater than 25%.”
My car was weaving back and forth, speeding up on every straight and slowing down on every curve. Beside the road, I saw the winding, snakelike shape of a nearby waterway. Up ahead, I saw a bridge across the river and a maglev monorail track with the lights of an approaching train.
That was when I panicked. It couldn’t possibly be real, but there I was in a grotesquely familiar scene. It felt like some kind of cheesy ghost story, where you suffer in the most ironic way possible to punish you for your past sins. My peripheral vision disappeared, washed away by a red darkness. The sound of my ragged breathing filled the car.
The maglev crossed in front of me, a rattling wall of metal and plastic. My car’s A.I., programmed to kill its own driver if necessary to save as many lives as possible, gave up on escaping our pursuers and braked with a jolt, throwing me forward against my seat belt. It must have decided in that moment that the survivability was optimal for everyone concerned, which did not imply we would all survive. Whoever was chasing me hit hard, an impact that slammed my teeth together and cut my tongue. My mouth flooded with thick, hot blood.
I felt something like freefall and realized in a vague but terrifying way that the car was flipping end over end. We hit a person on the street, and I saw their head explode in a burst of blood and brains against the car before the screen went dark. We hit something else, something big enough to jostle my whole body. It held us in place for just a moment, then fell away, like someone had opened a trapdoor beneath my feet.
I had lost any sense of up or down, but I felt a sickening lurch in the pit of my stomach as the car cleared the edge of the embankment, then a sudden jolt as it plunged into the cold, muddy water below.
I wasn’t knocked unconscious, but I did lose where I was and what was going on for several seconds. I heard a pleasant sound of gurgling water and felt like I was floating free. Perhaps in outer space? No. There isn’t any water in outer space, and I wondered why I had thought such a silly thing. Was I at a campground, waking up in my tent by a stream? I could get up and go fishing, or take a boat out on the lake nearby…
I opened my eyes and saw the water slowly filling the car. The roof of my vehicle was now below my head, and I was hanging suspended by my own seatbelt. The disorientation cleared and I realized I must be underwater.
The fear took over then. I needed to do something, but all I could think about was Daphne. Her last few minutes must have been like this, watching the water rise inexorably as it seeped in through the ventilation and the gaps between the body and the crushed passenger door.
I’ve been in a lot of desperate situations, like being trapped by heavy battle androids in an apartment building or hunted by Nightwatch officers in impenetrable nanosuits. As bad as those situations were, neither of them felt as hopeless and desperate as those first few seconds in my car.
I felt completely powerless, like I’d been caught in some kind of karmic beartrap and had no choice but to die. The water kept rising, slow and steady but clearly unstoppable. I was in terrible danger, but I knew exactly what I needed to do; I had been trained in how to deal with exactly this situation.
There were a series of steps. The first was to wait, because I needed the pressure inside the vehicle to equalize with the outside. The next step was to get a door open. The third step was to swim away from the entry into the water. The fourth step was to reach the surface, and the fifth step was to reach the shore.
My breathing calmed as I remembered, and I consciously shut off my own emotions. It took an effort of will, but I felt the coldness come down over my thoughts. Daphne died like this, yes—but I didn’t have to, not as long as I stayed calm.
I checked my mental state by listening to my breathing. It sounded calm and regular, if a little deeper and faster than normal. So far, so good. I had no choice but to wait, so I used the time to improve my situation. I unclicked my seatbelt but found the mechanism was damaged. When it wouldn’t open, my breathing sped up a little. I heard a sound from outside the car, a distant popping I couldn’t identify. Not knowing what it was, my mind was distracted for just a moment. I gained control of my breath, realized I could cut myself loose, and retrieved my knife from my belt.
The exact same knife I had killed several Nightwatch officers in hand to hand combat with on Venus would save my life again, as long as I could stay calm and focused on the task at hand. Once I made the cut, I dropped halfway toward the water with a sudden lurch, and the knife slipped out of my hand and disappeared.
So much for that. I had cut the strap, but I was still hung up on something. There’s a time to be calm, and there’s a time for desperate effort. I yanked and kicked, letting myself give in to panic. I felt something give way, and my body dropped down into the rising water.
The cold made me gasp, and I fought to a sitting position. These cars are well-armored, and the water was leaking in so slowly that I still had time to think. I found myself wondering about the continued popping sounds.
What was going on outside the car?
“Street view and sitrep.” No response. The AI was dead, probably killed at the moment of impact. I wouldn’t know till I got out there, so my best bet at understanding my situation was an educated guess.
The level of force needed to send a vehicle flipping end over end would also be enough to destroy whatever did the damage unless it was uparmored like a troop transport. Whoever was chasing me, they had access to military or paramilitary resources. So, not a random attack but an intentional assassination by professional killers.
They would want to make sure they had fulfilled their contract, so they would probably be waiting for me when I reached the surface unless StateSec had already arrived. I needed to make sure I had a weapon, but I wasn’t armed and geared like I would usually be on a mission. This was a day off after all, and a visit to Sophie’s was not a situation where I’d expected to end up in a firefight.
Fortunately for me, I’m as paranoid as any other Arbiter. In the seat above my head, I had a submachine gun with a full magazine of ammo. All I had to do was fish it out, and I would at least stand a fighting chance. I reached up toward the seat but the frame was badly bent. I couldn’t get my fingers between the seat and the floor.
I would just have to take my chances… no. I still had that knife, assuming I could find it in the water at my feet. I reached down carefully and felt around for my missing blade. My fingers closed on it, but the cold of the water made them numb and clumsy. When I pulled the knife out, blood was streaming from my fingers. I couldn’t afford to care; I had to concentrate on getting that gun.
I spit out a long strand of blood and phlegm, got a grip on the slippery knife, and started sawing away at the upholstery above my head. The water reached my knees, and I noticed it was starting to flow in faster. I didn’t have much time before I had to open the door and either make my bid for escape or drown because I had waited too long. The temptation was just to go, but if they gunned me down when I reached the surface then all this effort would have been for nothing.
If I had seen what I’d be doing now the day I bought that car, I would never have paid extra for the genuine leather. Be that as it may, I yanked and cut until the seat was in shreds, then wrestled the case out through the ruin of upholstery.
The water was rising, but I took the time to return my knife to its scabbard while hugging the case to my body. When I opened it at last, clicked the magazine into place, and put the strap around my shoulder, I gave a shout of triumph.
My sense of victory didn’t last for long. I was still in the car, settling down into the bottom of the river. The water was rising, and there was a good chance I had a gunfight ahead of me as soon as I poked my head out of the water. My car’s 25% chance of survival had only been talking about the crash, so my overall chances of lasting through the next half-hour were probably more like 2.5%.
That thought should have demoralized me, but for some reason it had the opposite effect. As soon as I realized that my triumph was temporary, and that I was probably about to die no matter what I did, I felt a surge of euphoria. If I was going to die, then it didn’t really matter what I did next, right?
There was nothing to worry about if it was all going to end the same way, which meant it was all just a game. The goal wasn’t to go on living, but just to live for as long as possible. Two minutes instead of one, or five instead of two. Bonus points for kills, taking as many of them to the grave as I could drag down with me.
The water was now at my chest, and it was almost time to make a break for it. I turned around, positioning myself to get out the passenger side door. Once the water stopped flowing into the car and the pressure equalized, I opened the door. After that, let the games begin!
My heart was pounding wildly as I prepared to start playing. I could hear it in my ears above the rush of water, above my hoarse breathing, above whatever that popping sound was.
And then I got it. That sound was gunfire, which meant the killers were definitely still up there. Were they just firing into the water, hoping to hit me by blind chance? Somebody up there really wanted me dead and was prepared to go to great lengths to make it happen. Why wasn’t StateSec on the scene yet? Or maybe they were, and the hitmen were actually so determined to kill me that they were even willing to engage local law enforcement to do it.
So much the better. I grinned like a death’s head as the water reached my chin, then I took several deep breaths and held the last one. It was time to go. I popped the door seal and pushed it open through the dark green water. I saw a fish flit past through the reeds and mud, braced myself with both feet and grabbed the sides of the door with both hands, then pushed off into the river.
I didn’t go straight up. The air escaping the car would have bubbled up to the surface and flagged where I’d landed. Instead I swam away from the car, not completely sure what direction I was going but confident that anywhere was better. When I had gone as far as I thought I could manage, I drifted slowly upward, careful to make no sound at all as my head broke the surface.
My body was desperate for air by the time I got there, and it was all I could do not to gasp so loudly they could have heard me from the riverbank. That would have cut the game short, so I fought my burning chest and breathed in slowly and evenly.
I looked around, moving smooth and deliberate. There was something burning up on the road, most likely a vehicle. I was drifting toward it, carried along by the river current. There was the bridge up ahead of me, and shapes moving on top of it. I couldn’t see them clearly at first, but they seemed to be pointing down toward the water.
There was a sandbar in the river just below the bridge, and a huge, tangled pile of trees and other random flotsam. If I could float up there, I could conceal myself among the intertwined branches while I called in reinforcements.
I drifted closer and was finally able to identify the figures on the bridge. Four armored men were aiming down into the water and taking shots occasionally. I couldn’t make out any details from this distance, but they gave a paramilitary impression. At first I couldn’t understand why they were shooting randomly like that, but then I realized they wouldn't be able to use thermal imaging or backscatter scans to find me. Water is effective enough as a radiation shield to disrupt any scanning capabilities the men might have. They had misjudged how long it would take me to float down to the bridge, but in general they had the right idea.
I wished I had something other than a submachine gun. Since the killers were armored, I wouldn’t be able to just unleash on them and kill them all. I needed to take precision shots, targeting the weak points in their armored suits, and that’s something a submachine gun just can’t do. The only way I’d be able to kill them was from almost point-blank range or by aiming directly at the face.
I thought of Raven Sommers, the Section 9 sniper I had briefly met on Tower 7. She had a way of showing up, taking out your enemies from some hidden location, then disappearing again like a vengeful ghost. I could sure have used her help right then.
I didn’t even have to try to reach the tangle of trees; the current pulled me to the same spot. This had an added benefit, because I was able to use the debris to screen my approach. I bumped up against a sodden branch and held on tight, watching the enemy to make sure they hadn’t spotted me.
They took no notice, but one of them unclipped a grenade from his belt, primed it, and tossed it into the river. It exploded with a gush of water that jumped up three or four meters, and then they all started shooting again.
I just stayed there behind the trees, as the bullets whizzed past, making the water splash and ripple like an artificial rain shower. Blood was trickling down my face, leaking out from the cut on my fingers and pooling in my mouth. Everything hurt and everything was wet, but I waited there patiently. Every second I lived was a win in the game, and there was no reason to rush the situation. A branch snapped in half about three feet away from me, but none of the bullets got any closer than that. Time to call in the reinforcements—
No, not yet. One of the four men stepped forward, picked his spot in the river carefully, then dropped from the bridge.
It was a strange sight to see, because it didn’t really look like a jumping human. There was no fluidity, no bracing for impact. He just plummeted straight down, like a falling boulder or a huge chunk of metal.
My skin crawled at the sight, and I couldn’t pinpoint why at first. What I did know was that if he was in the water and almost totally armored, my odds of killing him from my current position depended entirely on ambush. I would have to stay still, wait till he showed himself, then shoot him in the head from as close as possible.
But what if he spotted my legs kicking slowly? I glanced down into the water below me but couldn’t see him. I didn’t like my chances, especially not if he decided to head straight for the little island or, worse yet, throw a grenade in my direction just to make sure.
I ducked my head back underwater and pushed away from the sand bar, kicking as quietly as I could manage. I had to fight the current, but if I could make it to the far bank…
They started shooting again from up on the bridge, though I had no way of knowing whether they’d seen me or not. The bullets sliced through the water to my right and left. Where the hell was StateSec? There had been a serious car crash, vehicles were on fire, and men were shooting guns and dropping grenades in the river. How could that possibly have failed to attract attention?
There was no time to worry about it. I had to reach the bank, find a hiding place, and call this in. Whoever these guys were, I wanted StateSec on their trail. Even if I didn’t succeed in killing any of them before they got me, that would at least be worth something.
I went under the bridge, surfaced again on the other side, and took another breath. Where was the man who had dropped into the water? I hadn’t seen a glimpse of him, but I could hardly believe he had held his breath for that long. He was probably diving for the wreck of my car, hoping to get visual confirmation that I was dead inside. I had to make for the bank, where I could at least buy myself a little bit of time.
I started swimming, trusting in the sound of the rushing water to disguise the noise I made. When I reached the shallows at last, my limbs felt like they were made of cast iron. I fought the pain and the exhaustion, dragging myself over the rocks in a low crawl. The men on the bridge had stopped shooting, but I could hear them calling to each other.
“Do you see him yet?”
“I saw something move over there!”
“Bullshit, he’s drowned.”
I came out on the bank, surrounded by clumps of grass and algae-covered rocks. I was right under the burning car, and smelled something like melting plastic and roast pork combined. I checked for my weapon and found it still secured around my neck. So far, so good. Now to get up that bank, hide behind the burning car, and call this in.
I dragged myself up the embankment, slipping and skinning my knees. When I neared the top, I found a body sprawled out on the road in front of the burning vehicle. It was a middle-aged woman, who had apparently crawled from her car on broken legs and arms. As horrifying as it was to see her twisted limbs and know she’d crawled on them, that wasn’t what killed her. There was a little hole in the center of her forehead, and from the lack of an exit wound she’d been staring right up at the killers when they did it.
I looked up through the open door of the burning car and saw a body engulfed in flames, so twisted and blackened I couldn’t even say whether it was a man or a woman. Across the road on the other side there was another car sitting with its door open. An older man was inside, still strapped into his seat. His head lolled back, and blood trickled down from a wound in his head.
They were methodically executing all witnesses.
Almost frantically, I crawled up behind the burning car and brought up my dataspike menu. StateSec could decide who was responsible for this fuck up when they conducted their investigation, but right now the important thing was for them to get on the scene and do it.
I opened a call channel, but all I got was a blinking red logo for StateSec and a friendly message. No network detected. If you have an emergency, please shelter in place until help arrives.
No network detected? That was simply unheard of. StateSec are the police, they have a dedicated network all their own, and they do whatever it takes to keep it up and functioning. If a mile-wide asteroid was about to hit the planet, the thing they would keep running until the fiery end would be the StateSec network.
I didn’t have long to think about it. When I booted up my dataspike, the men on the bridge turned as if in response and started scanning the bank with their eyes. I didn’t make the connection, but by the time I got the No Network message, one of them was pointing in my direction. Then the shooting started.
The burning car was good cover, but what was left of the body inside rattled and shook as the bullets hit it. With my submachine gun—a weapon that uses pistol ammunition—I couldn’t hope to hit them at range, so all I could do was crouch down behind the flaming wreck and wait.
One of the men took out a grenade, fitted it to his weapon, and aimed slightly upward. They were going to blow me up, and unarmored as I was, they wouldn’t even have to be all that accurate.
I jumped up and ran, firing controlled bursts of cover fire. I knew it was useless, but it might cause them to duck or pause for a moment. Then again, it might not.
The grenade arced up, came down again behind the car, and exploded in a fireball of jagged metal shrapnel. If I hadn’t run, I would have bled out from a hundred wounds. I ran back up the river, hoping to put the cantilevers of the bridge between us. I needed them close to me, or there was nothing I could do against their armor and firepower. As things stood right now, I was a mouse trying to bite a cat to death.
They were running toward me, moving with a speed that seemed almost inhuman. I leveled my weapon at the leading man’s face, aimed as carefully as I could, and squeezed the trigger. He twitched his head to the side just before I fired, and my bullets missed him and flew off into nothing.
So much for the game and so much for bonus points. If I died today, it didn’t seem likely I would take anyone with me. I turned and ran again, legs pounding the pavement with desperate speed. I had a head start on them, but they were closing so fast it hardly mattered. As I raced along, I passed more bodies on the blood-slick street. Some had died in the accident, some had died not long afterward, shot through the head to keep them from talking.
I got off the sidewalk and slipped down the embankment, getting myself out of their line of fire. I didn’t have a plan, or even the vaguest idea of how to escape this situation. All I knew was to run, and to make myself a difficult target.
As I ran down the slope, I tripped and skidded a little. I lost my balance and went down on my hands and knees. From the top of the bank, my three pursuers started shooting at me again. With a burst of water, the fourth man came up from the river. He saw me kneeling there and leveled his weapon at me.
I threw myself to the side, swung my own weapon up, and fired a burst. As I’d expected, the bullets just bounced off his armored torso. He grinned fiercely and turned, but I aimed my weapon straight at his face and he was forced to duck. Instead of opening fire, I stumbled to my feet and started running again.
Bullets struck all around me. One grazed my leg. I half-stumbled but didn’t stop. To slow or stop was death. Movement was life. On the bank above me, I heard the snap of a grenade being loaded. Aiming up the slope, I fired a long burst to drive my enemies back.
The man behind me called out to them. “Hold fire, I’m down here with him!”
I turned and shot at him too, despite the fact that he had probably just saved me from having a grenade dropped on my head. He ducked behind a tree, and I charged straight up that muddy slope.
They must have been too confident they had me trapped, because I came out between two of them and bolted off despite slipping once in the mud and almost going down face first. I made the other side of the street just before a passing car came shooting past, and heard their bullets riddling the vehicle’s side.
Now that I was off the river, my options for escape and evasion had greatly improved. On the other hand, my magazine must be at or near empty. Never mind that my weapon was all but useless anyway. I had to keep on running, trusting in luck to save me.
Someone near me staggered, and a spray of blood burst out the back of his neck. He fell down dead, and I wondered what the hell he was still doing on the street when a firefight was obviously going on all around him. Glass exploded from breaking windows and plasticrete burst from building facades.
I rounded a corner and came out into a little pedestrian plaza with trendy clothing stores and outdoor restaurants. To my shock and horror, there were people crouching down behind several of the nearby windows. Rather than flee the area when the shooting started, they had all decided to shelter in place. As I ran past them, a bullet shattered a plate-glass window. I saw a blur of screaming faces and open mouths and pouring blood.
The only thing I could do for them was to draw the fight away, so I jumped up to a fire escape and clambered up until I reached the roof, using the same strategy Gabriel and I had used for a while to evade the android proxies in Tower 7. I ran straight across one rooftop and then jumped to the next, using the free-running skills I’d been taught at the Academy. I crossed three rooftops this way before they got me in their sights again, but soon enough they were right behind me.
These men were so agile in jumping from roof to roof, they reminded me of some of the prototype tech we had to deal with on Tower 7, or the custom androids at Julian Huxley’s estate. But they didn’t look like androids. In the glimpses I caught of them they looked like men.
Two of them were closing in behind me and two were flanking me from either side, but all four were taking the occasional shot when they had the opportunity. The only reason they weren’t hitting me was my extensive training in escape and evasion, like how to move in unpredictable rhythms too complex and chaotic to be easily targeted.
Of course, none of those chaotic movement patterns are as fast as simply running flat-out, so my lead was decreasing steadily. Not only that, but my lungs started to burn like acid, and there was a stabbing pain in my lower right side.
I felt fingers brush my back just as I made another jump, and one of the men fell off the building behind me. He called out as he fell, but the man next to him made the jump successfully.
On the building to my left, one of the killers was taking aim. I shot at his face, taking care to use only a single bullet. Of course, I missed, but he ducked to evade and I kept on running.
The killer on the building to my right loaded a grenade. He aimed it ahead of me, hoping that I would run right into it. Instead I ducked, and it sailed past me into the street below. The explosion shattered all the street-side windows in the nearby buildings at once.
I heard a sound, identified it as an approaching monorail, and tried to figure out where it was coming from. The act of looking for it delayed me just long enough that the man behind me was able to grab at me. I stumbled for a few steps and then collapsed.
I threw him off me as I fell, and I kicked at him. He staggered backward and I shoved him, then ran and jumped for the next building as he went sprawling.
This turned out to be the building to my right, where the man on that side was just about to load another grenade. When I landed next to him, he dropped the grenade and it went bouncing off to become the property of some neighborhood gang member.
“I’ve got you!” he sneered and made a grab at me. I raised my gun and fired a shot, then ran and jumped off the edge of the building without even checking what was on the other side.
It turned out there was nothing, because the street was too wide for it. I sailed out into empty air, realized my basic mistake, then gasped in terror. All the life I had left was the few seconds it would take me to sail across the open space, arc down toward the ground, then burst apart on the street. I had made the single biggest error you can make in free running, to jump without looking. There is no coming back from that.
A blur of noise and color came screeching by below me. I didn’t recognize it as the maglev train I had just been looking for. I had no idea what it was except a flash of movement. When I felt the impact, I latched onto something out of sheer desperation even though all the air had been knocked out of my body as if by a giant metallic fist. Something flew by a moment after me, landed on the roof of the car behind the one I was holding onto, and fell straight through. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t have time to think about it.
My hands scrabbled desperately as I started to slide off, and I was vaguely aware of pointing fingers and screaming. I held on somehow and managed to pull myself up on the top of the maglev.
I had no idea why I was still alive. I don’t know even now. All I know is that I was on the roof of a speeding train, gasping for air and trying to collect my thoughts. I had survived the car crash, escaped the river, survived the gunfight, evaded my pursuers, and jumped from a building onto a passing monorail.
Having been through all that, you might think I was in the clear. And I really should have been; I don’t know how many other people have ever survived so many deadly threats in such a short span of time. But it wasn’t over.
As I lay there gasping, holding onto the monorail with all my strength, something burst up through the roof.
I rolled backward, nearly falling to my death off the moving train. I kept myself steady somehow but didn’t even think about aiming my weapon. I was close to panic, not understanding what the hell had just happened. Then I saw the face, the neatly trimmed beard, and I knew what I was looking at.
It was one of my attackers. He had made the same jump I had just made onto the maglev, but where my jump had been an outlandish piece of luck, he seemed to have made his intentionally. From that fact alone, I knew that he was not normal. With all my skills, I would never have attempted a jump like that if I had known what I was doing. But that wasn’t the only thing off about him.
He had plummeted straight through the roof of the train into the cab below, which made no sense unless he was ridiculously heavy—yet he had then run across the cab in a matter of seconds to burst up right in front of me. So, he was far stronger than he should have been, far heavier than he should have been, and much faster too.
Seeing the man up close for the first time, I had the impression of power. A reckless, destructive kind of power. He was lean but muscled, and his whole body looked somehow dense. The kind of body that would sink to the bottom of a river like a falling rock, or smash right through the roof of a monorail.
As I stumbled away from him, he bared his teeth, an expression halfway between a sneer and a snarl. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his tinted shades, but from the expression on his face he looked more animal than human.
As the train sped along, I took a step backward to brace my weight. Hudson Bay was coming up ahead of us, and by the time we hit the bridge I needed to be down there in that cab or risk being thrown off on the bend. I raised my submachine gun, then the killer took a step forward and stretched his left hand out as if to reach for me.
My eyes went to his fingers. They didn’t look natural, something about them was wrong.
He gave an ugly grin. I think he wanted me to see, because he spread his fingers as he reached out for me. They were long and tapered, more like talons than human fingers. The sight was repulsive, and I raised my gun to aim at his face.
From where I was standing, I could shoot him clean through the head with almost no chance of missing. Even though I knew he could move quickly, he didn’t try to rush me. He just kept grinning, right up to the moment when I pulled the trigger. Then he opened his outstretched hand just as my finger tightened, timing it perfectly as if to block the bullet.
That kind of timing is impossible, at least for anyone I’d feel comfortable describing as a human being. He did it anyway, catching my shot in his outstretched left hand. There was no blood at all, just the telltale puckering of synthetic muscle and pleximesh skin. His hand absorbed the force and stopped the bullet, which jutted out of his palm until he reached over contemptuously with his other hand and yanked it out, then he tossed it off the side of the train.
His grin got huge, like a hungry wolf in a bedtime story. He took another step forward, and I finally realized what I was really dealing with. Illegal prosthetics, a nightmare I’d heard of but had never actually seen. The killer in front of me was an Augman.
Human augmentation wasn’t a new technology, but it had always been highly controversial. Some people believed it made you more than human; others thought it made you something less. Some people accepted a prosthetic limb if it was medically necessary but drew the line at full-body prosthesis. People who were augmented to the point where there was hardly anything human left in them were known as Augmen, and they were hated and feared across the solar system.
When the whole thing started, there was a time when it looked like everyone on Earth might get them. Athletes and entertainers couldn’t do without their augmentations, using them to run faster, jump farther, or hit harder. Wealthy playboys used them. Politicians used them.
But it all started going bad. Organized crime syndicates adopted weaponized prosthetics as way to bring weapons into any space without raising suspicion. That was enough of a problem, but then unaffiliated criminals off the street started using them too. At the height of the fad, a few people much worse than simple criminals took full advantage of them.
Anyone with a full-body prosthesis could take a lot of damage before going down, and there were some who were less interested in using them to get away with things and more interested in doing as much damage as possible before anyone could stop them.
The first few rampage incidents really scared people, especially the people who already hated augmentations and feared those who had them. There was a lot of public talk about rounding up the augmented, quarantining them so they couldn’t hurt “tru-humans” ever again. A lot of other people thought that was wrong and argued that it was just an irrational prejudice like any other. Then the Reykjavik Massacre happened. A man with weaponized prosthetic limbs killed 49 people in a crowded nightclub and just walked away, impervious to repeated attempts to gun him down. They never caught the man. He walked all the way to the sea and kept going, and he disappeared beneath the waves in what he must have thought was a poetic death.
That wasn’t even the most deadly rampage involving Augmen, but something about it just made people’s skin crawl. Maybe it was the way he just ignored all the bullets hitting him, or the way you could still see him walking under the water for a few minutes on the video of the incident before he finally disappeared into the dark beneath the surface.
Prosthetics were heavily regulated after that, driving several major prosthetic companies under. The last few that were still in business all had contracts with the Sol Federation, so of course there were people who complained about “preferential legislation” and “capitalizing on tragedy.” You could get prosthetics if you were an injured soldier, or if you needed them for some specialized task the Federation had a use for, but that was about it.
If I’d spent more time on Earth, I would probably have run into one of the Augmen before now. Most of my missions were out there among the colonies, where the maintenance and anti-rejection medical regimen made prosthetics impractical unless strictly necessary. Even decades after their initial development, it was still uncommon to see prosthetics off-world
So a full-body prosthesis like the one I was looking at now? It was straight-up illegal, banned by the Sol Federation and all Earth member states.
I kept backing up, and the Augman kept creeping forward. He could just as easily have caught up with me in a blur and snapped my neck, or ripped my head clean off if he was so inclined. I think he just wanted to show off his power, to terrify me before he killed me. Banned and persecuted wherever they went, the Augmen still saw themselves as a kind of elite. He just couldn’t resist the chance to try to put fear in me. The monster is coming, and even though he’s moving slowly you can neither hurt him nor escape.
We hit the bridge over the Bay, and the cold blue waters sparkled far below me under the moonlight. I couldn’t win. I couldn’t even keep fighting; if I went on trying, the odds that more innocent people would die went up with every passing second.
I looked at the killer’s face, and he saw what I was thinking of doing. His grin disappeared, and he came in at me with terrifying speed. I almost didn’t make it, but he still had a wide gap to cover and all I had to do was fall.
He darted forward as I jumped. I felt his hands on me, but I slipped through his fingers. He screamed with rage as I dropped away, falling toward almost-certain death.
I don’t have clear memories of what happened next. I know I fell, and I can still vividly remember the sensation, but that’s all. I can’t remember what I saw or heard in that plummet from the train, just the feeling in my stomach as I dropped. I don’t recall hitting the water, though the temperature should have been cold enough to shock me awake even if I’d been knocked unconscious. I don’t remember swimming, and I don’t really understand how I could have done so.
I only remember a green like dark emerald, and a sensation like fire. In that green I drifted, unaware of what was happening around me. I’m not even sure if I remembered who I was or gave any thought to my situation. It was Fiddler’s Green, the place where people go when they drown, and it was strangely comforting. I could have sunk down into it, drifted down to the bottom, and never been seen by another human being. The way I felt right then, I wouldn’t have objected. Drowning doesn’t always feel like dying. It can feel like rest.
Of course, I didn’t drown. Every now and then, disturbed by a random sound like a seagull’s screech or a distant ship passing in the night, I became aware of the world around me with a disorienting feeling of confusion and nausea. Sometimes I remember kicking or spitting water like a breaching whale, rolling between the waves.
These are disconnected images, not coherent thoughts. They’re little flashes of consciousness, soon replaced by the same contented nothingness. It almost swallowed me, and if I had ever fallen completely asleep it would have.
Something was burning, and that feeling kept me awake.
I kept drifting down into that peaceful green, only to be jolted awake. The bay felt nice, a good place to rest, but then the burn would flare, excruciating. I would open my eyes and see the waters and the sky, uncomprehending. My memories of the water are just those three things—the green, and the burning, and the disconnected moments of terror.
After some time had passed, a span that could just as easily have been ten years or ten minutes, I became aware that I’d stopped moving.
Something hard was against my shoulder, and I kept bumping into it over and over. Every time I did, it sent a white-hot spear of pain stabbing through neck and chest.
I was alive and conscious, despite having jumped from the top of a maglev train into the Hudson Bay.
And it was freezing now. I had to get out of this water, or I would close my eyes and just sink down to the bottom as I so nearly had already.
I turned and looked up and saw that whatever was bumping into me was made of plasticrete. It took me a little while, several minutes probably as the onset of hypothermia makes a man dull, but I remembered eventually. The northern end of the bay had plasticrete tetrapods to reduce erosion and reinforce the seawall. I’d bumped into one of those, and if I could climb on top of it, I could get out of the water and eventually to shore.
That was not a small “if,” because how do you climb up anything with a broken collarbone? I had somehow swum with one, if you can call it swimming, but I was semi-conscious at best while it was happening and didn’t understand that what I was feeling was extreme pain. I understood it now, and it didn’t seem likely that I could force myself up there.
On the other hand, I had made it this far. It occurred to me in a vague way that I had one hell of a will to live, which filled me with a perverse pride. Is anything strong enough to kill Tycho Barrett? Maybe so, but nothing I’ve seen so far.
Fuck it, I thought. Fuck them all!
With a surge of anger, in a moment worthy of its own motivational poster, I got an arm around the tetrapod and began the horrifically laborious process of dragging my body up it while screaming loud enough to frighten away every bird and beast within a kilometer of the sound.
I blacked out twice, coming to after intervals of flashing whiteness to scream again. When strength wears out and you have nothing left, you can still keep going on ego alone. Having decided I intended to live I was taking it quite literally to the wall. I don’t know how I did it, but I found myself on the top of the tetrapod at last. I lay there gasping, resting my head on the tetrapod behind it. It was hardly the most comfortable bed I had ever been in, but it was a big improvement over the water of the bay. I retched up saltwater and spit out something green and slimy, marveling at the fact that I was still somehow alive.
Then I checked behind my ear, found that my dataspike was still firmly attached, and keyed it up. It was long past time to call this in and find out what was taking the proper authorities so damn long to get here.
When I tried to reach StateSec, I got the same blinking logo as last time, and the same message. No network detected. If you have an emergency, please shelter in place until help arrives.
So what the hell was going on here? An armed attack by Augmen had already claimed several civilian lives and damaged a maglev in the process. StateSec should have been all over that, and I should have been pulled out of the bay by a search team as soon as they figured out that I had gone into the water.
I looked across the bay, but all I could see was the gray of the sea and the gray of the sky. No emerald green like in my dreamlike memories. No sign of StateSec, or any kind of emergency response at all.
It didn’t make sense, not unless all the dataspikes in the area were somehow being jammed by the killers and StateSec still had no idea what was going on.
Even if StateSec’s connection was down for some reason, the Arbiter network ought to be up and running. Within range of headquarters, those connections are hardened against almost all forms of jamming. At least in theory, I should be able to connect to the internal network even if the whole region had been reduced to a nuclear wasteland.
I tried to make the connection, but I drifted off into unconsciousness for who knows how long. I only woke up because I was shivering violently. The message that came into focus in front of my eyes said connection attempt timed out. Try again?
I tried again and forced myself to stay awake this time. I got the exact same message, connection timed out, along with an error code. I started to drift off. In all likelihood, I would have died of hypothermia while I was lying there soaking wet and bleeding on the tetrapod. The only thing that got me moving was a paranoid thought, a memory of the Augmen killers turning to look at me all at once the moment I keyed up my dataspike behind that burning car.
It was like they knew. Like they were hooked in.
I sat straight up, grabbing at my dataspike with numb fingers. If it was compromised, they could easily block it from accessing anything they didn’t want it to access. As long as they owned it, they might as well be right inside my head.
They would know where I was.
I was in such a panic that I didn’t even think of just powering it down and getting it dealt with later. I needed them to think I was at the bottom of the bay, not sitting here shivering at the edge of the seawall. I wrapped my fingers around it, yanked it from the side of my head, and threw it as far away from me as I could.
It sailed into the water with a quiet splash, leaving nothing but ripples behind. With any luck, they would think I had drifted against the seawall briefly before finally sinking and go collect their bounty from whoever had contracted them. Even if they did, they would come by and check on me first. I had to get out of here, and I had to do it quickly, no matter how much it hurt.
I had done so much, survived so much already. The thought of having to do anything else made me sick to my stomach. But it was that or die, and dying would only mean letting them win. I turned and saw that there was a rusting access ladder not far away. If I could crawl across the tetrapods, I could drag myself one-handed up that ladder and onto the seawall. If I did it fast enough, I might even make it to the shore before the hit team arrived.
Slipping and sliding along the plasticrete, screaming every time I took a wrong step, I made my way. I have no idea how long it took, except that I was acutely conscious that I had given my position away and that my enemies would be here as soon as they could manage it. It felt like hours, but if it had been anything close to that they would have caught me there. For all my desperate frustration, it could only have taken me a few minutes to get across the tetrapod pile and reach that ladder.
I glanced back the way I had come and groaned with despair. It wasn’t much, but there was a visible blood slick along the route I had taken. When the killers arrived, all they had to do was glance down over the seawall, notice the blood, and they would no longer believe I had drowned.
I hooked my left arm over the ladder and pulled myself up one step. The sound that came out of my mouth was deeper than a shriek, but too high-pitched to be a moan. Anyone who happened to hear it would think they’d heard a ghost, which was close enough to being true. I stood against the ladder, using pressure to hold myself in place, and hooked my arm over another rung. By this awful method, I somehow managed in time to climb the seawall.
When I reached the top, I collapsed and did nothing but bleed for a minute. Then I heard a car, convinced myself it must be the killers, and got myself on my feet. I don’t know who it was, but whoever they were, they had nothing to do with me. The sound faded away, and I dragged myself along the top of the seawall with glassy eyes and a determined stare.
It would not surprise me in the least to find out that the locals still tell stories about the thing that dragged itself out of the water that day. I only saw one person, an old man out for a walk with his dog. Instead of doing anything useful he yelled in fright when he saw me, then turned and ran like he hadn’t run in decades. I still wonder what he thought I was, because the idea that I was simply a man who had been through a hell of a lot didn’t seem to occur to him.
I reached a footpath, probably the same path the old man liked to use for his daily walks. It took me past a row of trees, a low wall covered in colorful graffiti, and into a parking lot. This led to an access road, which finally led up into the city streets. As I hobbled along, I ran over what had just happened and what I knew so far.
When could my dataspike have been tampered with, and who could have done it? It might have happened during our raid on Huxley Industries. The company would certainly have had hackers on staff, and probably at least a few who were capable of such an exploit. They could even have done it when I used my skeleton key to bypass their gate security, using the connection to insert their own code and start poking around.
But if that was true, what did they find out about me that made them decide I was worth all this?
Whoever the killers were, they were expensive professionals, with heavy augmentations and a lot of firepower. They had found me on the road away from my home, which meant they had either been following me for some time or they knew exactly where I was going to be and when I was going to be there. The timing of their attack suggested psychological warfare. They left my car with no choice but to either crash into a train at high speed or let them hit me—recreating the moment of Daphne’s death, right down to ending up at the bottom of the river. It was like they were trying to mess with my head, using my trauma to paralyze me.
So, their attack wasn’t opportunistic. Every detail was planned, and part of the plan seemed to have been to stage a cover story. A freak collision and a tragic drowning, so ironic as to suggest a possible suicide. When they picked up signs of life through my compromised dataspike it must have ruined their plan, and they decided to kill all the witnesses who had survived the crash before sending one of their men into the water to either confirm my death or finish me off.
From there on out, things had only gone worse and worse for them. There were plenty of witnesses now, and there must be StateSec video footage too. A monorail had been damaged, and grenades had gone off in a residential neighborhood. There were multiple casualties, and clear evidence of killers with illegal prosthetics. That was probably the only reason they hadn’t tracked me down at the seawall, because they knew they needed to lie low and wait for another chance or they’d be picked up by StateSec. Not that StateSec would have an easy time taking these guys in…
I couldn’t know for a fact that Huxley Industries was behind all this, but I did know that someone wanted me dead badly enough to pay a fortune for it. There aren’t many killers out there with such extensive augmentations, and there aren’t many hackers who can compromise an Arbiter’s dataspike without being detected.
Whoever it was, they had a lot of resources. But one thing they no longer had was their own little spy device attached to my head, which meant they could no longer find me as easily as they wanted to. I tried to put myself on the other side. What would I do if I’d lost my access? I would try something else, like going after friends and family. Anyone from the dataspike’s contacts database.
They knew where she lived, or they could never have picked up my trail on my way home from visiting her. They would know from my travel log how often I saw her, far more often than I saw anyone else. If they wanted to get at me, Gabe’s widow was the logical choice. And I no longer had a vehicle, or even a dataspike I could use to call her.
Forgetting my wounds, forgetting the pain in every part of my body, I started to run.
The desk sergeant looked up at me as I came through the door, blinked like he couldn’t quite believe what he was looking at, then shook his head. The door had almost finished closing, but it paused suddenly before finally slamming shut all the way. Then he blinked again and frowned at the door, before turning his eyes in my direction.
“You’ve been in the bay.” His face looked mournful if not slightly irritated. People were going in the bay all the time. There was nothing he could do about it. Not many of them came back out though, at least not alive, and he wasn’t sure he appreciated it.
I nodded wearily and placed my hands on his desk, bracing myself against its solid mass. Finding a station had taken some time, perhaps too much. All around me, StateSec officers were coming and going, filing reports, or dragging in people they’d collared. This was real police work, the daily business of law enforcement. Someone was yelling.
“You goddamn WHORES! I didn’t stab nobody! He thinks I stabbed him?! I’LL SHOW HIM WHAT STABBING IS ALL ABOUT!”
Two StateSec officers dragged the shouting man past us, seemingly unconcerned with whether he had stabbed anyone or not. “I didn’t stab anyone, but I definitely plan to” didn’t seem like the strongest defense to me, but what do I know?
The desk sergeant looked me up and down. “You wouldn’t be the guy who jumped off the maglev, would you? Please tell me you’re not. I’ve got enough to deal with.”
“Arbiter Tycho Barrett, 783-547-D. I need a welfare check on an individual, and I need to be issued a new dataspike. This is a formal request for interagency cooperation, forms to follow.”
“Shit. What was that number again?”
“783-547-D. This is high priority. I need that welfare check now.”
“Shit. Name and address?”
“Sophie Anderson, widow of Senior Arbiter Gabriel Anderson.” I gave him the address too, but the fact that she was an arbiter’s widow meant she’d be in the system and they would make her a priority. At least in theory.
The desk sergeant keyed it in. “We’re a little short-handed. Something about a massacre, people chasing each other across rooftops, and someone jumping off a monorail. Think you can shed some light on any of this?”
So, they did know what had happened after all. I still couldn’t understand why they hadn’t intervened, but maybe I was giving them too much credit. Maybe the standard response time for a firefight in the middle of the city was more than an hour. It didn’t matter. Even if StateSec was totally incompetent, they were still my best bet.
“I’ll answer any questions you want to ask me, just get me that welfare check.”
“I just sent a car. Listen, this might take a while. You guys usually work off-world, right?”
His implication was clear. StateSec didn’t appreciate me causing problems on their turf and would kindly prefer for me to fuck off. After answering a lot of questions, of course, and filling out a lot of forms.
My voice was less than friendly, just barely professional. “I’m off duty. I was attacked on the road.”
“No kidding. Looks like you made some enemies.” From his tone of voice, he saw me as the sort of person who made enemies almost every day. Now that I think about it, that wasn’t completely inaccurate. He was looking at what appeared to be nothing, which meant he was accessing information on his dataspike. “I’m just verifying your badge number, then we can get you in to talk with someone.”
“Thank you, sergeant.”
“Okay, here we go. Constable Smough has been assigned to this case. He’ll debrief you in Room 3.”
Just as he was saying this, a woman in a StateSec uniform came walking by. “Is this the guy that jumped off the train? He’s getting that chair wet.”
“This is him. Why, do you want his autograph?”
“Very funny. I’m on the same case. Let me have this one.”
The desk sergeant shrugged, then called out to a man who was walking up from behind. “Cancel that one, Smough. Ornstein wants him.”
“Ornstein can have him.” Smough retreated, obviously glad to have nothing to do with me. Compared to whatever he normally dealt with in his life with StateSec—like a stabbing that may not have happened but was definitely going to happen—the story I had to tell was probably a bit much for Constable Smough. He had no idea. Whatever these guys thought might have happened out there, a team of Augmen killers was probably not on their list of working theories.
Ornstein turned to me. “Interview Room 3. Let’s do this.”
I stood up and followed her, but I had no intention of letting this turn into an interrogation. You’ll never find a StateSec officer willing to admit this, but the Arbiter Force is on another level. We don’t answer to them, and it’s usually best not to let them forget that.
She held the door open and I went in, but I didn’t sit down at the table. Instead, I leaned against a wall, hurting everywhere and dripping on the floor, doing my level best to project strength.
It was around this time that being soaking wet really started to feel uncomfortable. I hadn’t given it much thought before, because I was fighting just to stay alive. Luckily for me, they seemed to have the heat on. I could even see the slight distortion in the air from the hot air spilling from the ventilation. I wanted to stick my hands in the heat and warm up, but under the circumstances I thought it was important to keep my dignity as much as possible. A shivering, wet dog doesn’t have much authority.
Ornstein sat, but I didn’t join her. She looked me up and down, her face both skeptical and annoyed at the same time. “This is going to take a while. Wouldn’t you rather sit?”
“I don’t have time for that. I need a welfare check on a Sophie Anderson. Speed is critical—”
She raised a hand. “We’re already on that. You requested a dataspike too, right? What are we, an electronics store?”
I frowned. It was time to start quoting chapter and verse. “My dataspike was compromised and had to be disposed of. I need a new one as soon as possible so I can file a report and begin to coordinate an Arbiter response. Under the Interagency Cooperation Act, Subsection 3, Paragraph 12…”
“Ok, yeah, I know. You’ll get your dataspike. But I need your help too. This doesn’t all go one way you know. We have multiple bodies, a ton of property damage… this is honestly a clusterfuck. I need to know what happened.”
I don’t know why, but something told me to keep the details to myself. “I was attacked on the road. My car was hit, and I had to escape from the bottom of the river. When I reached the surface, I found the hit team waiting for me. We exchanged fire and I managed to break off, but they gave pursuit. I tried to escape by jumping on that maglev, but one of the killers followed me. I jumped in the bay and swam to shore.”
She gave me a look. “That way you talk about it, being chased by a team of ruthless killers is all in a day’s work. Escaping from submerged car, jumping from building to building, dodging grenades and bullets… and catching a moving monorail before throwing yourself into Hudson Bay. It’s quite a lifestyle.”
“I’m an Arbiter.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Well, even for an Arbiter that’s a busy day. Look, there’s a lot of people dead here. A lot of innocent people, who were just hoping to make it home to their families. That doesn’t concern you?”
I just stared at her for a minute. What did she think I should have done, die quietly and quickly to reduce the collateral damage? “The next time I get assassinated I’ll make sure to do it in a less-populated place.”
“No need to be defensive; I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“Okay, sure. One dataspike coming up. But then I’m going to need a lot more time with you. Hours, not minutes. This is a complicated case.”
“I’m soaking wet and injured.”
“I’ll see what I can do about that too. Hold on.”
She stood up and left. When the door closed behind her, the heat waves I’d noticed earlier suddenly shimmered and then solidified, revealing a woman with blonde hair and prosthetic limbs. Legal prosthetics, or “capitalizing on tragedy to consolidate power,” depending on how you look at it. Legal, because she worked directly for the Sol Federation, just like me.
I knew this woman. She’d been the Field Commander of the Section 9 team I met on Tower 7, although neither she nor her fellow spies were mentioned in my official report. There was nothing to mention, because Section 9 had no official existence.
“Andrea Capanelli. Why—”
“I don’t have time to explain anything, Tycho. You need to get out of here.”
“If you’ve been following me around in thermoptic camouflage, I could really have used your help about an hour ago.”
“I know, but I’m serious. Get out of this station or you’re going to die here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“No time for questions, Tycho. You’ve got to go. Here.” She tossed me a dataspike. “Ornstein is not to be trusted.”
She dropped back into camouflage, and I inserted the dataspike behind my ear. Now that I knew Andrea was here, she was easy enough to spot. When the door opened again, the heat distortion slipped behind Ornstein and disappeared. How do you like that? I thought. She didn’t even stay to help.
The StateSec constable walked in the room carrying two cups of coffee. “I’ve got that dataspike for you, just give us a few minutes to get the paperwork taken care of.”
She handed me my coffee, and I took a sip in spite of myself. The warmth helped a little with my discomfort, but I needed to act on what Andrea had told me. She might be a spy working for the most secretive intelligence agency in the Sol Federation, but she had never steered me wrong so far. If she said I needed to get out of there right away, I probably did.
“A unit is on its way to that address you gave us.” Ornstein didn’t sit down. She seemed to be watching me suspiciously, as if she knew something had happened but she didn’t know what. “We need to complete your debriefing now. I have a lot of questions.”
I shook my head. “They’ll have to wait. I have to get back to Arbiter Headquarters right away.”
“What are you talking about?”
She frowned. Me leaving suddenly was obviously not part of her agenda.
“Something has come up.”
“How could anything have come up? You don’t have your dataspike.”
I started for the door, but she stepped in front of me and blocked my way. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re an important witness, you can’t just walk out like this!”
She was acting indignant, but I thought I saw something else in her face too. Was it fear that I might get away?
I showed her my official face, my move along, there’s nothing to see here face.
“Thank you for your assistance, on behalf of the Arbiter Force.” My voice was firm and just polite enough. “You can send any questions you have to Arbiter Headquarters, and I’ll answer them by video at my earliest convenience. I’m leaving now.”
Her jaw tightened, and for just a moment, I thought she was going to spit in my face. To a StateSec officer, an Arbiter throwing his weight around is like red to a bull. She bit her lip as if to control her temper, then stepped aside to let me pass. She turned away as she did so and set her coffee down on the interview table.
“I want you to know, I’ll be filing a formal complaint.” Her voice was cold. “And you can forget about that dataspike. The paperwork won’t be ready in time, since you’re in such a hurry.”
A formal complaint would do absolutely nothing, since my Sol Federation rank trumped her North Atlantic States rank every day of the week. Unless war broke out between us, of course.
I headed for the door, trying to keep her in my peripheral vision. She stepped back and out of view, which put my senses on red alert. Luckily for me, I saw the shadow of her right hand as it slipped down to her holster. I wheeled out of the line of fire as she drew and aimed, pointing her gun where my head had just been a moment before.
When Andrea’s right, she’s right.
I let go of my coffee cup as I spun around, and it hit the floor and burst spectacularly. Ornstein’s weapon ID lock disengaged as she raised her arm, a distinctive electronic whining sound. I dropped to one knee as I grabbed her wrist with my left hand and punched her in the stomach with my right.
I grunted in pain, having forgotten all about my broken clavicle in the heat of the moment. The punch was weak, which was only to be expected under the circumstances. Ornstein’s eyes narrowed quizzically, as if to say is that all you can do?
With my relatively weak grip on her right arm, she was still able to bend her elbow. She began using it to pound on my eye over and over again in an attempt to dislodge me. Red explosions of pain disrupted my vision, but I held on with all the strength I had left and drove my bodyweight forward, hooking her legs with my own as I did.
She stumbled back and hit the edge of the table. It flipped over, hit her on the side of the head, and drove both of us into the puddle of hot coffee on the floor below. She struggled furiously, trying to bring her gun to bear. If she managed it, she could say I attacked her, and that she’d had to shoot me in self-defense. The killing of an Arbiter by a StateSec officer would be a problem for everyone, but she could smooth it over as long as I wasn’t around to contradict her. Which was probably the plan in the first place.
I couldn’t afford to let go of her arm, and she couldn’t afford to let me keep it. Without her gun, she wasn’t strong enough to overpower me. Still, it was hard for me to fight at all with one hand occupied, and I was injured on top of that. She thrashed and wriggled, trying to twist her arm out. When that didn’t work, she balled her left hand into a fist and started pounding on me. This ended up being one of the worst beatings I ever took in my life.
Her target seemed to have been my face, but with the way the two of us were struggling she didn’t always manage to hit where she was aiming. Half the time, she landed somewhere closer to my broken collarbone instead. Every time she hit me, I screamed out loud. If anyone heard from outside the door, they didn’t intervene. After Ornstein had pummeled me about two dozen times, I figured it out. The room was soundproof, because StateSec liked the luxury of being able to interrogate people however they saw fit. Their taste for brutality might have gotten me killed, but instead it saved me from being piled on by a dozen StateSec officers eager to protect Ornstein from the big bad Arbiter.
As she kept pounding on me repeatedly with a vicious hammer-fist, my opponent decided to offer some commentary. “You dumb piece of shit, why couldn’t you just have died in the fucking river. This wasn’t… supposed to be… my. Fucking. Job!”
With virtually every word driven home by her punches, and with me yelling in pain almost every time she hit me, that was only a paraphrase. She was pretty clear about wishing I had died sooner, though.
My grip was weakening, and it was starting to become clear that she would regain control of her weapon soon. Then all she had to do was stick the barrel under my chin, and she could spray my brains out the back of my head and make up whatever cover story seemed to fit.
I needed to end this fight, and I needed to do it as quickly as possible. Ideally without actually killing a StateSec officer, since that could lead to something nobody was ready for. If I let go of her wrist, she would only shoot me. I had to do this without letting go, and there was only one realistic way to do that.
Like everything else I’d experienced since leaving Sophie’s house—hell, since leaving my own house—this was going to be horrible. But it had to be done, and every moment I put it off was a moment closer to getting murdered. So I rolled her over, yelling twice as loud as I’d yelled before, and yanked her weapon arm across her body to put pressure on her throat.
Now that I was behind her, it was a hell of a lot easier to control her movements. I dug my heels in over her legs and forced her head against her own arm with slow and steady pressure. As I got the choke in, I pulled her arm in the other direction. She made a sound like “ggghhh,” and I leaned in and whispered in her ear. “I didn’t die on the bridge because I’m a Sol Arbiter. Don’t ever forget that.”
That was a bit unkind, but the whole speech about how I ought to be dead had ruined my mood. Fucking StateSec, I thought, as she finally went limp and stopped fighting. I cautiously eased the choke off, careful in case she was playing possum.
The level of pain I was in was unbelievable. I wanted fistfuls of opiates, or whatever else I could get my hands on, but it would have to wait. Ornstein was unconscious, but she wouldn’t stay that way for long. I had interrupted the blood flow to her brain, and it had shut down for a minute. I hadn’t cut off the air supply, a much more dangerous type of chokehold. When she recovered, she’d be just as eager to kill me as before. Probably more so.
I spit out some blood as I stood up, and it sprayed across the table like some kind of vivid art project. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like Ornstein was right. I really ought to be dead, but since I wasn’t, I had no intention of just lying down and letting them finish what they’d started. Certainly not for these StateSec jokers. I reached down and rifled through Ornstein’s pockets, found the dataspike they were supposedly going to give me, and fished it out.
Then I heard Andrea Capanelli’s voice.
“You need to get moving, Barrett. You have fifteen seconds.” It took me a moment to realize she was talking through my dataspike. “Fifteen seconds?”
“Twelve now. Go, go, go!”
I slipped out the door, careful not to open it wide enough for anyone to see Ornstein’s unconscious body before I closed it again. When I stepped out, there was someone yelling at the desk sergeant and gesticulating wildly with both hands at once. “I need to speak to your boss, RIGHT NOW! I want a refund, do you hear me?”
A refund for what? I had no time to think about it. I glanced toward the front door, but there were two men in black suits stepping in and looking around like they were searching for something. Was this why I only had fifteen seconds?
“Not the front, Tycho!” It was Andrea’s voice again. “Don’t use the front door. Take the fire exit!”
I looked to my right, saw a door marked Alarm Will Sound, and started toward it as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. I made it almost all the way there before someone said “Hey,” and instead of responding I kept right on going. The sign was right. When I pushed on the door, a buzzer started sounding and a red light started flashing.
Someone yelled, “HEY, YOU!” but then I was through, and a car was waiting there with an open door. Andrea was inside, seemingly unfazed by the sight of my swollen and purple face or the blood and spit running down my lip. She leaned across the seat and gestured impatiently for me to join her.
“Get in, Tycho! What took you so long?”
I closed my eyes and drifted off for a bit as we sped away, and Andrea just let me rest. When I opened my eyes again, I had the sense that a lot of time had passed, although I couldn’t be sure. The screen was blank, so I had no idea what was going on outside or where we were.
I rubbed my eyes, which still wanted to stay shut. “We got away?”
Andrea frowned. “Got away?”
“StateSec didn’t chase after us? I choked out Ornstein.”
“I thought you might have to do something drastic, that’s why I got the car. But no. We made it out without any problems. Did she try to do something?”
“More than try. I only managed to avoid getting shot in the back of the head because of your warning, but after that she beat me so bad, I’m surprised you even recognized me.”
“Yeah, you don’t look great. No offense, Tycho. Do you want some painkillers?”
She opened a compartment and fished out some packets of pink and green pills. “Don’t take more than two unless you want to go back to sleep.”
“Thanks.” I took the pills. “I need to stay awake; I’ve got to get this dataspike set up. It didn’t even show me you were speaking earlier.”
I brought up a screen in my field of vision, accessed my contacts list through retinal-scan identification, and started syncing the new dataspike with my list.
Andrea looked concerned. “What are you doing right now?”
“Just syncing my contacts. When I’m done, I’ll get on the Arbiter network and reach out to my superiors.”
She bit her lip. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”
She didn’t say why, but it didn’t take me long to work it out for myself. My old dataspike had been compromised, and I couldn’t be sure it had happened at the Huxley Industries campus. The Arbiter network was secure, but it’s hard to secure anything against an internal threat.
“Do you really think it goes that far? That HQ itself is compromised?”
“I can’t be sure. But think about it, Tycho. When the hit team made its move, did you get any help at all? From anyone?”
“No,” I replied, a little pointedly. “Not from anyone.” I didn’t know if she’d been there when the Augmen came after me, but she couldn’t have been far away, or she would never have been able to find me at the StateSec station. Of all the times she could have picked to rescue me, she chose the one that left me almost dead.
She squirmed a little but didn’t clarify. “You called for help, right?”
“Yeah, I tried. All I got was an error message, something about how I should shelter in place. They never got there, or if they did it was after I was already in the bay.”
“They did get there eventually, but just for the cleanup. That can’t just be Ornstein; the order to delay the response must have come from higher up.”
“I just assumed it was incompetence. You know, it’s StateSec.”
She shook her head. “I know that amuses you, but prejudices keep people from seeing reality. Like that movie on Venus—remember Arbitrate This? People want to see Arbiters that way because it makes them feel less powerless. It’s the same with this. StateSec isn’t incompetent. If they didn’t help you, it’s because they decided not to.”
The same thing could be said about you, I thought, but kept it to myself. The fact was, Andrea Capanelli had saved my life. She just hadn’t done it as soon as I would have liked her to, and I didn’t know why.
“So, what are you saying? This is some kind of huge conspiracy?”
“Can you think of any other explanation? I jacked into some of the video footage of the attack. Those weren’t back-alley thugs. You were attacked by a team of Augmen.”
“Yeah. I noticed. Like when I shot one in the hand and he didn’t even flinch. He seemed to react less than you did when the same thing happened to you.”
With her prosthetic limbs, Andrea had more in common with my attackers than I wanted to think about.
She looked vaguely uncomfortable. “Every model is different. And some are more… high-end than others. That’s what I’m saying. These guys must have cost a lot of money. On top of that, whoever hired them somehow pulled enough strings to keep StateSec away from the scene for a good forty-five minutes. Then there’s Ornstein. She must have been on their payroll.”
“Just because they were able to corrupt some StateSec people doesn’t mean they could get to anyone on the Arbiter Force.” My voice sounded testy.
Andrea rolled her eyes. “You’re being dense! Of course, they could get to them. They could find someone somewhere, maybe with a payoff or maybe with kompromat. It wouldn’t take much. They really just need someone willing to help them insert some malicious code. Doesn’t take a second and gets them in the system. You’re not a bunch of saints, you know.”
“You’re right.” I sighed. “I’m being ridiculous. It’s been a hell of a day, and I’m really feeling the rivalry thing right now. They tried to kill me.”
“From the look of your face, they almost succeeded. If I knew she could do that I would have stayed in there with you, but I figured you could handle her yourself as long as you had a warning.”
That was the first thing Andrea had said so far to even suggest she could have been a bit more helpful.
“Well, I did eventually. Handle her, I mean. But she has one vicious hammer-fist.”
“I’m surprised you let her live.”
“I had to. Tensions between the Sol Federation and the North Atlantic States are already high. I couldn’t exactly kill a StateSec officer.”
“She didn’t extend that courtesy to you. Anyway, as I was saying, it’s better to stay out of the Arbiter network. At least for now. Any information you submit to Arbitration Command could tell your enemies how much you know, maybe even what you plan to do. StateSec obviously has complicit elements, so it stands to reason that the Arbiters may as well.”
I didn’t like her analysis, but I didn’t feel like I could contradict it either. Then I remembered something else. I had requested a welfare check on Sophie Anderson, but what if the people they sent to check on her were in on the conspiracy?
“What?” asked Andrea.
“Oh, shit! We have to get to Sophie!”
“Gabriel Anderson’s widow? Your platonic girlfriend?”
How much did Andrea know about my life?
“Gabe’s widow, yes. I was on my way back from her house when the hit team found me. They could try to get to me through her!”
“We can’t go there right now.”
“The hell we can’t, Andrea! This is Sophie; I can’t just run away when she’s in danger!”
“You don’t really know that she’s in danger. And if she isn’t, then going there now will put her in danger. Ever since that attack, you’re playing for much higher stakes. You need to understand that. Anyone you reach out to from this point forward becomes a target.”
I must have seemed half crazy, but Andrea just looked me straight in the eyes and didn’t look away. She wasn’t going to budge. This car was going wherever she had already told it to go, and there was nothing I could do about it.
“I’m calling Byron.”
I didn’t listen to her. I called up Byron on my dataspike, closed my eyes, and leaned back in my seat. The image of his face appeared in front of me, with that slightly judgmental frown I had come to expect.
“Barrett. What can I do for you?”
“I need to ask a favor.”
Not anything you need, buddy. Not I’ve got your back. Just okay. He was a far cry from Gabriel, but he was all I had.
“Do you remember my old partner, Gabriel Anderson?”
“Of course.” He was looking at me like I was stupid. Why would he forget Gabe? He’d read the file.
“I need you to swing by and check on his widow, Sophie.”
His frown deepened, and the subtle but real sense that he was judging me deepened with it. “And this is something you can’t do because…?”
“I just need you to trust me, Byron. I can’t get there right now, and I’m worried about her, okay?” The tough thing about trust is that you can never just assume it, and I was drawing on an account that we had never really deposited into. We had only been working together for a short while, and we didn’t get along all that well in the first place.
“You could call StateSec and ask them to do a wellness check. They’d extend you that courtesy.”
“Byron, please. I need another Arbiter on this one.”
“That isn’t really what we do, but if you need it done then I guess I can swing by. Call me up in a few hours. I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
I opened my eyes again to find Andrea looking at me. “That sounded awkward.”
“My new partner is a little… straitlaced. He likes to do everything by the book.”
“There’s doing everything by the book and then there’s walking around with a stick up your ass. And then there’s walking around with a stick up your ass while quoting from the book. He seems to be somewhere around there.”
I sighed. “Yeah. But at least he agreed to go check on her. Hey, listen, I have a question.”
Her eyes narrowed a little. Ask a spy a question, and they’ll just start skimming through their favorite lies to pick the one they think you want to hear. “Yes?”
I thought for a moment how to best phrase it but gave up and said it straight. “How long have you been watching me?”
She looked away. “If I hadn’t been watching you, do you think you would have made it out of that StateSec station alive today?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“You aren’t cleared for the answer. And while I could just as easily lie to you, I have... a certain respect for how you handled yourself up there on Venus. I’d rather treat you as a colleague and just not tell you anything when I can’t really tell you anything.”
I didn’t know how to take that. Had she been there in Sophie Anderson’s house when I spilled my guts about Daphne? Had she been in my home without me knowing it? I remembered the way the door at the station had paused just briefly, catching the attention of the desk sergeant. That must have been Andrea, slipping in discreetly behind me with her thermoptic camo on.
“I’ve been haunted by a woman before, Andrea, but this is ridiculous.”
“That’s a cheesy joke. I’m not your personal ghost, there’s just a lot going on. Things that concern Section 9.”
In theory, Sol Federation Intelligence has eight working sections. Internal Security, Counterterrorism, Interstellar Crime, Interplanetary Conflict, North Atlantic States, and so on. Section 9 is beyond top secret, tasked with doing things the Federation can’t be seen doing. On Venus, they’d been given the task of assassinating August Marcenn. I got to him first, which gave me a certain amount of cachet with them. They’d even offered me a job, although I had blown them off.
“You’re working on this… conspiracy?” I asked.
“You know I can’t tell you much, not without permission. But our current mission does have some overlap with your investigation.”
“Okay. So, what can you tell me about the men who attacked me? You must have picked up something.”
“Section 9 doesn’t have a complete picture yet. We can’t ID them, but they seem to be a team of fully prosthetic enforcers working for an unknown party.”
For the most elite intelligence network in the entire solar system, they didn’t seem to know much more than I did. Unless she was still holding out on me. “Really? I could have told you that much. I mean, they all look the same, they dodge bullets, and when they can’t dodge them, they act like they don’t particularly care about them.”
“If they didn’t care about them, they wouldn’t dodge them. Not that they really dodge them, that’s impossible.”
“Okay, so they see when I’m about to pull the trigger and then move just before I do it. What’s the difference?”
“There’s a big difference. Remember Raven?”
Raven Sommer was a sniper, a member of Andrea’s Section 9 field team. In Tower 7, she’d plugged a few enemies from ambush right before they could finish me. They would never see her, so they wouldn’t be able to pull their bullet-dodging trick. “Okay, so Raven could probably shoot them. But wouldn’t they just shrug it off? That’s what the guy I shot in the hand did. He pulled the bullet out and tossed it away.”
“What were you using?”
“A submachine gun.”
She spread her hands. “Well, there you have it, Tycho. That’s just a back-up weapon. It’s pretty much the same as using a pistol. Raven will be using something much more powerful.”
“Okay. That’s hopeful. But you’re still dodging the question. You’ve got to know more about these guys than I do. I know you can’t tell me everything, but so far you haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know.”
“You know how it is. Some things are classified, some are need to know, but you can get in a lot of trouble for being wrong about whether someone needed to know something. You know?”
She grinned, but I wasn’t going to let her off the hook that easily. “Now you’re just trying to make me laugh to throw me off the scent. If it’s need to know, I need to know. I’m the one they’re trying to kill. They’ll probably succeed, and then it won’t matter that you told me because I’ll just be dead.”
She sighed. “Alright. We think they’re probably connected to the murders of Anton Slotin and Stefan Graves.”
I just stared at her for a minute. She stared back at me.
“What?” she said.
“The murders of… who did you say?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember them. You arrested them yourself.”
“Just repeat the names, Andrea!”
“Anton Slotin and Stefan Graves.”
“They can’t have been murdered. They were in Federation custody. We handed them over for prosecution just yesterday.”
“They aren’t officially listed as having been murdered, but we’re pretty sure that’s what must have happened. Slotin was found dead by hanging in an apparent suicide nine hours ago. Video footage shows one of the four guys who ran you off the road talking to a guard on the same cellblock just before his shift.”
“And Stefan Graves?”
“Graves’ body was discovered next to two other detainees after a fight. This was about six hours ago. One of the dead men had a visitor two hours before that, and he seems to have been one of your guys.”
“So they’re going around eliminating anyone linked to the Marcenn weapons transfers.”
“That’s what it looks like, although we can’t prove any of it. We have the audio from the prisoner visit and it’s just a mundane conversation. Stay out of trouble, keep your head down, the lawyers are working on it. That sort of thing.”
“They could have been using word code.”
“Sure.” She nodded. “In which case the real message was probably pick a fight with the target and make sure he dies, or we’re cutting you loose.”
They would have needed some other way to tell the prisoner who the target was, but there are a dozen different ways to do that. It tracked for the most part, although they had shown a lot more subtlety in taking out the two corporate guys than when they were chasing me across the rooftops shooting grenades.
“What about Klein? The third man we arrested. They didn’t get him too?”
She shook her head. “Not yet, although it can only be a matter of time. But don’t worry, we’re on it. I was suspicious when Slotin died, but men who are facing criminal charges do kill themselves sometimes. When Graves turned up dead too, I ordered an extraction. One death could be chance, but two within such a short time… it felt like a pattern. Before we even found the evidence linking the Augmen to the two deaths, my team was on its way.”
“That’s good, but what can you really do here? Assuming your team even makes it to Klein before they do.”
“Oh, they’ll make it. We have leverage on the warden, so he’s taking steps to make sure Klein is safe until my people get there.”
“But what are you doing with him? He’s facing Federation charges, and your outfit doesn’t even officially exist. You can’t just pull him out of a holding facility and spirit him away.”
“Of course we can. In case you hadn’t noticed, Tycho, we can do almost anything we want. He’s being taken to a safehouse, a place so remote they’ll never find it. That’s where I’m taking you right now.”
This was a lot to process. When I met the man who called himself the Operator on Sedna Station, I had asked him for some time to think about his job offer. He had given me a contact number, but I had never used it and never intended to. I thought that was it, and I would never hear anything about Section 9 again.
Now I knew they’d been spying on me, and that they were heavily involved in the same investigation I was currently pursuing. Not only that, but I was on the way to their hidden safehouse—where they would also be holding a Federation prisoner, a man they could not possibly have any legal authority to hold. Andrea called it an extraction, but it was close to a kidnapping. And if Klein was their kidnap victim, then what did that make me?
“You look anxious,” said Andrea. “I can give you something for that, too.”
“I don’t need any more pills. All I need is an explanation.”
“An explanation for what?”
“For your interest in me.”
She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Come on now, Tycho. What makes you think I have any interest in you? Goodness, you men are all alike.”
I almost blushed, even though I could see perfectly well that she was only messing with me. “I don’t mean you, Andrea. I mean Section 9. Why are you bringing me to your safehouse?”
“I thought it was obvious. You’ll die if we don’t. I mean, if we’re being honest, you got incredibly lucky today.”
I thought back over my day. I had survived a car crash, retrieved my weapon, escaped a flooded car, fought my way past four killer Augmen, jumped on a passing maglev train, survived a fall into freezing water, and won a hand-to-hand fight with a killer StateSec officer.
“It wasn’t all luck.”
She put a hand on my arm. “I know it wasn’t. You’re a genuine tough guy. Happy?”
I shook my head and laughed. It took a hell of a lot to impress Andrea Capanelli, and I wasn’t there yet. “I just don’t understand what this has to do with me. I never said yes when The Operator asked me to join Section 9. I’m not one of your people.”
“Okay, you never said yes.” She shrugged. “But you never said no. I decided to extract you. Call me sentimental.”
“Sentimental?” That wasn’t exactly the first word I would have used to describe her.
But she was grinning again. She had a weird sense of humor. “Yeah, you know. An old comrade in arms, gets himself in over his head, he’s marked for death… how could I not do something about it?”
“Marked for death. I don’t like the sound of that.”
“You get used to it.” Unfazed as ever.
“But why me?” I asked. “I just arrested some corporate types. Surely the Huxley Industries people aren’t stupid enough to take that personally.”
“They probably wouldn’t have if you’d just arrested them. Your partner Byron Harewood hasn’t had any trouble at all as far as we can tell. It’s not just that you arrested them, but that you’ve shown interest in the case since then. That’s what we think anyway.”
“Hmmm. Those three were probably meant to be scapegoats. Pin the blame on them, make sure they die before going to trial, then ride out the storm. But if anyone looked too closely…”
She nodded. “There’s a trail of some kind, even if we can’t see where it is yet. I agree. You were marked for death not because you were one of the arresting Arbiters but because you showed an interest in the details of the case. Byron, being Byron, didn’t look any closer. They probably just consider him harmless.”
“Could you please stop using the phrase marked for death?”
She pouted. “For a potential recruit, you’re awfully sensitive. I hope the Operator knows what he’s doing.”
I ignored that. “It’s true that I accessed the case files just a few minutes before being hit on the road.”
“If they were in your dataspike, they saw everything you were doing. They might even have put in the kill order then and there.”
“I don’t know. It seemed more planned out than that.” I thought about the maglev train, and the meticulously cruel reconstruction of Daphne’s last few minutes.
“Well, either way. We still see you as a prospect. Section 9 could use someone like you: you’re careful, you’re well-trained (no matter what Jones used to tell you), and most importantly you’re empathetic.”
Andrea herself was such a hardcase, I was half inclined to take this as an insult. “Empathetic? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’m really not. Intelligence work requires hard choices, and some of those choices would break a weaker man. Emotional coldness is a type of brittleness. We need someone strong enough to feel things, when appropriate.”
I thought back to Venus, and the thousands of people who died without anyone to help them, without anyone to fight for them, even though Section 9 was there all along. They didn’t intervene, not until it furthered their mission. And then they went to war, proving they could easily have done so all along. That was the main reason I hadn’t taken the job offer.
Andrea was looking at me. “You’re still mad about Tower 7, aren’t you.”
“I’m not… mad,” I said. “I don’t know what I am exactly. But it doesn’t sit well with me.”
“I understand. We would have moved quicker if we could have, but we had a job to do.”
“Then maybe it’s a job I’m just not suited for.”
“You might be right, but on the other hand the sort of person unaffected by those hard choices isn’t right for the job either. What we do is sometimes harsh. Maybe even evil, if that’s the word you want to use. But it must be done. That’s what Section 9 is for, to do the things that must be done.”
I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t. The Arbiter Force wasn’t all that different; our job was to solve problems for the Sol Federation by any means necessary. It’s just that we were on one side of an invisible line, and she was on the other, beckoning to me to cross.
What do you say to that? I’m kind of bad, but I’ll never be as bad as you?
I closed my eyes, more to get out of the conversation than anything else.
When I opened my eyes again, I was surprised at the time. We’d been driving for over nine hours, and I had no idea in what direction. When I glanced at the GPS, I found the app offline. I immediately assumed that Andrea had some device to keep it from connecting. I wasn’t just going to a safehouse. I was being taken to a secret location.
“Where are we?” I asked, just to be obnoxious.
Andrea chuckled. “We’re almost there. I’m glad you’re up, though. You were asleep so long, I was starting to get a little worried about you.”
“Almost there is not a location, Andrea.”
“You really took a hell of a beating there. I wouldn’t have thought Ornstein could have done that to you.”
“It wasn’t just Ornstein. It was four Augmen, a river, a maglev, and the Bay. I’m not immortal. And we’ve already been over this.”
“Well, you must be damn close to it. I think your candle was flickering there a little bit.”
“You’re just buttering me up, so I won’t keep asking you where we are.”
“You’ll see where we are in just a few minutes. Would your old friend Andrea steer you wrong?”
Andrea wasn’t exactly an old friend, or a new friend, or even someone I’d known for a long time. She was someone I’d been through Tower 7 with. That wasn’t nothing—we had a connection—but I didn’t think it was solid enough to put any weight on. I didn’t really believe she’d steer me wrong unless her mission depended on it.
I tried to put all of that into a pithy little reply, but what came out was, “I don’t know, Andrea, would you?”
She pursed her lips. “If you need to make a call, you’d better do it. We keep radio silence at the Grotto.”
“The Grotto, huh?”
“It’s just a codename.”
“Okay.” I called Byron, crossing my fingers that he had checked on Sophie by now. After nine hours on the road, the killers had had plenty of time to get to her if they were planning to. He didn’t answer right away, and I found myself drumming on the dashboard with my fingers in impatience and anxiety.
His face appeared in my vision. “Harewood here.”
“Did you get the chance to check on Sophie Anderson?”
He nodded. “Sure. I said I would, didn’t I?”
“Well, what did you find?”
“I didn’t find anything. No signs of trouble, nothing weird going on. If anything was wrong, I would have called you.”
“You didn’t see anyone suspicious in the neighborhood?”
His brow furrowed. “Suspicious how?”
“Anyone watching the house, lurking around outside? A man with a short beard, maybe?”
“No. That would have been something weird going on. What is this, Tycho? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Andrea shook her head and raised a finger to her lips.
“No. Look, I’m out of town. If you could check in on her again, I’d appreciate it.”
I dropped the call, not giving him a chance to respond. Then I turned to Andrea. “So you don’t trust Byron now?”
“I don’t trust anyone.”
The car rolled to a stop, and the doors popped open. All I saw was a pine forest, so deep and dark we might as well have been in Siberia. When I stepped out and looked around, I saw that we had parked in front of a large house with huge glass windows, elegant lighting, and even tasteful landscaping. It was a rich man’s getaway, a summer retreat for some corporate overlord like Julian Huxley.
“So… where are we?” I asked, and Andrea laughed.
“We’re here, obviously.” She opened a panel on the side of the car, pulled out the charging cable, and plugged it into the side of the house.
“No garage?” I asked.
I sighed as the knowledge that Sophie was alright finally sank in.
Andrea looked concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay now. I was worried about Sophie.”
“I get it. When you have someone you care about, it makes everything complicated. You look more relaxed now that you’ve had a chance to check on her.”
She was right, I did feel more relaxed. After nine long hours, it seemed a lot less likely that anyone was going to go looking for her. It was me they wanted, not the widow of a dead Arbiter who could no longer hurt them. I sighed again, much longer this time. I was letting the tension out, but the act of doing so did something to my injured collarbone. I winced in pain, and Andrea frowned with concern.
“What’s going on there, Tycho? Let me have a look.”
She took my arm and pulled it closer, and I gritted my teeth against the sudden agony. “Jesus Christ, Andrea!”
“You’d better believe it. Without divine intervention, I don’t think you’d be standing here right now. How long has your clavicle been broken?”
I thought back to the day before—was it the day before? Yes, it must have been. In a car with the screen off, you can lose track of time altogether. In several hours of dreamless sleep, I must have passed through an entire night like it was nothing. “Uh… eleven hours?”
“We need to get you inside, see what we can do about this. And your other wounds too. Come on.”
I couldn’t argue with that, although I didn’t exactly think of Andrea as the caregiver type. Field medic when she had to be, maybe—which is what this was. She led me up to the front door, where an automated cannon tracked her movements from the roof. She looked straight up at it and it powered down, satisfied that she was who she was supposed to be.
I glanced up at it too, wondering what the AI made of Tycho Barrett. “Strange choice for a safehouse, isn’t it?”
“Not for a location this remote. If we went with something smaller, it wouldn’t make any sense for it to be out here. On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of place a rich guy would have for a getaway.”
“And the cannon?”
“He’d have that too.”
The door slid open, and we went through into a large and comfortable living room with several plush couches and piles of pillows. There was a working fireplace against one wall, a private bar, and a billiards table. The whole place was flooded with natural light from the windows, but the branches of the pine trees cast broken shadows across everything.
“I’m back,” called Andrea. “Look who I brought.”
I heard a kettle whistling—an actual kettle, something I’d seen maybe once in my entire life. “Hold on,” called a voice. “The tea’s ready.”
“Lemon and two sugars,” Andrea replied. Then she turned to me. “You?”
“Ummm… black, I guess?”
“Predictable. One black, Raven.”
Raven Sommer, Andrea’s expert sniper. Like all the others on Andrea’s team, I hadn’t seen her since I left Venus. Not that I’d spent much time with her then either, as she was usually skulking somewhere looking for her next shot. From our brief interactions, I remembered her as a black-haired woman with light brown skin, and a mischievous attitude that seemed mildly disturbing for someone of her profession.
“One lemon with two sugars, one black,” she called. “Coming up.”
Andrea touched my arm gently. “Come over here and sit down, Tycho. This isn’t going to be easy.”
She led me over to one of the couches, and Raven came in with three china teacups. She set two of them down on the little table in front of the couch and took her own to a leather easy chair across from us. She flipped her dark hair out of her face.
“Oh, look.” She smiled. “It’s Tycho Barrett! Welcome to the Grotto, Tycho. Are you part of the family now?”
Her smile was so sweet, I almost forgot for a minute that her specialty was killing from a distance. “I… um…”
Andrea’s voice was vaguely amused. “Besides being tongue-tied whenever a woman smiles at him, Tycho is currently in a transitional state.”
“A transitional state?” I frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means she’s still hoping you’ll join Section 9.” Raven sipped her tea. “Try the tea, Tycho, it’s oolong. You look like you could use something soothing.”
It wasn’t easy to try the tea, since Andrea was already starting to work my sleeve off so she could do whatever she was planning to do to me. I picked the cup up awkwardly, managed to taste it, then spilled a large swallow down my chin. Raven put a hand over her mouth to cover up the fact that she was laughing at me, but I could see it in her eyes.
I put the cup down. “That was… hot.”
This time, both women laughed.
“Give the tea a break for a minute,” said Andrea. “It needs to cool down anyway, and we need to get your shirt off.”
“I’ll take care of it.” I tried, but the shirt turned out to be crusted with blood and soaked with sweat. When I tried to wrestle it off me, I ended up yelling.
Raven was horrified. “What are you doing? Stop hurting yourself, Tycho, you need some help.”
She put her tea down and hurried over, moving so quickly and fluidly that it was easy to imagine that she was about to perform a mercy killing. Instead, she wiggled my shirt off me and pulled it away, leaving my broken clavicle exposed.
“This is really fucked up, Andrea. Look at this.”
Andrea leaned in for a closer look. Her eyes got big. “You mean you won a fight like that? Holy shit, Tycho. You are one hell of a hard ass!”
“I don’t feel like one. I feel like a dog on the way to its last vet appointment.”
“Well, I’d put you to sleep if I could, because this is going to hurt. We probably don’t want to put you under completely with the facilities we have here, though. I can keep the pain to a minimum, but it will still hurt.”
“If I’m such a hard ass, I guess I’ll just have to grit my teeth and deal with it.”
“That’s a big boy. Hold on, I’ll get my stuff.”
I shook my head at the condescending comment. I guess she just figured she couldn’t compliment me if she didn’t make fun of me a little too. Raven sat down beside me as Andrea went into another room.
“Is everyone here?” I asked.
Raven shook her head. “Not quite. Andrew Jones is off world chasing down a lead for us. Everyone else is here, though. Even you!”
I was mildly disappointed to hear that Jones was not around, which surprised me because I found the man extremely unlikeable. He was an infiltration specialist, and the first member of Section 9 I had met on Venus. He had spent most of our opening conversation making fun of the Arbiter Force and implying that our training was not up to standard.
I had seriously considered punching the man, but in the end, we had spent several hours fighting side by side against androids and Nightwatch officers. Apparently, that was enough to make up for his personality, because I wouldn’t mind having a beer with him. On the other hand, having tea with Raven wasn’t bad either. At least she wasn’t making fun of my training.
I smiled a little. “It feels weird to see you here.”
“Why is that?”
“I guess I just think of you as this force of vengeance, hovering somewhere in the background on some Venusian rooftop.”
“It’s not always a rooftop, and it’s not always on Venus. But a force of vengeance? Yeah, that’s me. Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a cup of oolong.”
I didn’t know whether she was flirting with me or not, so I looked down at my feet.
Raven shook her head and called out to Andrea. “Tycho is one shy little guy.”
“He’s not that little,” Andrea replied, coming back in the room with her gear. “But yeah, he’s a shy one. I’ve got my med-kit and my hypospray. Raven, you know what’s about to happen.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice. See you later, Tycho.” Raven stood up, retrieved her tea as quickly as possible, and hurried out of the room like there was a mean dog after her.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Hold on a sec, here’s the anesthetic.” Andrea injected the hypospray somewhere on my neck, and I was suddenly aware of a huge improvement in my situation.
“Wow. I didn’t realize how much pain I was in until it stopped.”
“It’s about to start up again, but it won’t be as bad.”
She fished around in her med-kit and came out with a small but extremely sharp-looking surgical knife.
“Now, you asked a question.” She started working, and she was right, it hurt. It felt like a rabid animal chewing on my collarbone. But it felt strangely distant, like it was all happening to someone else.
“I did. What was that with Raven? She ran out of here like something was after her.”
“She has aichmophobia.”
“Aichmophobia… a fear of knives?!”
“Knives, needles, sharp corners… you name it. She can’t handle sharp things. It’s probably why she’s a sniper.”
It seemed kind of strange that an elite paramilitary intelligence unit would hire someone who couldn’t handle sharp things. Especially considering that Andrea’s second in command, Vincenzo Veraldi, was an expert knife fighter. “How does she get along with Veraldi?”
“Things are sometimes tense. But that’s probably more to do with… well, I’ll leave it at that.”
I didn’t ask. The pain in my collar was getting too intense for me to think of anything else. I was starting to see black around the edges of my vision.
“Hang in there, Tycho. You didn’t just break this, you fucked it up nine ways to Sunday. Who told you to get in the fight of your life with a broken clavicle?”
“You did? When you told me not to trust her and then slipped out the door?”
“If I hadn’t done that, you would never have made it out of that StateSec station. Here comes the hard part.”
I had definitely been under the impression we were already in the hard part. Whatever the hard part was, it hurt a lot more than what I had thought was the hard part.
“What the hell are you doing in there?!”
“I’m setting and bracing the bone with a nanomesh film, then injecting you with another hypo—this one filled with nanites. They’ll fill in the gaps until the bone grows back. I’ll get you back as a working team member. No need to replace you or retire you early.”
“No need to worry about that. Put it from your mind.”
I heard the laughter in her voice, but that didn’t mean for sure that she was only joking.
“Hush. I need to focus.”
I’ll give her this—as much as it hurt for her to perform surgery on me while I was still awake, she knew what she was doing. Her movements were quick and accurate, and I wasn’t nervous. Other than her little reference to retiring me.
She pulled back to look at her work for a second. “Okay, you can talk again. Hopefully not just to complain. I’m doing the best I can here.”
“No complaints. You seem to be on top of it. Did you used to be a doctor?”
“Wouldn’t that be something, if they’d recruited me straight out of medical school into a top-secret team of elite spies? No. I have my skills, but not that many. My talents have always been more about breaking things than fixing them.”
“That’s not reassuring.”
“I’m not a reassuring kind of girl.” This wasn’t true. She could be reassuring when she wanted to be, but it was more of a leadership skill than an interpersonal one. “Anyway, you already said I was doing a good job, so you can stop your complaining! No, I’m not a doctor, but my mother was. Back on Mars.”
The way she said this, it seemed kind of significant. Then I realized what she was hinting at. Judging from her age, she must have been just a kid during the Great Martian Blackout.
“Hush again and let me work. I’ll tell you a story if you’ll be quiet.”
I closed my mouth. When she was satisfied that I would hold my silence, she continued.
“This is a story about a little girl who was born on Mars about… well, never mind how many years ago. This girl had a mom, and her mom was a brilliant surgeon. A specialist in prosthetics, which is unusual off-Earth.”
It was more than unusual; it was almost unheard of. How could a prosthetic surgeon even make a living on Mars?
“The girl loved her mom, though she might have been just a bit resentful at how little time they got to spend together. What with all those flights off-world to perform secret surgeries and all.”
Oh. Her mother was a black-market prosthetic surgeon. The kind of doctor that made Augmen.
“There were always dust storms, and some of them were bad enough to cover the entire planet. During a particularly bad dust storm while her mother was away one year, the sand buried a reactor complex and it had to be shut down. The other reactors couldn’t keep up with the heavier load from all the colonies, so that one emergency triggered a cascading chain of system failures. Backups and fail-safes went down one by one, and the planet was without power for nineteen days. The Great Martian Blackout.”
When I was wandering around through the empty buildings in Tower 7, Gabriel and I found a lot of bodies. Some of them had been killed by the androids and Nightwatch, but some of them had clearly been killed by other civilians. I remembered a dance club where the staff had been lined up in the middle of the floor and executed at point-blank range—probably over drug territory.
The Blackout on Mars was a lot like that. Gangs settled scores with each other, people looted all the shops, rapists and robbers and killers roamed free. No one even knows how many people were killed before order was restored. There were so many bodies they used construction suits to bury them.
“Now, the little girl had a nanny. Her mom made a lot of money, and a nanny was just a necessity since her mom was away so much. But the girl was mad; she missed her mom and wanted to find her. And she didn’t really understand what it meant to go off-world, so she thought if she went around and called out for her mom that maybe she could find her. She wandered off, and the nanny went frantic looking for her. That’s when the lights went down.”
I almost shuddered. A little girl, wandering around in total darkness on the streets of a Martian city just as the Blackout started. It was hard to imagine anything more terrifying. Now that I thought of it, how had Andrea managed to keep her head together during the blackout on Venus? Based on everything I’d ever learned about traumatic stress she should have been curled up in a ball on the floor somewhere.
“The nanny couldn’t find her, and of course she couldn’t find her mom. When the lights went out, she panicked and started screaming. People helped her, of course. This was before all the worst things happened. Someone came and got her and dragged her into a building for shelter. She was in that building when the fire started, and she couldn’t get out of it before the building fell.”
Andrea went on talking about it in the same cool voice. It was like it had all happened to someone else.
“Her legs were crushed. Pinned down under all that rubble. Everyone else was already dead, all the people who’d taken shelter there. The nanny found her like that, with her legs pinned under tons of plasticrete and her arms burnt from shielding her face when trying to run out just before it fell.”
“I didn’t know—”
“Quiet now. It’s just a story to pass the time while I get this done.”
I shut my mouth again, and Andrea nodded in satisfaction. “So, there was the nanny, only she couldn’t dig the little girl out and she didn’t want to leave her. She stayed there with her, even when the gangs came through the neighborhood. She lay right on top of her, making sure they didn’t see that the girl was there. It worked for a while, but someone shot her in the back as he walked by. The nanny was dead, and the little girl was still trapped with her bleeding body on top of her. The girl was there for days, waiting for someone to kill her too. When the rescue teams finally found her, there was no way to save her arms or legs. And only one person who could save the rest of her.”
Her own mother, the prosthetic surgeon. I was wrong, Andrea’s prosthetics weren’t legal—at least not originally. Her limbs came from a black-market surgery just like the kind that made those Augmen, although less extensive. I suddenly felt guilty for the prejudiced thoughts I’d had about augmented humans.
Andrea finished up, looked at her handiwork with a satisfied eye, then switched the canisters in her hypospray. “The mom wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps, to make a living the same way she had. So, she taught her some of what she knew. The daughter refused and went on to kill quite a few of the kinds of people her mother used to work for. Maybe even some of the exact same. They don’t really speak anymore, but she did pick up certain skills that come in handy now and then.”
She injected the hypo-spray in my neck once more and switched back to first-person as if she’d been talking that way all along. “I’ve had prosthetics for most of my life now. I’m used to the weight distribution, the response time, the simulation of touch. They've been a part of my body for almost as long as I can remember. That’s why I can do things most people can’t, like jumping out of a four-story window without breaking any bones. I’m not superhuman—a full-body cyborg could do much more than I can. My prosthetics are still just attached to flesh and bone. But I can kill those Augmen. If they try to come after you again, I’ll put all of them in the morgue.”
“That’s… sweet of you?” I ventured.
She laughed. “There’s nothing sweet about me, Tycho. This was a lot of work, and I don’t want those bastards messing it up.”
I stood up from the couch, gingerly flexing my arm so I could see how well it worked. There was a stab of pain, but it was already less than what I had experienced before. I could feel my strength coming back a little. “You did a good job, Andrea.”
She walked to an adjacent room and opened a drawer, then tossed me a sweatshirt.
“I know I did. It won’t be quite as strong, but it will do whatever you need it to do over the next few days. And that’s the point. I can’t have you going around in a splint for six weeks.”
“Your concern is touching. Truly.”
She laughed. “Come on.”
She went down the hallway, and I glanced at the art on the walls as I followed her. None of it was interesting to me. It seemed generic, like the kind of stuff you could order from a special catalog to decorate your giant new rich-person house. Abstract shapes and planetary landscapes, well executed but nothing special. I wondered who had originally owned the place, and what had happened to him. After all, he hadn’t brought the generic art with him when he moved out.
“The guest bedroom’s down here.” Andrea pointed toward the end of the hallway, and at first I thought she was showing me to my room. When she opened the door, I was surprised to see one of the three men I had arrested just a few short days ago. The last one still living, as it happened.
It was Lucien Klein, Generative AI Division Chair for Huxley Industries, until recently. “You,” he said. “The bigshot cop.”
Klein’s wrists were handcuffed together, and he was raising both hands to smoke a cigarette, obviously not too happy about it. His face was red, and his expression somewhere between irritation and murderous rage.
“I’m not a cop.”
“No need to explain yourself to the prisoner,” said Vincenzo Veraldi, as stylish as ever with his dark blue suit jacket and hint of stubble. He was playing with a knife, making it twirl around his fingers so fast it looked like a spinning propeller.
“It’s the prisoner’s job to explain himself to us.” This was Jonathan Bray, a specialist in the use of extremely heavy weapons. On Tower 7, I had personally seen this man create a mountain of corpses. I would have said that Bray lacked the subtlety for interrogations, but his massive frame definitely added an intimidation factor. With Veraldi spinning his knife like that and Bray being Bray, I could tell they weren’t playing “good cop, bad cop.”
“I fixed up Tycho’s shoulder.” Andrea was obviously proud of her handiwork, because that had nothing to do with the topic at hand and was not really something to talk about in front of Klein. She gestured at my shoulder, but since I was now wearing the sweatshirt she had given me there was nothing to see.
Veraldi raised an eyebrow. “Playing doctor?”
She threw him a look that made him step back and put his hands up. “No offense. Just a little innocent work humor. Are you ready for the briefing?”
She glanced at Klein, as if she was having second thoughts about the whole conversation. In the Arbiter Force, we would have made a point about not discussing any of these things in front of a handcuffed prisoner. But Section 9 wasn’t law enforcement, and I couldn’t be sure they had any intention of handing Klein over to anyone when they were done with him. It doesn’t really matter what you say in front of a dead man.
I had the feeling that this had already occurred to him, because he was looking at Andrea with something that wasn’t quite fear but was definitely no longer bluster. “Don’t mind me. I’m just over here smoking.”
She turned back to Veraldi. “Go ahead.”
“Okay. So, we extracted Klein, but three full-body cyborgs attacked the convoy as we were leaving. Two of the cyborgs were KIA. We have the bodies down there in the basement. They’re both in Faraday bags. Can’t be too careful. Young is down there now; he’s trying to see if he can recover any useful information from them. We had to do two vehicle changes after the attack to be on the safe side, so we’re down to three cars, including yours.”
“Huh. I could have parked in the garage. Alright, Klein. It’s time to start saying something useful. We saved your life, and you are definitely going to repay the favor.”
“Saved my life? How does breaking me out of a secure Federation facility so I can get attacked by cyborgs count as saving my life?”
“I guess my associates here didn’t tell you about Slotin and Graves.”
He shook his head.
“We didn’t tell him anything,” said Bray. “We’ve just been softening him up for you.”
Klein was staring at Andrea. “What about Slotin and Graves?”
Andrea pulled up a nearby chair, flipped it around, then sat down facing him. “They’re dead. Someone is killing everyone who knows.”
“Everyone who knows what?”
“Whatever you know.”
His eyes darted from her to Veraldi, looking for a hint of sympathy and not finding one anywhere. “And you’re saying you’re going to protect me? If I tell you what you want to know?”
“What do you mean no? Isn’t that the deal?”
“The deal is that you owe us. You’d be dead already if my people hadn’t gone in and pulled you out of there. Every minute you’re still alive, every hour, you owe us. You’re going to tell us what we want to know to pay us back. If you want a better deal than that, you’ll have to sweeten the pot.”
Klein laughed nervously and looked around the room. “Can you believe this bitch?”
Bray sighed. “That’s one.”
The smile faded from Klein’s face. “One?”
“Of three,” said Bray, his face darkening.
Klein swallowed. “What do you want to know?”
“That’s better.” Andrea smiled. “For starters, I want to know if you have any theories of your own about who would want you dead.”
“Who would want to kill the division chairman of a weapons manufacturer? That’s a long list.” He took a deep drag of his cigarette.
“You know this isn’t anything political. The anti-war crowd don’t hire their own cyborg hit teams.”
“Don’t they? I think everyone would hire their own cyborgs if they could. That’s why I’m in this business.”
“Fair enough. But I’m talking about someone else involved in the weapons trafficking operation, someone who wasn’t taken into custody. This looks like someone trying to tie up loose ends.”
I stepped in a little closer. “Nguyen, for instance?”
Klein scoffed. “Nguyen? Are you really that simple? Nguyen couldn’t organize a bachelor party, never mind a thing like this. No. The only people involved in the operation were Anton Slotin, Stefan Graves, and me.”
Andrea gave me a look. Be careful. In interrogations, too many cooks can spoil the broth. But she didn’t stop me.
“There was no one else who knew about it?” I asked.
“Oh, sure. There was one other person who knew about it. Julian Huxley.”
So, Klein was playing games. Feeding us whatever garbage he thought we’d be dumb enough to gobble up. “That doesn’t make any sense, Lucien.”
“We’re on a first-name basis now? Is that one of your little interrogation techniques?”
The bluster was back. It probably came naturally. “Your story doesn’t work, Mr. Klein.”
“Why not?” He asked. Of course, he had no way of knowing we’d raided Huxley’s residence.
“Because Julian Huxley died three years ago.”
The arrogant smile disappeared, but Klein didn’t offer to clarify.
Bray stepped in. He probably thought I’d dropped the ball, and now he wanted to give Klein a chance to get back on our good side. “Are you saying those weapons were being sold, with Julian’s consent, for more than three years now?”
“You people and the first names. To hear you talk, anyone would think you played badminton with the man. No, that’s not what I’m saying. The whole operation, the whole project, it only started a year ago.”
Andrea leaned in. “The project? Let’s be clear here. We’re talking about a trafficking operation that resulted in the death of thousands of people.”
“And I’ve lost a great deal of sleep over that, believe me. But it was business. You don’t turn down an opportunity like that.”
When you’re talking to a sociopath, it’s easy to forget what they are until they remind you. I decided to push some more. “So, if it started a year ago, there’s no way Huxley was in on it. Huxley’s been dead for three years.”
“If you say so, buddy. I’d use your name, but I don’t actually know it. We weren’t introduced.”
The name thing again. This guy was obsessed with it, and it was nothing but a distraction. “What do you mean?”
“You wouldn’t understand. None of you would. You are just a cop, and these guys are whatever the fuck they are. Ninjas, I guess. This is over your head, above your paygrade, whatever you want to call it.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Andrea spoke again, her voice harsh. “You answer the questions, and we’ll figure it out later if we have to.”
“Okay. So you have enough resources to hire your own geniuses?”
“We have one in the basement.”
She was talking about Thomas Young, a strange man in some ways but definitely a genius. On Tower 7, he had taken control of Marcenn’s android army with a hacking exploit, then led them into battle by remote control to retake the lower levels from the Nightwatch.
“In the basement?” Klein looked horrified. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to treat them better than that?”
Klein himself was certainly no genius, but it was his job to manage the geniuses. That sometimes meant catering to their eccentric whims.
“He likes it down there. Now spit it out.”
“Okay, okay. Look, I’m telling the truth. The trafficking, as you call it, began about a year ago. Whatever records you have from the Lua Campus, they should corroborate it.”
“Then what did you mean when you said that Julian Huxley knew what you were up to?”
“He isn’t dead. It’s as simple as that, on one level. He just isn’t dead.”
I wasn’t going to let him just blatantly lie to us. “That’s bullshit, Lucien. I found the body myself, surrounded by all his little robots. His corpse was mummified. It was definitely his face, and the autopsy came back with a positive ID. It was Julian Huxley, and the man had been dead for three years.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You managed to get up there? Past all his androids? That’s kind of impressive.”
“We killed all the androids.”
“Huh. Guess we need better androids. Oh well, the geniuses will handle it. Anyway, he isn’t dead. What you found in that bed up there wasn’t really him.”
“You’ll have to clarify.” Andrea’s voice sounded testy. “And no more sparring around. What’s this big complicated thing we supposedly wouldn’t be able to understand?”
He sighed the sigh of the long suffering. “I’ll make a stab at it. You know what my position is, right?”
I answered him. “You’re the Generative AI Division Chair.”
“Excellent file-reading skills. You’ll do well when you move up to a desk job. So what does that mean?” He looked around the room, his face intentionally incredulous. “Does anyone know? Can anyone here tell me what Generative AI is?”
“I’m pretty sure I blew some of it up once,” said Bray.
Veraldi half-grinned, although I thought Bray was just playing into Klein’s hands. But then he surprised me.
“No, seriously Klein. It means you make a type of AI that can take a good guess about something based on what it sees or hears, the kind that lets cars understand spaces they’ve never been before.”
I thought that was a pretty good explanation, especially for a guy whose primary professional skill was the strength to operate a ridiculously large gun single-handedly. But Klein didn’t seem quite as impressed.
“Any of you read Samuel Johnson? No? I didn’t think so. You might want to look up what he says about a dog walking on its hind legs.”
Bray held up two fingers. “That’s two.”
“Come on, you don’t even know what I meant by that!”
“I can take a guess. Just like that AI of yours.”
“Okay,” said Klein, trying to hold up both hands in a placating. “Okay, okay. Let’s step back from the brink here. I’m sorry I’m being a prick, alright? It’s not you, it’s the situation. In the past few days I’ve been arrested on trumped-up charges, thrown in jail with a bunch of random scumballs, kidnapped from a perfectly safe cell, attacked by cyborgs, and now forced to smoke with my hands cuffed together by a bunch of slack-jawed ignorants.”
Andrea shook her head slowly in amazement. “Your de-escalation skills are terrible.”
For whatever reason, Bray didn’t declare this latest tirade to be strike number three. He just stood there looking at Klein.
Klein suddenly started talking very quickly. “It’s not that you’re wrong, okay? You’re not actually wrong. It’s a good layman’s explanation. You are obviously the least ignorant person here, and I’d be happy to offer you a job when I beat these charges. As, uh, security or something. But that’s only the most obtuse application for Generative AI. There’s a lot more you can do with it, as I will now be happy to explain to you.”
Klein was a man who could manage to be insulting even while babbling in pure fear. It was perversely impressive. Now that he was talking, there was no reason to stop him no matter how he chose to express himself. As the whole room stared at him, he continued.
“Generative AI uses pre-existing data—previously created interpretations—to generate the interpretation of new data. The stuff my team was working on can filter new experiences through what are essentially memories. The same way a human does.”
“He’s right,” said Bray. “I don’t understand a word of this shit.”
“That’s because he’s still trying to be evasive.” Andrea stood up and started pacing back and forth. “He’s using as much jargon as he can so we won’t be able to follow him, because there are things he still doesn’t want us to know.”
Klein looked incredulous. “I’m using as little jargon as I possibly can!”
“Let’s set that aside for a moment.” Andrea paused in mid stride and looked up at the ceiling like she was trying to pick her words. “You don’t know who we are, but you must have a guess or two. Right?”
“Like I said, you’re ninjas or something. Spies, special forces. Whatever.”
“So, tell me this. Why haven’t we tortured you?”
“Why haven’t you… what?!”
“It’s a simple question, Klein. Why haven’t we tortured you? If we’re some kind of ninja unit. We think you’re holding out on us, so why haven’t we tortured you?”
This didn’t seem to be a line of questioning he wanted to pursue. His face looked clammy suddenly. “Because I’m too important?”
“You’re not important to me. Is Klein important to any of you guys?”
We all shook our heads as he looked from face to face with glum anxiety.
Andrea went on. “The reason we haven’t tortured you, Lucien, it because it doesn’t work. It’s an ineffective way to interrogate people. The value of the information you get is not worth the effort. It’s something we just don’t do.”
I wasn’t sure whether this was true or not, but Klein certainly looked relieved to hear it. “That’s—that’s good to know.”
“I’m not sure it is, at least not for you. Because we can’t exactly hand you back. We didn’t really have any legal authority to take you out of that detention center in the first place.”
“I knew it…”
“You’re not getting the point. The moment your value to us becomes less than your cost to us, the question stops being what can we find out from Lucien Klein and changes to what do we do with Lucien Klein?”
“By do with, she means dispose of,” Bray added.
I didn’t know whether this was true or not either, but it had the desired effect on Klein. “Look, I’m telling you the truth! I’ll tell you everything you want to know! But when I’m done, how do I know you won’t just dispose of me then?”
Andrea sat down again. “In every conversation, each party involved has a strategic goal. In this particular conversation, your strategic goal is to get us to like you. To get us to like you as much as possible, so the question stops being what do we do with Lucien Klein and changes to what can we do for Lucien Klein?”
I could see him thinking about that one. If that was his goal, he was off to a bad start. “What do you want to know? I’ll tell you everything.”
“All that stuff you were saying about Generative AI. What does any of that have to do with Julian Huxley? And this time, spell it out.”
Klein put his hands together like he was praying. “Julien Huxley’s body may have died, but his mind is still very much alive. Huxley is the first intrinsic immortal in human history.”
I was starting to see a clearer connection to what had happened on Venus. August Marcenn had created a type of computer virus and used it to reprogram the consciousness of his Nightwatch officers into copies of his own consciousness. What Klein was saying sounded vaguely similar. A twisted attempt to live forever, by displacing yourself from your own body. But I didn’t believe it. Even if it was possible to make a copy of your own mind, the copy still wouldn’t be the same person.
Andrea was either confused or playing along. “What do you mean by that? Intrinsic immortal?”
“Six years ago, Julian Huxley began to suffer from motor neuron disease. Okay? He considered filing for an exemption to the full-body prosthesis ban, but the disclosure of his sickness would have impacted the company’s value. Julian loved that company more than anything. It was his legacy. Instead of doing anything that might have hurt Huxley Industries, he chose to disappear from public life and find another solution. He came to me for help with his problem.”
“How did he think you could help him? You’re not a neurologist.”
“A neurologist couldn’t have done anything for him anyway, or he would have just bought one. But I could. He wanted to create an AI proxy, a perfect copy that would think and act just as he would.”
That’s basically what the Nighwatch was supposed to be for Marcenn, a distributed copy of himself, like a flesh-and-blood AI. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. All the copies were corrupt, and they went on a deranged killing spree on a scale I’d never seen before.
“Alright,” said Andrea. “I’m not saying I buy any of this, but sure. You agreed to help?”
“I agreed to help, and I brought Anton and Stefan into the project. The work was simple, essentially just constantly recording Julian’s mental activity and appending that information to the data model.”
“It’s not jargon, that’s the simplest way I can say it. Anyway, it worked. We made a copy, a complete and working copy of Julian Huxley’s mind. By the time his body died, his android proxy was already complete.”
“So, you’re saying he’s out there somewhere? In an android body?”
“I can’t be sure.”
“Why can’t you be sure?”
“I haven’t heard from him in a long time. I don’t know what’s up with him. He… changed.”
Andrea didn’t say anything, she just sat there waiting for him.
Klein was struggling for words, but at last he came out with it. “Over time, Julian became… really comfortable in his new existence. He used to tell me what it felt like, the sensation of connecting to vast computer networks, experiencing the flow of information like waves and currents washing over him. You wouldn’t understand. I wouldn’t understand. He’s the only one who would, the only one in all of history. And then one day he vanished.”
“What do you mean exactly? He was already in seclusion, right?”
“Yes, but I always knew how to reach out to him. If I went to a certain node on my dataspike he would show up soon afterward, and we could discuss anything we needed to discuss. But then one day the node was gone. Julian had burned it himself. There was no way to reach him, and I haven’t heard from him since.”
“Why do you think he did that?”
Klein shrugged. “I mean, he’d been getting weirder and weirder. It’s no wonder really. But he disappeared, and for all I know he’s plugged into some network somewhere, riding those currents. Anyway, before he vanished, Julian personally ordered the diversion of advanced weapons research projects to Venus, care of August Marcenn. He got it all set up, made sure everything was in place, and then he burned the node.”
“Like he was covering his tracks?”
“What good would that do? I knew he had done it. I knew he was responsible for it. But his body was dead, the man couldn’t be convicted of anything.”
“His body was dead?” I interjected. “You mean he was dead. Whatever you built, it wasn’t him.”
“How do you figure?”
“It was a rogue android, an unusually clever rogue android. But it wasn’t him. An android is not the same thing as a human being, not even if you copy over some information from one to the other.”
“Okay, smart cop. Is every cell in your body the same as on the day you were born? It’s the Ship of Theseus problem.”
No one took the bait, which didn’t stop him from expanding on the topic. I knew it wouldn’t.
“You know, Plutarch? If Theseus gets some boat repairs and they replace a few parts, it’s still the same ship, right? But then he gets repairs again, and again, and again, and eventually there isn’t even a single board from the original ship left. Is it still the same ship, or not?”
“No,” said Andrea.
“Yes,” said Veraldi.
“What?!” said Bray.
All more or less at the same time.
Klein grinned. “Or George Washington’s ax, same thing. The head and the handle have both been replaced, so is it still George Washington’s ax?”
“You’ve seen George Washington’s ax?” asked Bray.
Klein closed his eyes and took a deep breath. While he was did, Bray winked at me. He wasn’t as dumb as he looked.
Andrea sat up suddenly and cocked her head to the side, a common reaction to receiving a dataspike message. Then she mouthed the words keep him talking to Veraldi, who nodded in response. She gestured to me, and I followed her out of the room.
Once we were out in the hallway again, she shook her head. “What a piece of work. I hope they nail that guy’s head to the wall.”
“He’s really something. But what was that?”
“That was Thomas Young. He’s got something to tell us. We’re going to meet him in the basement.”
“Hold on, Andrea.” We were walking down the hall, heading for the basement and whatever Thomas Young wanted us to see.
Andrea paused, looking back over her shoulder. “Yeah?”
“You’re going a little too fast for me here. I need to catch up.”
She smiled a little. “You were hurt in the shoulder, not the legs.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Okay. Young will be annoyed, but I can give you a second. Come in here.”
She went through a door, which led to a small private study. There were a few reproductions of famous sculptures like Rodin’s Thinker and a few old books. It was all just as generic as the art on the walls, and I started to think of the place as a fake mansion, built solely for use as a safehouse and put together to withstand casual scrutiny. From that perspective, it didn’t really matter what paintings were on the wall or what sculptures or books were in the study, because none of it was real. The Grotto was a prop.
Andrea sat on a swivel chair and swung around to face me.
“What do you make of Klein’s story?” I asked.
She frowned. “What do I make of it? I don’t make anything of it. I don’t make anything of anything really. You don’t get too far by speculating, so it’s better just to let all the pieces pile up until you can fit them together.”
“But the implications of it… Andrea, he’s telling us some amazing things here. A man having his consciousness mapped to a machine? Intrinsic immortality?”
“Klein’s a blowhard, a corporate reptile who thinks he’s a tech genius just because he manages actual tech geniuses. I wouldn’t take anything he says too seriously.”
“I sure as hell don’t want to. It creeps me out a bit, honestly.”
“Yeah, you were like that on Venus. Any time any of the Nightwatch officers would try to talk to you, you would just kill them on the spot. It was kind of funny, because they sure weren’t talking to anyone else. We used to joke that you’d make a terrible intelligence operative. Don’t take that personally, because I honestly think you would make a great intelligence operative, but that was our joke. That your whole interrogation method was just to kill the prisoner before he could talk. We called it pulling a Tycho.”
I didn’t know what to make of any of this—the fact that she was joking around about people dying, the fact that they were joking around about me after I was gone, or the fact that I had become part of their private slang, but however I chose to take it, she was not exactly playing it straight.
I didn’t shoot anyone we had taken prisoner. I was shooting Nightwatch officers who were still armed and dangerous, it’s just that I did tend to freak out and start shooting when they tried to talk to me. The fact that they always said the same thing was a big part of that. You haven’t really killed us is a creepy thing to hear, especially when you’re hearing it for the tenth time and you’ve already killed the last nine guys who said it.
“You are completely misrepresenting what I actually did.”
She laughed. “Oops, looks like you’re taking it personally after all. Well, don’t pull a Tycho on me. I’ll shut up.”
There was no way I could win. Now that they’d all decided what pulling a Tycho meant, any complaint would only be held against me. “Never mind, never mind. But seriously, Andrea, you must have some opinion on what Klein was telling us.”
“I do have an opinion. My opinion is that Klein is a pretentious fuckwad who thinks he’s way smarter than he really is just because he can quote some fat old English guy to make his point. His story is just that: a story. Without hard evidence, it doesn’t really mean anything.”
“I guess that’s all there is to it, really.”
“Don’t get all sad on me, Barrett. We’re conducting an investigation here. We’re following leads. When we’ve followed enough leads as far as they will go, we’ll start to get a picture of what the truth is. And who knows? It might even look something like that fairytale Klein was trying to tell us. But I wouldn’t bet money on it.”
Now that Gabe was dead, Andrea seemed to have taken on Gabe’s role in my life. He used to tell me all the time: don’t bother speculating, don’t get bogged down in what-ifs and maybes. Follow your leads and see where they go, or you’ll wander off into your own daydreams and lose sight of the big picture. Byron would say the same thing; it was Arbiter doctrine. It was never the same hearing it from Byron, though. He just seemed to lack imagination, so maybe not speculating came easy to him.
“Alright.” I shook my head, wondering when I was ever going to learn what Gabe was trying to teach me. “Let’s go see Young.”
Andrea stood up and patted me on the shoulder in that jokingly condescending way of hers. “It’s okay, Tycho. There, there.”
She walked out the door, and I followed her with my cheeks burning. At the end of the hall, she came to a mantrap and pulled it open. It opened on a staircase, which led down to the Grotto’s basement.
“No security code?” I asked. “No secret password?”
She played along. “We’re planning to have a fake wall installed in that study. Swiveling bookcase, the whole business. Takes a while to get the expenses cleared on that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, no doubt.”
She went down into the basement, calling out to Thomas Young. “We’re here, Young! What was it you wanted to show us?”
His voice was irritated, as she had known it would be. “It’s a good thing it wasn’t too time sensitive. Otherwise, I’d be forced to explain to you how the resulting crisis was entirely the fault of your procrastination.”
“I wasn’t procrastinating. Tycho had a question to ask me.”
“Tycho?” His head popped out as I walked down the stairs, and he frowned as he saw me. “Oh, yes. Him.”
Young’s face looked disdainful, with a hint of confusion. Like he was pretty sure we had met at a boring cocktail party, but he couldn’t quite place me because the conversation had been so unmemorable.
Andrea laughed. “You’re such an asshole, Young. You knew perfectly well that he was on his way here.”
“I can’t be responsible for keeping track of every stray you decide to adopt.”
I reached the bottom of the staircase and took a look around. It was a finished basement, of the sort the original owner of this house might have called a “rumpus room” or a “man cave” if he had ever actually existed. Young had cleared away most of the arbitrary games and bric-a-brac and was examining the cyborg bodies on what might have been a snack table.
“Well, I’m here now.” Andrea waved in the general direction of the cyborg bodies, which were still concealed beneath their Faraday bags so they couldn’t receive or transmit anything we didn’t want them to.
Young pursed his lips at her and continued in an officious tone. “Very well. Here is my report. I have completed my preliminary teardown of the cyborg remains. Component data and network access history from the bodies of the men suggests they both recently spent several days in northeast Nunavut, triangulated by signal strength to an area in the city of Sif.”
Andrea frowned. “Sif? What the hell would they be doing all the way up there?”
“I’m sure I don’t know.” Young had a prissy way about him, but this was largely just for show. Although his mind was unusually keen, he was every bit as competent and ruthless as his fellow Section 9 agents. Andrea waited for him to give us more, and in a moment, he obliged her. “I did check for behavior patterns to compare them to known profiles. Given the dates and duration of network access, I suspect the men were in the area to find something or someone.”
Andrea smiled. “Thank you, Thomas. That wasn’t really so hard, now was it?”
“Hmmph.” He turned to me, no longer pretending not to know who I was. “Well, Mr. Barrett, it’s so good to see you again. How have you been keeping?”
“How have I been keeping?” It was a strange idiom, and it threw me for a second.
“Yes, how have you been… doing? Has your social life been eventful and your… pastimes stimulating?”
Young’s attempt at small talk was so bizarre that I couldn’t even begin to think of how to answer him. I looked to Andrea for help, but all she did was shrug.
Fuck it, I thought. “No, Thomas. My social life has been depressing and I don’t have any pastimes worth speaking of.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine what a person like you would do without a diverting pastime.”
“What exactly are you saying, Thomas?”
Andrea grabbed my arm. “We don’t have time for this. You can force Thomas to explain exactly how he was being condescending to you later. You need to get cleaned up.”
“Cleaned up? I thought you did a pretty good job dressing the wound…”
I turned my head to look at my shoulder.
“I’m not talking about your injury; I’m talking about you. If you think I’m getting back in a car with you before you’ve had a shower and a change, then you just don’t know how bad you smell right now.”
“Oh, that. I guess that’s valid.”
After everything I’d been through, I thought I should probably be praised for not smelling worse. But sitting in a car with me for several hours in my current condition might be a bit much to ask, especially considering that she’d already done it once.
“Come on.” She headed back up the stairs. “I’ll show you where the shower is, but first we need to find you a clean set of clothes. I assume you’re happy to wear all black?”
“It seems a bit… conspicuous. Don’t spies need to blend in?”
“You’re not a spy yet, are you, Tycho? We’ll get you clothes in every style and color, but only after you join the club and get the secret decoder ring. Until then, you’ll have to settle for the Tourist Package.”
She ended up dressing me in a black turtleneck with black jeans, black socks, and shiny black shoes. I think if she could have found a black beret, she would have forced me to wear that too.
Sif was an ugly town, like most former boomtowns are. Unlike Grise Fiord or Whale Cove, it didn’t have a history. There was no ancient Inuit settlement there or even an old trading post. It was an overgrown mining site, born in a minerals rush less than a hundred years before. What started as a man camp made up of Quonset huts and mess halls was now a grimy and prosaic little city with far too many taverns, brothels, and gambling establishments per capita for its own good. I was reading up on the local culture on my dataspike as we approached, trying to prepare myself for whatever we might run into. It didn’t make for encouraging research.
In Sif, municipal corruption and organized crime are too closely intertwined to be discussed as separate topics. Essentially, local offices of all kinds—from mayor to dog-catcher—are controlled by one of several political clans. Members of these clans own nearly all the city’s semi-legitimate businesses such as bars and gambling establishments, and they are believed to exercise total control over prostitution, drug-dealing, and other forms of vice.
Raven leaned in from the back of the car. “Learning anything interesting?”
“Mostly that Sif is a horrible, horrible little place.”
She turned on the screen, and the interior of the car suddenly showed a panoramic image of the outside world. The building on our right was like a huge, squat cube, painted in a senseless patchwork of off-white and green. Rust patches stained its surface. To our left, the waves of the Arctic Ocean crashed against the docks, where two cadaverous yellowish-brown polar bears picked through a huge mound of trash. They looked up as we passed but showed little interest. Their eyes gleamed in our headlights, but otherwise the creatures looked half-dead.
Raven gestured at the screen. “I hate this place already.”
“It’s not like we’re on vacation.” Andrea shut the screen off. “Come on, let the car find a parking spot downtown and then we’ll get started. It’s time for your mission briefing.”
“Mission briefing?” I wasn’t one of them, at least not officially. She couldn’t technically brief me.
“That’s right, your mission briefing. Don’t quibble with me, Tycho, just be quiet and listen.”
“You got it, boss.”
She glared at me. “Okay. In my opinion, those Augmen were in town for one of two reasons. Either they needed to meet a contact, or they were tracking down a target.”
“Could be both,” Raven pointed out.
Andrea nodded. “Could be both. If they had a contact here, their contact could have had information about how to find their mark. The reason I’m leaning more toward contact is the StateSec record for the past week.”
“Something unusual?” I asked.
“I guess you could say so, considering that the murder rate here in Sif is about ten times the national average. People get killed here so often they don’t bother to bury them all. If you don’t have family here, your body gets dumped in front of the nearest hungry polar bear.”
I was mildly appalled by this. “That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“It probably isn’t, but on the other hand it may be the reason Sif has one of the last remaining wild polar bear populations, so there’s that. Anyway, there were no murders on the books last week. Not even one.”
Raven seemed amused by this. “They should hold a parade. Sif is really turning around.”
“I think that might be jumping the gun a little. Either way, it looks like Sif had a good week. Which means no reports of Augmen killers suddenly shooting up half the town, which means no mark. So, I’m guessing that they were here to meet someone with information they needed.”
“It’s a long way to go for a name and address.” Raven drummed her fingers against her legs. “What if they just, you know, fucked it up?”
The car swung into a parking spot and turned the screen back on, so we would know what we were stepping into before we exited. I saw a parking lot and a glowing sign that read The Flying Dutchman. Across the street, there were two other businesses named Terror and Erebus. All bars or similar establishments, from the look of it.
Andrea nodded. “Yeah, that’s possible too. They came here to kill someone but couldn’t find whoever they were looking for. I’ll buy that story, but we still need to get out and have a look around. If they were looking for someone they couldn’t find, then their mark might still be in the area. If they were meeting a local contact, the contact is still probably somewhere nearby. Either way, the person they were looking for knows more than we do.”
“So, our cover is what? Journalists from the big city?”
Andrea laughed. “I wouldn’t try it, Raven. The locals would feed you to the bears before you got the sentence out, and it wouldn’t even have anything to do with our case. A journalist from the big city would not be welcome here.”
“So, what then?” I asked.
“You don’t have any questions and you won’t answer any questions, you’ll kill anyone who looks at you funny. If you act like that, people will just assume you’re up to no good and they’ll take it easy around you. You might overhear something, but more importantly you’ll get to look around. We’re looking for any common factor, anything that stands out about the places these cyborgs visited.”
“Eyes open, mouths shut,” said Raven.
The doors popped open, and we stepped out onto the streets of Sif. Inside the Flying Dutchman, someone fired a weapon into the ceiling. We saw the flash through the window and heard the crack. Andrea shook her head. “I’d better clarify. I want you to act like you’ll kill anyone who looks at you funny. I don’t want you to do it. Sif is on a roll; we don’t want to ruin their good thing.”
Raven smiled. “Without my rifle, I’m not a problem for anyone.”
Judging from her smile, Raven in a bar was a problem for everyone. And not just because she still had a sidearm.
Andrea wanted to hear us both say it. “What about you, Tycho? Are you cool?”
“Cool, calm, and collected. But where are you going to be while we’re out there not getting into bar fights?”
“I’ll be nearby. The car picked up some encrypted signals traffic. It’s probably nothing to do with us, but I want to make sure we aren’t being followed.”
She activated her thermoptic camouflage and dropped out of sight. Only a few short days ago, Byron Harewood had criticized me for being too reliant on Arbiter armor and the technological advantages it gave. I had to admit, I wished I had some armor on right then. As it was, all I had was the ridiculous black outfit Andrea dressed me in, plus a sidearm with plenty of ammo from the Grotto’s armory. It didn’t seem like a lot, not for a place like The Flying Dutchman.
Raven touched my arm. “Come on and buy me a drink. It’s our first date, so don’t get cheap on me.”
With some trepidation, I followed the sniper through the doors of the Flying Dutchman. According to the position data Thomas had given us, this was one of the top three locations where the Augmen had spent time while they were here.
From the look of the place once we got inside, it was certainly plausible that they might have met a contact here. The bar was dimly lit, but even so it was immediately obvious that no one ever came here unarmed or expected anyone else to. Within thirty seconds, I saw a wider variety of firearms, knives, hatchets, and ball-peen hammers than I would have expected to see in your average colonial insurrection. Many of these weapons were clustered down at a long table in the back, under a banner showing a Narwhal, carried by men whose jackets showed the exact same image. Members of the Narwhal clan.
No one was too obvious about it, but all eyes marked us as we came in. I went up to the bar, ordered two whiskeys, and sat down. Raven somehow managed to smile at everyone, but it was the kind of smile that was more likely to start a fight than to prevent one.
I got her attention and toasted her by raising my glass of clear liquid that in no way resembled or smelled like whiskey.
“If this is our first date, should you really be flirting with everyone in the bar?”
She raised her own glass and knocked it back. “If you can’t keep me, you haven’t earned me.”
The bartender leaned in and spoke under his breath. “You two are welcome, money always is. But mind your manners.”
He looked me in the eyes, and I nodded once. Then he moved away, wiping down the bar with a grayish rag.
Raven looked around. “I don’t see anything that stands out here. It just seems like a normal bar.”
I resisted the urge to ask her how often she hung out at bars controlled by nautical-themed crime clans and concentrated on the mission. “You see that table in the corner? If you were sitting over there, you could keep an eye on whatever street that is without anyone being able to approach you from behind.”
“Let’s go see if there’s anything worth looking at, then.”
We went over to the table, earning a glare from the bartender because we hadn’t ordered any additional drinks. At the Narwhal table, a man with a giant beard was just standing up as his friends laughed at him.
“I don’t know, Tycho.” Raven looked out the window. “There’s really nothing over there but that fish and chips shop, and they don’t even seem to be open.”
“Don’t look now, but I think you have a suitor.”
The bearded man was approaching, egged on by the unhelpful advice of all his clan buddies.
“Go get her, Midge!”
“Tell her all about your horn!”
Raven seemed confused. “Horn? Oh right, that unicorn whale thing.”
When he reached our table, Raven spoke before he had the chance. “They call you Midge?”
“They do.” He grinned, showing a mouth with several chipped and broken teeth. “It’s ‘cause I’m big.”
“You’re not really that big.” She turned to me with an inquisitive look. “I mean, compared to Bray, he’s kind of a little guy, don’t you think?”
Midge’s eyes got an evil gleam in them, and his hand drifted down to the hatchet at his belt as he awaited my response.
“He’s a hell of a lot bigger than I am.”
Midge grinned again. “That’s right, I am. So how about you fuck off and let me talk to the lady here?”
Raven leaned in playfully and whispered something in his ear, and Midge’s jaw dropped. He swallowed nervously and started to back away. “I don’t… no I don’t think I’m into that. Sorry, lady, you’ll have to find yourself another guy.”
He turned around and retreated to an outburst of hilarity from the Narwhal table.
I looked at her suspiciously. “What did you say to him?”
“Nothing to do with you.” She smiled sweetly. “Come on, let’s go check out the next spot on our list.”
We left the Flying Dutchman with a lack of bloodshed that seemed almost miraculous. On the street outside, a thin layer of ice crunched beneath my shoes. “The next spot is called the Essex. Says here it’s Snow Wolf territory.”
“I like all the animal names. It’s kind of sweet.”
“Yeah, well… just try not to get us killed in there. Okay?”
“Anything for you, Tycho.”
She put an arm through mine, and we walked the block and a half to the other bar. The Snow Wolves and the Narwhals had a longstanding rivalry for the post of Zoning Officer, so the fact that their clan bars were so close to each other seemed like an oversight on the part of everyone involved. Of course, that was assuming they wanted to avoid random outbreaks of violence, not necessarily a valid assumption.
As we walked down the street, I saw a man walk up rapidly behind another man and push him over, then start kicking him viciously with heavy boots while he curled up on the ground. The one doing the kicking was yelling something about stolen fish.
“Don’t get involved.” Raven’s voice was cold, without a hint of the flirty little games she seemed to enjoy so much. “That has nothing to do with us.”
“Are we just going to let that guy get beaten to death?”
“He probably won’t die, but even if he does, stopping it from happening is not worth our whole mission. You need to focus.”
We reached the Essex, and Raven smiled at the elegant wooden sign out front. “This place is nice.”
She was right, it was nice. A little more elegant than the Flying Dutchman. Not that there was really that much difference between them, but the Essex did have a wooden signboard. We went in through the door and found the interior much the same as the other bar, except that members of the clan that owned the place were less in evidence. There was a banner of a white wolf hanging over the bar, and a man with a gun sitting down at one end. When he saw us come in, he tipped his hat to Raven. I’d like to say it was a mysterious black hat, but it wasn’t. It was a cheap cap with a feed-store logo on it.
She smiled in response then stepped up to the bar to order our drinks. I wandered over to the window to look out on the street, but the view was largely the same as from the other bar—yellow streetlights shining harshly on pavement, and the dark windows of the fish and chips shop.
Raven came up from behind me and handed me the drink. “Just wet your lips. We need to keep our heads straight.”
I took the glass. “But this one is whiskey. Real whiskey, from the look of it.”
“Yeah, the Snow Wolves seem to be a bit higher-end than the Narwhals. I wonder where all their people are though.”
“Probably out plundering a container vessel.”
“That’s not as far-fetched as it you might think. Vessels sometimes get hijacked crossing the Northwest Passage through here. What do you want to bet a lot of that stuff ends up here in Sif?”
She shook her glass and the whiskey sloshed. She had a point. Sif was honestly an awful little city.
“Come on, let’s check out the third spot.” She put her glass down on the windowsill and turned to go. I touched my whiskey to my lips, so I could at least say I had sipped pirated booze, then I did the same.
The third spot was also in the same neighborhood, on the same block as the shuttered restaurant. It was a place called The Mary Rose, and it featured a sign of an alluring woman in red holding a long-stemmed rose. We could hear the music from the street out front. It sounded like a live band, but the style was so out of date as to be slightly embarrassing.
Raven smirked. “You look like you disapprove.”
“Only of the music.”
I followed her inside, a little embarrassed to be entering a brothel. As soon as we walked in, the mystery of the missing Snow Wolves was put to rest. There were at least fifteen of them, milling around and talking with each other quietly or sitting in some corner with one of the girls. They weren’t the only clan present, either. I saw two men with Sea Lions jackets and a woman wearing Caribou colors—the two clans that most often held the office of Mayor. Unlike the Narwhals, most of the clan fighters here carried their guns with some discretion. You could tell they were armed by the way they moved, or the bulge of weapons beneath jackets or shirts, but they didn’t flaunt it.
We had now seen members of four of the five main political clans that controlled Sif, and three of them were hanging out and drinking at the same brothel. I wondered what the regular people of the city did for entertainment, because I wouldn’t feel too comfortable spending an evening downtown if I was one of them.
The stage was in the back, but hardly anyone was paying attention to the band, including the members of the band. Their shambolic performance was off-key, off-rhythm, and under-motivated. Empty beer cans littered the floor at their feet, although I suspect a number of them might have been thrown there. There were tables in front of the stage, but the only people using one were an amorous couple. I wasn’t sure if their encounter was business or pleasure, but a security guard was leaning over and whispering something fiercely in the man’s ear while reaching discreetly for a stun baton.
Raven leaned in. “Don’t stare at the nice local perverts, Tycho. Come upstairs.”
“Hmm? Come upstairs?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m done playing around for tonight. I want to check something, and I need some backup. If you can get your mind on work, that is.”
I wasn’t technically working, but I followed her up the staircase anyway. As we went up, I heard the sound of a table collapsing, followed by the crackle of the electric baton. The crowd laughed at whatever had happened, and someone shattered a glass on the floor.
When we got upstairs, we found a woman waiting at a little table. She wore thick, dark makeup and had big puffy hair, and she looked at us with jaded eyes. “No outside couples. House girls only. Unless you’re hiring one for both of you.”
Raven put a hand to her mouth. “You read my mind. Can we get a room overlooking the street?”
“No rooms, just booths. But knock yourselves out. Booth 6 on the left.”
Raven reached for her wallet, but the old woman stopped her. “Pay the girl directly. She’ll tell you her price. I can send you a brunette, or… no, just a brunette.”
“A brunette will be fine.” Raven walked toward Booth 6, and I followed behind her with my eyes on my feet.
When we reached the booth, a woman with curly brown hair and a leather skirt came wandering over. “Hey, I’m Chantelle. Should we talk about what you want?”
Raven whispered something to her and Chantelle nodded, then took her payment and went away. I followed my companion into the booth.
“What was it you wanted to check?”
She was leaning across the bed as if setting up a sniper rifle, aiming at a window across the street diagonally. “Do you know what those windows are?”
“I’m a little disoriented.”
“Those are the windows of the apartment just above the fish and chips shop.”
“Huh. Okay, that’s interesting. So, the one common denominator so far is that building?”
“That apartment if I had to guess. We have one more place to check, right?”
“Right. A gaming hall called the Iron Mountain.”
“And where’s it located?”
I checked my dataspike. Sure enough, it was on the other side of the same building. “It’s on Egil Street, so it ought to have a view of the back of the restaurant.”
“It might, it might not. We have to confirm, not assume. But if it does, we have our answer.”
She stood up, and I followed her again. The old woman looked at us, took a drag on her cigarette, and said. “Well, that was fast. Hope it was a special experience.”
We heard a gunshot from downstairs, and more sounds of breaking glass. Then more laughter.
“Do you have a back way out?” asked Raven.
“Does a fish swim? Just keep going past Booth 10, you’ll find it down that way.”
We made our exit and soon found ourselves on the street again. “It’s a great place to visit,” I quipped. “But I wouldn’t want to live here.”
“Oh, I don’t know. With a suit of Arbiter armor, you could probably clear up most of the problems here in an afternoon and then live like a king at the Mary Rose.”
I made a mental note to send a memo: Arbiter armor not to be shipped via Northwest Passage. The idea of anyone from Sif getting their hands on one of our combat suits was mildly terrifying.
The cross street we were on was home to several restaurants, including one called Indian Restaurant and another one called Russo-Chinese Restaurant. Despite the unimaginative names there were people in both of them, enjoying a night out just a few steps from the brothel. I glanced in the windows as we walked past, but the patrons of both places turned their faces away and stared into their bowls. It probably didn’t pay to look out the window too often in this town.
When we turned the corner onto Egil Street, I stopped dead in my tracks. “Is that what I think it is?”
“It can’t be… oh shit, it is! Tycho, that’s crazy!”
The owners of the Iron Mountain were the Polar Bear clan, and true to their name they had a polar bear out front. Not a banner hanging over the door, an actual polar bear. It was chained up just far enough from the door and the street that it couldn’t reach the guests, and it was chewing on what looked like a dog carcass to keep it happy. It seemed healthier than the other local bears I’d seen. The Polar Bear clan had an absolute lock on the Sanitation and Treasury departments in Sif, and they were showing off their power and prosperity.
“I don’t really want to go over there, Raven.”
“I don’t blame you, Tycho. But we don’t need to go in, we see what we need to see from here.”
Sure enough, the building across the street from the Iron Mountain was the same building as the fish and chips shop, and anyone on the second floor of the gambling establishment would be able to see into the apartment upstairs if the blinds hadn’t been closed.
The door on the first floor had a sign that read: Rooms for Rent, Pay by the Week. No ID? NO PROBLEM. As we read the sign, a man with a bleeding wound on his left cheek staggered up to the door, and I recognized him as the man who had been knocked down and kicked for stealing fish a little while before.
He used his keycard to get in, and although he glanced at us as we slipped in behind him, he didn’t question our presence. With shoulders hunched, he hurried to a door on the first floor and got it open. For just a moment, the overpowering stench of raw fish wafted out, then the door clicked shut.
“That goddamn fish thief.” I shook my head.
“We need to get upstairs.”
Raven found the stairwell, and we crept up the steps as silently as possible, which wasn’t really that silent, as the stairs creaked loudly enough to warn anyone listening that someone was coming up. When we got up top, we found only a single door. The rental rooms were downstairs behind the fish and chips shop, but the top floor was a single apartment. The sign on the door read SLIP RENT UNDER DOOR. OTHERWISE, KEEP OUT.
I held back when I saw the sign, unsure of what I would say if anyone challenged us. Raven shook her head at me and turned the door handle slowly. It wasn’t locked, and it swung open with a gentle push.
She whispered in my ear. “If you had a sign like that, would you leave your door unlocked?”
I shook my head and drew my sidearm, and she did the same. As we stepped in, I reached around for a switch and turned the lights on.
The place had either been tossed, or whoever had lived here was worse than a slob. There were papers everywhere, and drawers had been emptied all over the floor. Some things had been broken, including an old vase. A lamp was knocked over.
Raven’s nose curled up a little. “I smell blood.”
“That’s quite a talent to have. Let’s sweep the whole place.”
We went room by room. When we found the dead man, he was seated in a chair with his head slumped back. There was one entrance wound in his chest and one in his head, and a splatter behind him on the wall.
I opened a channel to Andrea. “We found their mark. Looks like they found him first, though.”
“I’m on my way.”
The dead man had a funny look on his face, like getting murdered had taken him completely by surprise. The chair he was sat in was an expensive new swivel chair with scraps of the plastic it had been shipped in still clinging to it here and there. I wondered how much of the furniture in Sif had been appropriated from some container ship over the past few years. There was probably an auction house or a black-market store somewhere to distribute it all.
He was sitting in front of a desk with a pile of papers on it, including what looked like rent payments from the tenants downstairs. Some of the tenants had paid in local scrip. Paper money was hardly used at all in the big cities, but some smaller communities issued their own on a time-credit basis. Some had paid in IOUs, including one that read “IOU ten pounds Trout.”
In Sif, you could apparently pay your rent in stolen fish.
“I think this guy was the landlord.”
“What an astute observation,” Raven replied in a sweet voice. She was busy checking the dead man’s pockets. “See if you can find anything that would tell us who he is. I can’t find any ID.”
It stood to reason that a landlord with no ID would also be understanding about tenants with no ID. “He could be a fugitive. It’s not a bad plan for staying hidden.”
“Sure. Pick a remote community known for lawlessness, pay cash for some income-producing property, and leave the paperwork out of it. You see the same thing out in the colonies sometimes. Plenty of small planetoids have bar owners wanted for multiple felonies back here on Earth.”
“I wonder how they’d feel if they knew they could have just come here instead. But how does he connect to our mission? Until we know who he is, it almost doesn’t matter that we found him.”
“Well, let’s give Thomas something to do. Hold on.” I leaned over the body and activated the facial topography app on my dataspike. When the app was done, I sent the scan to Thomas Young along with a message: Can you ID this guy?
I knew he’d be working on something, and he wouldn’t want to interrupt whatever he was doing to do me a favor. With the way I’d phrased it, any failure to respond on his part would look like an admission that he couldn’t do it. If there was one thing Young couldn’t tolerate, it would be the suggestion there was a problem he couldn’t solve.
His return message was not too friendly: You manipulative twat. Of course I can do it. Give me a few minutes.
I grinned. He saw right through me but still couldn’t help himself.
Raven raised an eyebrow. “Did you just send that to Young? He’s not going to help you. Young never helps anyone except Andrea.”
“He just agreed.”
“Then I’m impressed. I’m never flirting with you again, you’re too good at game-playing.”
I winked at her and she rolled her eyes. Then I looked around, trying to reconstruct what might have happened. As an Arbiter, I’m technically in law enforcement, but the laws I enforce are mostly the big ones, stuff like war crimes and treason and attempted genocide. I’d learned how to analyze a simple crime scene in the Arbiter Academy, but it was mostly theory. Still—
“I can see you trying to remember how that chapter in your textbook went,” teased Raven.
“Yeah, I don’t have tons of practical experience with this. But let’s see what I can come up with while we’re waiting for Thomas.”
I went back to the first room we’d cleared—a simple bedroom, with an old bureau and a cheap frame bed. Someone had dumped out all the bureau drawers and strewn the contents of the closet all over the room. There was a poster on the wall, but it didn’t seem to fit the life of a cash-and-barter slumlord in the city of Sif. It was a faded image of a hand holding up a torch, and an androgynous figure staring heroically into the distance in front of a soaring bridge. Across the bottom, the poster had the words “NEW LIFE 2835: VISIONARIES ON THE VOLGA.”
The windows in this room looked out on the front of the Mary Rose at a diagonal angle. Anyone lying in Booth 6 with a sniper rifle could have taken out whoever was in here as soon as they showed their face.
I looked through the kitchen, where someone had also been dumping items out intentionally. Himalayan pink salt was all over the floor, along with multi-colored peppercorns and a bottle of truffle oil. Again, this didn’t quite fit. The pink salt and peppercorns, sure, but that truffle oil is an acquired taste, and Nunavut is not the place to acquire it. There was a pan in the sink, and even though it must have been sitting there for hours it still smelled like something you’d order off a menu with just four items on it. Whoever this landlord was, he had a taste for the good life.
I walked through the living room—the room with the door—but couldn’t see anything that stood out other than the obvious fact that someone had either been looking for something or just deliberately wrecking the place. We’d found the body in the office, but there was another room beyond it. I went through and found that it looked out on the Iron Mountain across the street. The polar bear had finished his food and was straining at the end of his chain to sniff at customers on their way in or out. One of them was laughing about it drunkenly while his partner shrunk away. The security guard was trying to calm them all, especially the bear. I let the blinds fall back and looked around.
There was hardly anything in this room except a mattress in one corner, with a thin pillow and a brown blanket. Two people had been staying here, one in a bedroom with a single poster for decoration, the other in this empty room with no decoration at all. They hardly even had a life here, just an off-the-books business and an apartment that would have seemed oppressive to your average prisoner. Yet at least one of them had a taste for gourmet cooking.
The only thing in that room other than the mattress and bedding was a small but extremely expensive signal booster on one wall, allowing the inhabitants to connect to any computer system in the world at the fastest possible speeds.
Raven was pointing at the chair when I came back to the office. “Look. The exit wound goes through the chair back. He was sitting down when they got him.”
She swiveled the chair around, and I saw that she was right. The bullet had blasted a gaping hole in the back, exposing blood-splattered foam and fiberboard underneath. The chair wasn’t as nice as it looked. It was kind of cheap.
“At least it was quick. If they shot him in the chest the second they saw him, then he didn’t suffer much.”
“That makes sense, Tycho, but check this out.” She pointed from the dead man to the living room. “There’s a line of sight from the entrance of the apartment to the chair, so whoever shot him could have done so after stepping around the open door.”
I looked where she was pointing. “Yeah, that tracks. He was sitting here going through his IOUs, probably deciding whether to have trout or… let’s see, frozen curry for dinner. If I read this guy right, he would have gone for the trout. The door opens, he turns around with this surprised look on his face, and they shoot him in the chest. Then he sits there staring down at his wound, and they walk over and shoot him straight in the head to finish him off.”
“Did you find anything in the back room?”
“A mattress and a signal booster. Whoever these guys were, they put a high priority on high-speed network access.”
“So there were two people living here?”
I nodded. “There were two people staying here. The setup in back looks like an improvised guestroom, not a place where someone was living long term. My guess is that the only one living here was this guy.”
“Which implies that they didn’t get the wrong guy. He was the intended target. Hold on.” She went back to check for herself, then returned a second later. “That signal booster is top of the line. Katori Tech, which just happens to be owned by Huxley Industries.”
“Well, what else would it be? Katori’s signal boosters are the best.”
“It’s a Katori 383. Really new. It’s not technically impossible that the landlord could have gotten his hands on one, but it’s more likely the guest brought it with him.”
“Okay, so he’s the tech guy. He might have been the one doing the fancy cooking too. Expensive tech, expensive tastes…”
“That’s possible,” she said. “But still, I think we’re going to find out that this all connects to everything else somehow.”
“I’d certainly like to think so. I’m not exactly thrilled about my prospects with whoever handles policing here in Sif.”
“If you were a cop here, you’d walk around staring at the sidewalk all day and blushing every time one of the hookers glanced at you.”
“You’re probably right. Hold on, what’s this?” I stood up and walked over to the door, then ran my finger along a curved gash in the wood. On the floor nearby, there was a broken bottle. Unlike all the other shattered things in this destroyed apartment, it looked more like an improvised weapon than anything else. “Do you think that bottle could have made this mark?”
She came over for a closer look. “Sure. But if they shot Mr. Landlord while he was sitting down….”
“Then the struggle was with a third party.”
She bit her lip. “There’s only one body, though.”
“So he got away. Let’s say he was in the kitchen when they came in, so he broke a bottle and came at them berserker style. He cut his way out.”
“If he cut his way out, they why isn’t there any blood?” she asked.
“Because cyborgs don’t bleed?” I shook my head, unsatisfied. I wasn’t sure about my own analysis. I’d fought the cyborgs myself, and I wouldn’t have rated my chances against them with nothing but a broken bottle. Anyone who could cut his way to safety in that situation must be death on wheels.
My dataspike alerted me to an incoming call, which turned out to be from Thomas Young. His face appeared in front of me, looking as self-satisfied as always but far from amused.
“I have the dead man’s ID. His name was Misha Orlow, and he was a civil engineer. He won an award once at a major conference…”
“Let me guess, the New Life conference eighteen years ago?”
“Visionaries on the Volga? Yes, that’s the one, New Life is an annual engineering conference. Does it really matter?”
“Just confirming something.” In Misha Orlow’s lonely life, that award was the one and only thing he had wanted to be reminded of. “So, what’s he doing up here?”
“He’s not a fugitive, if that’s what you’re thinking. As far as I can tell, he just decided to drop off the face of the map. We’ll get to that in a minute. Do you want to hear the rest of what I’ve found out or not?”
“No question about it, Thomas. Go ahead.”
“So, first things first: his kids don’t speak to him. Or didn’t speak to him. They’ve been estranged for years.”
I noted the change in tense but didn’t say anything right away. I didn’t think Thomas would appreciate being interrupted again.
“Still, considering that they don’t have any contact with him, the timing of all this is… statistically remote. When this man died, his entire family line died with him.”
“But that happens, right? Lonely guy in the middle of nowhere dies alone, and part of why he’s alone is because he doesn’t have any family left.”
Except he didn’t die alone. Someone was here with him, sleeping on a bare mattress in the other room.
“It’s the timing of it, as I said. His wife Elena died fifteen years ago of Alzheimer’s disease. That was three years after he won his big award, and things didn’t exactly perk up for him after that. The estrangement from his children seems to date to around that time. They had sporadic contact for a few years after that, but no contact with any of his kids for the past decade. No contact with anyone, including former colleagues. I’m guessing he was already in Sif by that time. It was like he just didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone anymore.”
Part of me wondered how Thomas knew so much, and how he had discovered it so quickly, but I had seen him in action. The man who could take control of an entire android army on Venus could certainly get his hands on Misha Orlow’s personal data.
Thomas continued. “What’s strange about the timing is that he had two adult children, Lara and Quentin Orlow, and both are recently deceased.”
Young looked worried, or maybe “perturbed” would be a better word. I didn’t think he was worried about the people involved, though. It was more likely the statistical anomaly that was bothering him.
“Well, how recently are we talking?”
“Quentin Orlow was killed in an armed robbery just two days ago. Masked men came into his place of business—Orlow’s Dataspike Repair—and shot him dead. He didn’t have any children. Lara Orlow and her entire family were killed yesterday in a fire. From that point on, Misha Orlow had no living relatives. Then someone tracked him down and killed him.”
“One is chance, two is a pattern…” I said.
“Just something I’m thinking about. And there’s nothing in his record to indicate why his kids stopped talking to him, or why he came up here to Sif and started renting out rooms?”
“My analysis rates it as psychological, a reaction to his wife’s death. He grew up without a father but started a family of his own. When he lost his wife, he also cut off his family. Her death was probably the triggering event for an underlying personality issue.”
“What happened to his father?”
“No info available. Father is unknown.”
“So, he disappeared just like his father had. Huh.”
Thomas shrugged. “I suppose. The interesting question is the apparent coincidence.”
“And it may only be an apparent coincidence. Thanks, Thomas. I have to go. I’ll keep in touch.”
“There’s really no need.”
His face disappeared, and I shook my head. “What a friendly man.”
“Thomas isn’t like other people.” Raven was looking out the window. She wasn’t tense, but her body language still looked anxious. “What was he saying?”
“Both of this guy’s kids were killed in the past few days. One in a robbery, one in a fire. He was the last living member of his family.”
She turned and looked at the dead man. “Hmmm. He doesn’t look like the sort of fellow to be involved in a vendetta.”
“Strange, though, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, a bit. Doesn’t it seem like Andrea is taking a while, though?”
“Now that I think of it, yeah. Do you want to go out and look around for her?”
She shook her head. “Without my rifle, I feel naked. If there’s trouble coming, I won’t be much more use than you will.”
“No offense, Tycho. That didn’t come out the way I meant it to.”
These spies from Section 9 all had a huge tendency to be condescending. I wondered if that would change if I ever accepted their job offer, or if they would just keep acting that way.
“Look, we’re assuming the Augmen were behind this, but we haven’t proved it. Let’s see if we can find some hard evidence.”
She nodded. “Sure. I’ll check this room and the back room; you check the others.”
I don’t even know why I was doing this exactly, because it’s not like we were trying to build a criminal case. Section 9 was off the books; even if they arrested someone, they had to find a way to do it through legal channels. Circumstantial evidence was all we needed for our purposes. I was mostly just trying to change the topic and kill a little time while we waited for Andrea.
Either way, I found something. It was in the living room, the place where I thought the struggle had most likely happened. Something glinted in the light, and when I leaned in to see what it was, I found a few fragments of pleximesh skin embedded in the wall.
I touched one of the pleximesh scraps with my finger and pulled it away, wondering what bits of android skin would be doing here and how they would have become embedded in the wall in the first place. Then I noticed something else, something that looked like a silver paste. When I scraped at it with my finger, it turned out to be bits of an odd metallic composite, similar to the silica fiber lining of an android proxy joint.
“Yeah?” She came out from the back, and I brought her the sample I had just taken.
“What does that look like to you?”
Her brow furrowed. “Huh. Pleximesh skin, like on an android? And that composite…”
We were both interrupted at the same time by our dataspikes alerting us to an incoming group call from Andrea.
Raven pulled out a little plastic container and handed it to me. “Bring that with us, it might be important.”
She took the call, and I opened up the small container and scraped the skin and composite fragments into it. I heard Raven saying, “What? Where are you?” Then I clicked the sample container shut, slipped it in my pocket, and joined the call.
The only thing I could hear at first was Andrea breathing. That made me nervous on its own, because anything that could make Andrea Capanelli breathe heavily had to be bad news indeed. Raven looked me in the eyes and put a finger to her lips, telling me to stay silent as long as Andrea did. She must be in danger, or she would never have gone silent right after calling us.
All we could do was sit and wait, but I went to the window in the back to see if there was anything out there that could give me a clue to what was going on. The only thing I could see at first was that the street was empty, but then I figured out why that was bothering me. The polar bear was gone.
Moving a chained-up polar bear is something you just don’t do on a whim, but the people at the Iron Mountain had done it. Not only that, but their security guard seemed to have retreated inside, and their lights were out.
With a sense of approaching doom, I crossed the apartment as quietly as I could and checked the windows in the front. The Mary Rose was just shutting its lights down, and someone was closing the doors. As the lights flicked out, I could see through the windows that none of the chairs were stacked up. This wasn’t closing time; this was something else.
Raven looked at me again and sent a dataspike message. What?
The polar bear’s gone. Lights are out on both sides. Something’s happening.
Be ready to move. Stay away from windows.
We could still hear Andrea breathing over the dataspike, but I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t just sending us a message. If she was in so much danger that she couldn’t spare any of her attention…
I heard something else. A voice talking in the background, behind Andrea’s breathing. “Get around back but stay out of sight. Don’t alert the target; you know his training.” Wherever she was, she was within a few feet of whoever had just said that.
This was a raid of some kind, but who was carrying it out? Corporate mercenaries, or StateSec maybe? Were they about to bust one of Sif’s organized crime families, or had they figured out we were here somehow, and they were coming to kill us?
Raven motioned for me to draw my weapon, and she did the same even though she was clearly reluctant to use anything other than her familiar rifle.
When the silence broke, it was like a dam bursting. There was a rattle of gunfire, and it sounded like it was happening right next to my head. It even echoed, although I realized a moment later that I was hearing the same sounds twice. Every shot I heard over my dataspike was followed a fraction of a second later by the same sound from outside. Andrea was close, which meant the raid was happening somewhere nearby and she was right in the thick of it. She must have crept up on the attackers with her thermoptic camouflage, then jumped up without warning and opened fire.
Glass exploded all over the floor in the back, and a bullet whined its way through the wall and up into the ceiling. Andrea’s voice came through the dataspike.
“Get out of the building! Get out now!”
We bolted, startled into movement by the urgency in her voice. Windows burst on both sides at once, and I heard the dull clunk of gas grenades as they hit the floor, followed by the hissing sound of the gas dispersing.
I threw the door open, knowing we only had seconds before the gas overpowered us. Whoever this was, they were definitely here for us—or, more likely, for me. They probably wouldn’t know who Raven was, but if they had tracked me down somehow, they’d kill anyone who happened to be with me.
I ran down the staircase, fully expecting to meet a cyborg killer on his way up to finish what they’d started back in the city. I didn’t see anyone on the stairs, but the fish thief was poking his head out when I got down to the hallway below.
“Are they raiding the Iron Mountain?” he asked me, confused.
I hadn’t expected to ever speak with the man, but I gestured with my gun for him to get back in his apartment. “Get down on the floor and stay away from the windows, this is going to get bad!”
“Okay. I already left my IOU by the way.”
I didn’t know who he thought we were, but if we were welcome to go in the landlord’s apartment then we must be someone he could talk to about his rent.
He disappeared behind the door, and Raven and I tore down the hallway. The door opened, and another grenade came sailing in. I fully expected to be ripped to shreds and filled with shards of jagged metal in the next two seconds because we had nowhere to run, but it turned out not to be fragmentation grenade. Instead it was a concussion grenade, a “flash-bang,” intended for stunning a target into terrified submission.
I couldn’t tell why the Augmen were trying to stun me rather than blow me up, but I didn’t have time to think about it. In accordance with my training, I wrapped both arms around my head and pressed them tight against my ears, while turning away from the grenade.
When it went off, the flash of light was so bright that it seared a photographic image of Raven’s face onto the space in front of me, which lingered for several seconds before fading away. At least I knew she had covered her ears, because I could see it in that fading image. The bang was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else for several seconds, which might as well be an eternity when people are shooting at you. I spun around in agony and fell to the floor, stunned into helplessness. Raven did the same.
The explosion outside was so powerful it shook the building, and the flash of light under the door frame was so bright it left me blinded again, just as my sight was starting to come back from the flash-bang grenade. I couldn’t recover right away, or even get myself oriented well enough to realize that whatever had caused the explosion had probably saved me from whoever was about to come in the door.
When enough time had passed for my head to clear a little, I dragged myself to my knees and then my feet. I still couldn’t hear properly, but I was able to stagger over to Raven and helped her up.
She shook her head with a violent gesture, like she was trying to shake off the aftereffects of the concussion grenade. Then she sent me a dataspike message. What was that?
I shrugged, knowing that she must not be able to hear any better than I could. We held onto each other’s arms for a minute so we wouldn’t fall over, then limped back to the door. There was no way to know what was on the other side until we opened it, but opening it exposed us to potential attack. The door solved that problem for us by falling off its hinges, sinking slowly, and then clattering to the floor. I had to jump back a little so it wouldn’t land on my toes.
On the street outside, there was a small crater, black around the edges. Raven laughed, and I looked at her and shook my head. She must be losing her mind, to laugh at a smoking crater in the middle of the street. She started to send me a message: It’s Andrea… fuck it, then she leaned in and put her mouth over my ear.
“Andrea had a rocket launcher, she kept it in the car! She must have seen them coming after us and fired the rocket launcher to drive them back!”
From a nearby street, I could hear the sound of a firefight. “Come on, we’ve got to get to her!”
It isn’t realistic to carry on long conversations via dataspike message, because the subvocalization-to-text software is just too irritating. You either have to subvocalize with the most painstaking care, or words get messed up and sent incorrectly, sometimes in embarrassing ways. However, neither of us could really hear the other yet. There was nothing we could do except yell and keep all communication as simple as possible.
I was feeling steady now, so I started toward the sound of gunfire at a swift jog. As we ran down the street, every business we passed was closing its doors. I glanced at the windows as I ran by and saw men and women with guns, peering out with masks over their faces. The clan militias that dominated this city must be in a panic, thinking an all-out clan war was breaking out.
A block or two from Misha Orlow’s place, we ran past City Hall. By far the most impressive structure in Sif, City Hall featured marble pillars along the front and a row of battlements along the top. Behind the battlements, armed men paced along the roof. As we passed their location, a single shot chipped the pavement a few feet away from me.
Raven glanced over her shoulder. “They’re shooting at us!”
They certainly were. It’s a good thing that untrained militiamen are not usually good shots, because neither of us were wearing any kind of armor. They fired down the street at us as we ran by, but only succeeded in breaking out the window of a bakery and putting holes in a few cars. I was glad they didn’t get any closer, because then I would have had to shoot at them too, and I didn’t have any quarrel with Sif’s gangster-politician families.
We only ran a few blocks, but that wasn’t the only time we were shot at before we caught up with Andrea. A group of Polar Bear fighters opened fire on us from behind a dump truck, and a civilian with no obvious clan affiliation took three shots in our general direction from an upstairs window.
My dislike of Sif was growing by the minute, and my reluctance to kill its inhabitants faded every time one of them took a potshot at me. If whatever was going on right now caused a full-scale gang war, a lot of the locals were going to die. On the other hand, it would take most of them a long time to die because they just couldn’t hit anything.
I heard a BOOM and saw a flash of light and knew that Andrea must have fired her rocket launcher somewhere nearby. With her thermoptic camouflage, she could wait in hiding anywhere she wanted and then unleash a powerful rocket, maybe even powerful enough to give the Augmen pause. Whether they were scared or not, they certainly seemed to be retreating in the face of this invisible threat.
“We’re almost there!” I called, and Raven nodded. Just one more corner, and we would join the fight, but with our sidearms it wasn’t at all clear that we could make any difference. I knew for a fact that they wouldn’t hurt the cyborgs, so trying to catch up with Andrea was arguably a suicide mission. On the other hand, we didn’t have anywhere else to go.
I stopped short. “What are we doing?” I yelled. “We can’t fight them with these!”
To my great surprise, Andrea suddenly stepped out of camouflage and tossed something to Raven without warning. Her sniper rifle. Raven caught it in midair and gave a whoop, and Andrea turned to me.
“Turns out we should have gone in heavy. Keep your head down, and we’ll try to get you out of here alive. This is going to be dicey, though.”
She disappeared again, leaving me the only person in this gunfight who couldn’t hurt the enemy at all. Raven’s rifle was not extended yet, so she slung it over her shoulder. “We need to get to cover. You can be my spotter.”
She turned and ran, heading for a nearby building. I was happy to follow, knowing that my weapon was all but useless. As we got to the door, it slammed open and a man with a wild red beard peered out. He was armed with a shotgun and aiming it directly at my face. “This is my hole. Fuck off and find your own!”
I turned out of the line of fire, then yanked on the shotgun barrel so hard that the man stumbled forward. He fell to his knees on the street, and I threw the shotgun down next to him then slipped through the door behind Raven. We closed the door and locked it behind us, leaving him out there to find whatever hiding spot he could.
Raven laughed. “That was kind of rude!”
“If he hadn’t stuck that gun in my face, I wouldn’t have done it. Come on.”
We were in an office building. The fact that Sif had office buildings was a little hard for me to credit, but it wasn’t something I was going to worry about right then. We ran up three stories to the top floor, then pushed our way into a doctor’ office.
“Alright, spot me a target,” she said, unslinging her rifle. I looked out the window, expecting to see one of the Augmen somewhere below me. What I saw instead was an armored Arbiter turning his head from side to side and advancing cautiously down the street. A few feet behind him, a second Arbiter brought up the rear.
“What the fuck?!”
She came up behind me, glanced out at the men below us, and frowned. “Huh. An Arbiter drop team. What are they doing here?”
Andrea appeared, kneeling down to aim her rocket launcher from the end of the block. The Arbiters fired at her but fell back rapidly. Their bullets hit the windows behind her head, showering her with shards of glass. She dropped back into camo without firing her rocket.
“I have to get down there!” I stood up. “There’s some kind of misunderstanding!”
“Good idea. You get them talking and try to do it down there where I can see you.”
“Don’t shoot at anyone, Raven, those are Arbiters!”
“They’re also shooting at Andrea, so if you don’t want me to kill them, you’d better get them to stop. I don’t know what’s going on down there, but if they keep it up much longer, I won’t be able to stop something bad from happening.”
I turned and ran without another word and was back on the street inside of a minute. The Arbiters had retreated, but I could still hear shooting from a block away. Couldn’t Andrea see they were wearing Arbiter uniforms?
There was another flash, and all the windows along the street exploded. More shards of glass fell everywhere, and I covered my head with both arms. I heard the sound of running feet, and Andrea dropped out of camo. “What are you doing out here, Tycho? I’m out of rockets, I can’t hold them back any longer!”
“What are you doing?” I yelled. “Why are you fighting Arbiters?”
“Those are the guys who were coming after you. They shot gas grenades in the window and then a concussion grenade through the front door. They would have charged in to finish you off, but I fired that rocket near them. They had to pull back, but they won’t keep retreating now that I’m empty.”
“They’re the ones who fired the grenades?!”
“Yes, it was them.”
“What a fuck up. They must have been there to arrest Misha Orlow for some reason. Or maybe whoever he was staying with.”
“I don’t know, Tycho, but we need to move!”
From the end of the street, the shapes of two Arbiters could clearly be seen. They approached slowly, unsure whether Andrea was out of rockets or not. When they saw us talking, one of the two men leveled his weapon at us. The other one put a hand on his arm to tell him to wait.
“Tycho Barrett! Tycho Barrett, put your weapons down!”
Now that they saw us, the two men began to approach more rapidly. The one who had leveled his weapon went to the right side of the street, and the one who was talking went to the left.
I still didn’t get it. “Misha Orlow’s dead!” I called. I was making assumptions, taking it for granted that they must have been there to arrest Misha. After all, why would the Arbiters be arresting me?
“Barrett, surrender your weapons and lie down on the ground!”
That was when I first recognized Byron’s voice, although my mind still resisted the idea that he was here for me. He was closing in, as rapid and confident as any Arbiter would be, but I wasn’t scared.
“Byron? What are you doing here, Byron?”
“Tycho, surrender your weapons and lie down on the ground! By order of Commander Urich, under the authorization of Director Singh, I’m here to take you into custody for the murder of Sophie Anderson.”
The murder of Sophie Anderson?
The next few seconds were like a fork in the road, one of those moments where your whole future depends on doing one thing instead of another. In some alternate universe, maybe I fell down on the street and just gave up on everything or stood there with my jaw hanging open stupidly while they came in and cuffed me. In that alternate universe, I’m probably still sitting in a prison cell right now. But that’s not what happened, not in the universe we live in.
Instead, I got mad. Mad on a level I can’t even articulate. I had trusted Byron to check on Sophie for me. I had treated him like Gabriel, someone I could count on to have my back. In my stupidity, in my naivete, it had never even occurred to me that they could have gotten to him too.
But of course they could have. They had corrupted a StateSec officer, why couldn’t they do the same with an Arbiter? Everyone has a price, or so they say. I didn’t know Byron well enough to know his price, but with the resources they had already spent on trying to kill me, it would just be one more budget item.
Byron had betrayed me, using my dataspike contact to track me down. I had walked right into it, endangering not only myself but my new friends in Section 9.
And Sophie was dead.
Was he personally involved in killing her? I had no way of knowing, but it didn’t matter. He was trying to frame me for her murder, and that was more than enough.
Sophie was dead, and her blood was on Byron’s hands.
Grief hadn’t hit yet. Anger was first. Rage. It wasn’t really broken down into discrete parts like that. It was more of a feeling, a sick-to-the-stomach lurching sensation, and then white heat.
As Byron and the other Arbiter came running down the street, I leveled my weapon on them and pulled the trigger until the magazine was empty. I was shouting while I shot at them, something incoherent, and I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that I couldn’t pierce their armor.
They could have killed me right then—another possible alternate-universe outcome—but two things stopped them. One was the fact that they wanted to arrest me and my sidearm was no more dangerous to them then a rioter’s brick would have been. The other was Raven, who took her shot as soon as they came into view beneath the window.
Andrea hadn’t really been trying to kill them up until that point. Even the rockets from her launcher had been fired near them, not at them. Her only goal had been to drive them back so we could extract ourselves from the situation without unnecessary bloodshed.
Raven must have been thinking the same way, because she could have targeted the gap between Byron’s chest and throat. Instead, she targeted the gap at the bend of the elbow, putting his right arm out of action. He staggered at the impact and dropped to his knees, and the other Arbiter rushed over to cover him and get him out of the line of sniper fire.
My head came clear, or clear enough that I stopped trying to shoot through Arbiter armor with a simple handgun. I turned and ran, then I ducked back into the office building Raven was shooting from. I reached in my pocket, retrieved another magazine, and clicked it in place. I was thinking clearly now, but the rage hadn’t lessened. Sophie was dead, and Byron was trying to frame me for her murder. There would be a price for that, but if I wanted to stay alive long enough to extract my payment, I would have to think.
Arbiter tactical doctrine relies heavily on technology, because that’s the biggest advantage we have over most of our opponents. It’s against Sol Federation law to sell or possess any weapon capable of piercing Arbiter armor to any of the off-world colonies, the crime Klein and his buddies were accused of committing. Because of this law, Arbiters can wade into battle against far superior numbers and know that they still have the advantage. You can die by mishap, such as a stray bullet getting in through the gaps in your armor. You’re not likely to die in the line of duty just because someone is shooting in your general direction.
When Byron got moving again, his first priority would be to take out the sniper or force her to move. He would probably do that with a grenade volley, after which he would pursue and clear the building. When he came through the door, he would come in hard. A concussion grenade like before? Perhaps, but now that I’d started shooting at him, he would probably go for the kill. He’d kick the door open, send a grenade in, then come in behind it shooting.
In that brief moment, when the door was open but he was relying on his armor to protect him from my handgun, that’s when I would have my chance. I holstered my gun, knowing that it wouldn’t do me any good right now. At this point, I was glad Andrea didn’t have any more rockets. She would have used one to drive him back and protect my position, but I didn’t want her to do that. I was a cornered rat, and I was about to bite the cat.
From the floor upstairs I heard the THUMP of an explosion and knew that Byron was doing exactly what I had expected him to do. There was another THUMP and then another, and by that point I knew that Raven had either escaped the room upstairs or been mangled beyond all recognition. I ran up to the door and crouched up against the wall, counting slowly as I visualized Byron running in for the kill. 3… 2… 1…
The door flew open, and an Arbiter rifle stabbed into the empty space like a spear. I grabbed it with both hands and yanked it forward violently just as the person holding it pulled the trigger. The frag grenade launched, but the weapon was now pointing at a spot on the floor a few feet away. As the Arbiter stumbled forward a few paces and fell, the grenade bounced back up toward his stomach and detonated there.
In that enclosed space, the sound of the explosion was horrific. My ears were ringing again, but worse than that, they were burning. The grenade would have killed me, and killed me in the ugliest way, but the Arbiter’s body took most of the blast. Because of his armor, he wasn’t killed when the grenade went off. He was killed when I jumped on him, wrapped my legs around his body, drew his knife from his utility belt, and stabbed him repeatedly at the weak point under the armpit.
The man went limp on the floor, and I knew right away that he was dead. I grabbed his rifle and managed to get it leveled on the other Arbiter just as he came through the door to help his buddy.
I pulled the trigger three times, and he staggered backward as it punched through his armor and into his body. As he collapsed on the street, I heard him say my name.
So I hadn’t killed Byron; I’d killed the other one. I resolved to fix that error. Consumed with rage, I took the rifle and aimed it under his chin. Andrea slammed into me then, knocking me sideways, and I lost the rifle as I fell over.
Andrea was glaring at me. “Don’t make it worse.”
“He killed Sophie!”
“You don’t know that! Now get your head in the game, or you won’t be alive another hour! StateSec is on the way, they’re flooding this whole city. We need to go to ground!”
I blinked at her stupidly, trying to make sense of what she was saying. StateSec didn’t really have a strong presence in Sif, which meant they would have to fly a strike team in if they wanted to do anything like what she was saying.
Then I heard the roar and saw the dropship come streaking by above our heads. That was exactly what they were doing. In a matter of minutes, the streets would be swarming with StateSec officers. I’d be arrested for murder—not just of Sophie Anderson, but of an Arbiter on duty.
“What are we going to do?” I asked, bewildered. I wasn’t sure if there was anything left to do. I was as good as dead, with all the resources of the solar system stacked against me.
Or maybe not quite all the resources. “I’ll draw them off. We’re all going to scatter in different directions. Get out of this neighborhood and get that wound closed, then meet at the rendezvous.”
She cloaked herself so quickly I didn’t have time to reply. I looked down to see what she was talking about and saw that she was right. Even though the dead Arbiter had taken most of the frag grenade blast, I’d still been hit, and I was bleeding from a wound in my chest. It wasn’t too bad, but it would have to be dealt with. I looked up and she was gone, and I didn’t have any idea where the rendezvous was.
I started running, knowing that I had no chance at all unless I got out of the neighborhood. A small drone shot by above me, then it turned and swooped back in my direction. So, they’d already found me, and if that drone had a shoot-to-kill order—
I turned and jumped, smashing through the window of a store. The drone fired and missed, and I had a moment to savor the pure joy of being wanted “dead or alive.” I scrambled to my feet, knocking over a display of fishing lures. As I ran out the back door and into the street beyond, an image came through on my dataspike of an underground parking deck with a sleek black car in it, license plate 659-SF-DIP. The image included an address and a rendezvous time just one hour away.
I powered down my dataspike, knowing that they could use it to track me. If I couldn’t evade them, there was nothing more my new friends could do for me. My life was over.
The next few hours were strangely like Venus, running and hiding from my enemies in the darkness while they hunted me down. It was a strange night for Sif, a city where the law was never much more than a convenience. There were militia fighters everywhere, but none of the clans wanted a war with the North Atlantic States. The game was power: getting more of it for your own family, not going up against it when you didn’t have to. At first, the clans probably thought that StateSec was there to arrest their chieftains. I heard some gunfire, but it didn’t last long. Whoever was in charge of liaison made the calls they needed to make, and the shooting stopped.
That’s when it got bad, because the clan militias decided to turn out in force as a show of loyalty. StateSec was one thing, but the Polar Bears and the Narwhals ruled these streets. Worse than that, they knew these streets. I cleaned my wound up behind a pile of trash bags where I was lucky enough to find an unopened bandage, while a militia patrol walked by and a drone hovered two streets over.
Come to think of it, it was worse than Venus, at least in one way. In Tower 7, the people who were hunting for me were also law enforcement, but I outranked them as the representative of a higher authority. On the streets of Sif, I represented no authority at all. The godfather of the Snow Wolves, a corrupt machine boss, had more sway with the ruling powers than I could ever expect to have again. It was a lonely thought, but I felt no sorrow over my fall from grace. All I felt was rage, and the determination not to go to the grave alone.
“Hey, Tycho. It’s good to see you. We were starting to wonder if we’d have to leave without you.”
Vincenzo Veraldi, the second in command of Andrea’s team, was leaning on the car, seemingly unconcerned. On my way to the parking deck, I’d had to evade a drone for four blocks and dodge two StateSec patrols and three militia crews. Veraldi looked like he’d spent most of that time catching up on his light reading.
“How do you plan to get out of here?”
“Diplomatic plates. They won’t even question it, and they couldn’t stop us if they did.” He pointed at the license plate: 659-SF-DIP. “Sol Federation Diplomat.”
The door opened, and I crawled in. When I looked in the back, I was relieved to see both Raven and Andrea. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known for sure whether either of them had made it out. Especially Raven, considering the two grenades the Arbiters had fired in her direction.
“It’s good to see you, Tycho.” Raven smiled, but I couldn’t bring myself to smile back. Andrea frowned with concern, but I didn’t react to that either. I closed my eyes and curled up like I planned to sleep for the rest of my life.
It was morning in the safehouse, but it didn’t feel like morning. The sun had risen. Light flooded in through the branches of the trees and shadows played across our faces. I had a cup of coffee in my hands, and I’d slept through the night.
All these things were true, but the fact remained that it didn’t feel like morning. It felt like midnight, a sky without the moon or stars.
I sipped my coffee and stared, not seeing the forest outside. Not seeing anything. I don’t remember thinking, not for those first few minutes when I was sitting there alone. I just looked out that big front window, watching the breeze stir the branches outside. Watching the loons fly by. Watching the world, like I wasn’t part of it.
Andrea came in and sat down across from me in one of the easy chairs. She had coffee too, but she wasn’t sipping at hers. She was looking at me, and the expression on her face was deeply worried. It looked like she didn’t know what to say and wasn’t sure she should be saying anything. She was a warrior, and far more comfortable with setting up an ambush than talking to people about their feelings. For her to have decided she needed to do so, the look on my face must have been something to see.
“Tycho,” she started.
“It doesn’t matter.” My voice was cold, as tense as a coiled spring. “I don’t need you to do anything. I don’t need you to say anything. It doesn’t matter.”
She frowned, and this time she did take a sip of her coffee. Her first attempt had not succeeded, and this wasn’t her strong point anyway. She could walk away and tell herself that at least she’d made the attempt—but she tried again. “You need to talk about it.”
“What do you mean, why? That’s what people do. They talk about the things that bother them. They share their burdens. Let me take a little of the weight off.”
“How? Will it bring her back?”
I’ve seen a lot of death. I’ve caused a lot of it, though I like to think I’ve prevented more. But the people that mattered—Daphne, Gabriel, and now poor Sophie—I couldn’t save any of them. I’d been trained for one purpose, to be an expert at fighting and killing so I could prevent conflicts from getting out of hand. None of it had helped me save anyone I cared about in the first place.
Andrea was staring at me, searching my face for any clue of how to proceed. I didn’t even know why she was trying, especially when I could see she didn’t want to be having this conversation.
“It won’t bring her back. You’re right, Tycho, I can’t help you. I can’t undo any of the things that happened.”
“Right. So, because there’s nothing you can do, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need anything. I’ll just keep moving forward. Until I’ve killed every last one of the bastards. And maybe then I’ll keep killing, we’ll just have to see.”
I took another sip, but even I could see that my hand was shaking.
“You’ve lost a lot, Tycho. But sometimes it can help to talk about what you’ve lost. Even if just a little.”
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing else to say. It wasn’t just that I’d lost Sophie, though that was bad enough. I’d lost my whole life. I wasn’t even an Arbiter anymore, but a wanted killer. And Byron had betrayed me. In the Arbiter Academy, they drill it into your head that your partner is everything. The one you can count on, the one you would lay down your life for. We’d never been close, but it was still supposed to mean something. The man had taken everything I believed in, set it on fire, and then pissed on the ashes. What was there to say about all that?
Andrea suddenly changed direction. “Have you ever read the Hagakure?”
“No. I’m not into that stuff.”
A lot of Arbiters read the Hagakure, or Sun Tzu’s Art of War, or Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. Gabriel always laughed at them for it. He said it was a fantasy, that they wanted to be ancient warriors on some honorable mission because it made them feel better about all the garbage they actually had to do for the Sol Federation on a daily basis. He felt so strongly about it that I stayed away too, although I have to admit I did glance at those books from time to time.
“Well, the Hagakure says this: There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.”
I looked her in the face, impressed in spite of myself. I didn’t know if it was good advice, but it did have a certain obscure profundity. “That isn’t bad. So, what is this purpose? What are we doing?”
She sighed in relief and put down her coffee. “You had me worried for a minute there, but now you sound like yourself again. Come on, Thomas has some things he wants to show us.”
“Doesn’t he always?”
I stood up. It’s not that I felt better. I hardly felt anything, except a dark combination of numbness and rage. It’s just that I wasn’t stuck anymore. I could move again, and I could take steps toward getting justice for Sophie.
Andrea nodded slightly, like a little bow. “Good man. Come on.”
We went downstairs, where Thomas was tinkering with all the things he tinkered with. He looked up when we came in and smiled benevolently. Thomas Young wasn’t always irritated or condescending; when he wanted to show off, he could be downright charming.
“Barrett and Capanelli! Just the people I wanted to see!”
“Sorry we were delayed.” Andrea knew how to handle Thomas, which is to say with extreme caution.
“Think nothing of it. I have things to show you.”
He beckoned Andrea over to a screen that showed an image of what he had under his microscope. It was the fragment of pleximesh skin I’d recovered from Misha Orlow’s apartment. On another screen, I could see the metallic composite I’d collected at the same time.
Andrea leaned in toward the screen. “What am I looking at here?”
“Well, pleximesh skin, of course. And silica fiber joint lining.”
“So, an android?”
“That’s what I was trying to tell Raven when you called us.” I looked closer, but I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. What was Thomas so excited about? “I think the person staying with Misha Orlow wasn’t a person at all, but an android. Which raises the question of why a rent-by-the-week slumlord in the shittiest city on Earth would have an android of his own.”
“I suppose it does,” said Thomas. “But that’s not all. Don’t tell me you aren’t seeing it. I mean, it’s right in front of you.”
“Don’t tell you I’m not seeing what? If you tell me what I’m not supposed to tell you I don’t see, then I’ll tell you I see it.”
Andrea glanced at me, perhaps wondering whether my dry sense of humor was coming back or whether I was just having a nervous breakdown. “We’re going to need you to help us out here, Thomas.”
Although he smiled, I have no doubt that Thomas was simply overjoyed. He got to show us the thing we should have been able to see for ourselves. For a guy like him, it doesn’t get much better than that.
“First, it should be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of android design that both the pleximesh and the composite are identical to the materials used by Huxley Industries.”
“Um… okay.” Andrea frowned. There was nothing I could see in either image that could possibly have given me that information, and Andrea was obviously just as baffled. It looked like neither of us had “a passing knowledge of android design.”
“Second, there’s the little matter of this number right here.”
He pointed at the screen, where a series of numbers tracked different facts about the samples. “Do you see what I’m saying now? That’s the spectral signature.”
“Wait, you mean the radiation exposure?” Andrea was starting to get excited.
Thomas nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right. Just collecting that sample probably took a year off our good Mr. Barrett’s life. I’m joking, Mr. Barrett, it’s not as bad as that.”
“I don’t know why you insist on calling me Mr. Barrett.”
“Because you insist on calling me Thomas.”
That was an awkward moment, but I handled it by just not saying anything at all. He held my gaze until he knew I wasn’t going to say anything, then went back to his rant.
“This is where things start to get intriguing. There aren’t many places you can get an exposure like that. Not many at all. In fact, I’d be willing to bet my next paycheck that the android this sample came from spent at least a year in the ruins of Artorias.”
Artorias. The lost city, people called it. Artorias was ground zero of a large exclusion zone that was flooded with radiation following a containment failure during the early years of boson aperture development. The Artorias Disaster had claimed a thousand lives in the immediate aftermath, and maybe ten thousand more in the years that followed. The city was evacuated, but a lot of those people didn’t really get away. They had already received the dose that would eventually kill them, they just didn’t know it yet.
Now Artorias was a ruin, and it was technically illegal to even enter the zone. The radiation there had been decaying for decades now, but it still wouldn’t be safe for several hundred years. Human nature being what it is, that didn’t mean that no one lived there.
Although the city was still essentially abandoned, a handful of diehard locals, dissident utopians, and desperate fugitives made their homes among the ruins. So did a great many animals, unconcerned with the invisible radiation that still permeated the entire zone.
A few years before, there had been a brief fad for VR docu-gaming set in the exclusion zone. There were people who claimed to find a special beauty in the eerie fusion of human technology and resurgent nature there, although few of them were stupid enough to want to go there in person.
I could finally see what Thomas was so worked up about. “If that android was in Artorias, then so are the answers we’re looking for.”
Andrea gave me a questioning look. “What makes you say that?”
“It just doesn’t make any sense for the Augmen to have hunted down and killed a random man in Sif. We’re talking about a man who takes rent payments in fish, right? Misha Orlow might have been a big deal as a civil engineer, but that was all a long time ago. On the day he died, he was a marginal character. A burnout. But there was something about him we still don’t know, and it has to be connected to our case. The cyborgs tracked him down just like they tracked down Slotin and Graves.”
Thomas nodded slowly. “Yes. That’s not a bad deduction, Tycho.” Why he suddenly switched to my first name I really don’t know, unless he was just being passive-aggressive in some subtle way. From his tone of voice, he was impressed that I could string two thoughts together at all, as he had assumed that to be beyond my meager abilities. “And don’t forget the others.”
“Others?” asked Andrea.
“Yes. When you were all in Sif, Tycho here insisted I identify the dead man for him immediately. So, I identified him, and did a basic check on his known connections. In the 48 hours before Misha Orlow was killed, his son Quentin Orlow was murdered in an apparent armed robbery and his daughter Lara Orlow died with her entire family in a house fire. From the look of it, someone decided to wipe out the entire Orlow family line.”
“That’s some ruthless business,” said Andrea. “So, what do we have here? A washed-up civil engineer with a radioactive android fresh from the ruins of Artorias somehow manages to anger someone powerful and murderous enough to erase his lineage from the Earth. We’re definitely missing some important puzzle pieces.”
“And that brings me back to my point.” I was sure of this, even though I couldn’t prove it yet. “The same cyborgs that tried to kill me, the same ones that attacked your convoy and tried to kill Klein, the same ones that did kill Slotin and Graves, are the ones who murdered Orlow’s entire family and then tracked him down to Sif and put two bullets in him. What’s more likely, that there are two totally separate reasons for all this craziness or only one?”
I didn’t mention Sophie Anderson. For all I knew, Byron had killed her himself.
Thomas was even more condescendingly impressed. “Occam’s razor. Yes.”
“Okay, Tycho, I think you’re right.” Andrea was smiling. “The android is the missing piece. I’d bet two paychecks on that. But where is the android now?”
“Artorias is a place to hide,” I pointed out. “That’s where it came from, and it just tangled with a cyborg hit team and somehow managed to escape. If it was going to go to ground, what better place could it possibly pick?”
Thomas frowned. He’d brought us down here to show off, but now the attention was mostly on me. He turned to his screen and switched to a different display. “All rright, enough of that. Tycho Barrett is capable of basic deduction and we’re all quite happy for him. Now it’s time for Exhibit Two.”
The new screen showed a list of numbers. An extremely long list of numbers. It was nothing but gibberish as far as I was concerned, but the man’s condescension was starting to get to me. I leaned in for a look, racking my brain for any information that might tell me what these numbers were. I could hardly believe it, but I came up with something.
As Andrew Jones had taken great delight in pointing out, they don’t really teach hacking skills at the Arbiter Academy. They mostly just show us how to use a skeleton key, a little device that gives us access to all the backdoors tech companies are legally required to leave for us. Still, they do give us a basic explanation of how the whole thing works. Buried in my memory somewhere was the knowledge that these numbers were routing IDs. Thinking like a detective, I looked for a pattern in the gibberish… and sure enough, there was one.
“This routing ID appears over and over.” I pointed at the screen, indicating several spots on the list where the same number repeated.
The look Thomas gave me then was simply priceless. If his pet dog had suddenly started talking to him, he could not have looked more surprised. “Yes, Tycho. That’s correct!”
“But where are these routing IDs from in the first place?” asked Andrea.
Thomas leaned back in his chair and cupped his hands behind his head. “If you would think back to Constable Ornstein, the sadly corruptible StateSec officer who tried to kill Mr. Barrett, you might recall that she had a replacement dataspike for him. Yes?”
Andrea looked to me. “Yes,” I answered.
“Well, that dataspike was simply rife with spyware. I mean it was crawling with it. That was the whole point of giving it to him in the first place, from her perspective. So that her masters could spy on him if she somehow failed in her mission to eliminate him. As, of course, she did.”
Patient though she was, Andrea was clearly growing annoyed. “The routing IDs, Thomas. Stay focused, please!”
“I’m absolutely focused, I just want to provide all the necessary context and present my conclusions step by step so I don’t get a blank stare and a confused sublinguistic vocalization in response. Yes?”
She cut to the point. “No. Just tell us what you’re talking about!”
“Well. The destination address of the software all leads to different networks, but one routing ID appears multiple times. As Mr. Barrett so correctly pointed out.”
Andrea sighed. “Okay. So, these routing IDs come from Ornstein’s dataspike. You could have just said that. We would have understood.”
“My dear Andrea, I never have any way of knowing what you will understand and what you won’t. It gets quite bewildering.”
Andrea gave him a look that would have made me more than slightly nervous, but the genius didn’t look concerned at all. “One more question, Thomas. Please answer it briefly. Have you identified the source of that routing ID?”
She blinked at him a few times, then sighed. “Okay, fair enough. That was a brief answer, which is what I asked for. But it implies another question.”
“It certainly does. If you’ll allow me to expand, the source of the routing ID is a building owned by Ares Terrestrial. And the same routing ID appears on Ornstein’s own dataspike, which I have of course been snooping on.”
“Ares Terrestrial?” I asked.
Andrea filled me in. “It’s an interplanetary conglomerate headquartered on Mars.”
“On Mars? Why would a Martian company have anything to do with this?” All along, I’d been assuming that Huxley Industries—or at least a faction within Huxley Industries—was responsible for everything that had happened. After all, they were the ones who’d been caught selling illegal weaponry to August Marcenn, and they were the ones who stood to be harmed if Slotin, Graves, or Klein ever got the chance to testify.
“The thing about Occam’s razor is that it cuts both ways,” said Thomas. He was referring to my earlier comment about all the killings. It stood to reason that there was one explanation for it all rather than multiple explanations, especially considering that the same hit team seemed to be carrying out all the assassinations.
I didn’t reply to him, but he expanded on what he was saying anyway. “What Occam originally said was not the simpler of two explanations is more likely to be correct, but we should not multiply entities beyond necessity. Sometimes there’s a necessity.”
Andrea frowned. “Thomas, is there anything else linking Sasha Ivanovich to this case? Anything at all?”
He shook his head. “Nothing else so far. More missing puzzle pieces, I’m afraid. Still, it does stand to reason that this mysterious android of ours may have the answers.”
Now that I thought about it, I had heard of Ares Terrestrial before. At some point on one of my Arbiter missions with Gabriel Anderson I had come across the name, probably in some inconsequential way like talking to one of their employees or something. However, I couldn’t recall ever having heard the name Sasha Ivanovich. “Who is that?” I asked.
Andrea looked at me like she was about to tell me, then made a dismissive gesture. “Just another case.”
In other words, it was yet another need to know situation and I didn’t need to know. I wondered whether it would still be like this if I took the job with Section 9, or if joining the club meant open access. It would be kind of frustrating if I did sign up, only to constantly be told I didn’t need to know anything.
The trapdoor above us opened, and Vincenzo Veraldi stuck his head down. “We have a situation.”
Andrea looked up at him. “Report.”
“That drone of mine has spotted something. A convoy headed this way. Three cars.”
I didn’t know where we were in the first place, but it must be well off the highway system if three cars headed in our direction was enough to constitute a red flag.
“What else can you tell me?” she asked.
“The approaching vehicles are all the same make and model. A match for what the cyborgs in Sif were using.”
“About forty-five minutes.”
“Family meeting in the living room in five.”
“You got it.”
Andrea turned to me. “We have to assume this is a hit team. You’ve fought these things before. What can you tell me?”
“I didn’t exactly fight them so much as run from them. Like I said before, they’re bullet-dodgers. The one time I managed to hit one, he just absorbed it.”
“We have what we need to kill them here, but it isn’t going to be an easy fight. If I get you geared up properly, are you willing to take them on?”
I felt the rage again, like a cold fire somewhere deep inside me. “I’d walk a thousand miles with no shoes for the chance to kill one of these things.”
“Great. You won’t need to do that, though. They’re coming to us.”
She turned to Thomas next, but he spoke before she could.
“Please tell me you’re not about to ask me to destroy everything I’ve been working on for the past several days.”
“Okay, I won’t. I won’t ask you anything. I’ll just give you your orders a few minutes from now in the living room. Before that happens, you might want to take the opportunity to back up anything you can to your dataspike.”
“Have I told you how much I hate you, Andrea?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t listening. You have three minutes.”
Now that the anger had surfaced again, I felt a narrowing of my attention. A laser focus. I didn’t know how yet, but I was going to kill one of these Augmen if it was literally the last thing I did in this life.
Andrea noticed the look on my face. “Come with me, Tycho. I need to talk to you for a second.”
I followed her, and she took me aside into the same room we’d used for a private conversation before we went to Sif. She closed the door and turned to face me.
“I need you to tell me what you’re thinking right now. You need to check in.”
“Me?” I laughed. “Oh, I’m just thinking about the Hagakure.”
“What about it? I told you that quote because I thought it might help you.”
“And it did, to the extent that anything can help me right now. But I’ve glanced at it before, it’s on the Arbiter Top Five list of Bullshit Warrior Wisdom. Gabriel was never into it, but so many Arbiters were that I had a look at it now and then. And there was one passage that kind of got my attention.”
“Yes?” She didn’t seem to like where this was going.
“It was something about not worrying whether you can achieve your mission or not. Like, some people believe that it’s a dog’s death if you can’t accomplish what you set out to do and you just get killed, but to our badass super-samurai author that’s nothing but the frivolous way of sophisticated city people. He says you don’t have to worry about whether you win or lose, you just move straight ahead. Whenever you have a choice between life and death… you choose death.”
She sighed. “Your friend was right, Tycho. That book is dangerous, especially for guys that don’t read a lot of other books. It’s like letting a teenager read Nietzche, or maybe Simkin. They get all worked up about it and forget to take it in context. I know you’re upset right now, but that whole samurai warrior thing was just a death cult. Yeah, the Hagakure has some wisdom in it, that’s why I shared that with you. But don’t go all Bull-shido on me or I’ll have to clip your wings. The idea is for all of us to survive this.”
That got through to me, at least to some extent. She wasn’t technically my commanding officer, but for all intents and purposes that’s what she was. When you’re an officer, the last thing you want is for a member of your team to develop a death wish. That sort of thing can get everyone killed, and the last thing I wanted was to have any more ghosts on my conscience.
The ghosts of friends, I mean.
“Okay, I hear you. I’ll keep my head on straight.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Tycho. Now let’s go meet with the fam.”
The whole team was gathered in the living room for the “family meeting,” with the exception of infiltration specialist Andrew Jones, who was off somewhere infiltrating something. I looked around the room as I entered and saw Raven Sommer, who gave me her usual playful smile despite her threat to stop flirting with me. She was sitting on one of the easy chairs in front of the windows.
A few feet away from her, the massive frame of Jonathan Bray leaned casually against another window. Just seeing him lean on the glass that way made me nervous. I didn’t really understand how it could hold his weight.
To Jonathan’s right, Vincenzo Veraldi sat on one of the couches with his feet up on a footrest. He looked surprisingly relaxed, considering that we would all be fighting for our lives before the hour was out.
Thomas Young came in just after I did, barely making the five-minute deadline. He looked a lot less comfortable than Veraldi, no doubt because he was still fuming about having his work interrupted and potentially losing data.
I sat down on the couch, and Andrea walked to the back wall where she could see all of us at once. “Okay, everyone, here we go. Veraldi’s drone has picked up three approaching vehicles, and we have to assume they contain Augmen and possibly other types of cyborg as well. We’re going to face them and destroy them here, but either way this location is compromised. We don’t know how they found us, but it doesn’t matter. The Grotto is burnt, so we’re moving out to the alternate location.”
“Standard procedure?” asked Veraldi.
Andrea nodded. “Destroy all potential kompromat. Destroy the enemy. Then bug out and never come back here. Let some rich guy with bad taste enjoy it.”
There were slight grins all around the room. So, I wasn’t the only one who noticed the shitty artwork.
“Jobs?” asked Veraldi.
“Thomas, I know you’re not going to like this, but destroy the lab. No traces for anyone to work over.”
He threw his hands up in frustration but didn’t question the wisdom of her decision. It was his destiny to have his brilliant work destroyed again and again by the unpredictable demands of Section 9.
Andrea turned to Bray. “Jonathan, I need you to get Lucien Klein to the hard car and guard him there. If you can’t hold your position, drive off and get him to safety.”
A hard car was an armored vehicle, capable of surviving a direct hit from anything that couldn’t take out a StateSec dropship. Bray stuck his hand up like a schoolchild. “Can I set up?”
Andrea shook her head. “We need to be able to move quickly, and you more than anyone. You’re Klein’s bodyguard till this is over. I can’t have you setting up that artillery piece of yours, not when you might have to drive off at any moment.”
“I can use the little one. It mounts on the roof of the car.”
“The little one, as you call it, is not little at all. Make sure you aim it away from the house only. We don’t need any friendly fire.”
“You’re no fun, but okay.”
“Vincenzo,” she continued. “I’ll need you to set up our perimeter defense. Arm all our mines, our automatic cannons, everything. If you make enough problems for them at the entrance to the access road, it should buy us some extra time to get the evidence wiped.”
“Understood.” I knew he preferred to use his knives, but there probably weren’t nearly as many opportunities for that as he would have liked. Knives are no good except in close range and getting in close with these cyborgs was not going to be easy. Setting up perimeter defense devices was probably his secondary specialization.
“Raven,” said Andrea. “You know what you need to do.”
Raven smiled. “Get up on the roof and take out the cyborgs from above.”
“You got it. I’ll get Tycho geared up. He has a serious interest in killing some cyborgs.”
Bray grimaced. “Really? He doesn’t have our training; he’ll probably just get in the way. No offense, Tycho, you’re a solid guy. If you join the team, I’m sure you’ll be an asset. But… you’re not one of us right now. You ought to be the wheelman.”
“If I thought Tycho would be better as the wheelman, that’s what I’d use him for.” Andrea’s tone was calm, but it did contain a hint of warning. “I need you with Klein, Jonathan. I won’t say it again.”
Thomas perked up. “Look, Andrea, I’m not questioning your authority or whatever you call it, but it won’t take you long to gear Tycho up. If you can spare him for a few minutes first, I’ll need some help with the lab. I can’t clean out something that complicated by myself in only a few minutes.”
“You could if you used an incendiary grenade,” Bray pointed out helpfully. Thomas glared at him.
“Alright, Thomas.” Andrea nodded. “You can have Tycho until the lab’s clear; I’ll use the time to wipe the rest of the house. When you’re all done with that, Tycho can come to me to get what he needs.”
She looked at me to make sure I understood. I nodded in response, and she wrapped up the meeting. “Okay, everyone, we don’t have long. You have your tasks, let’s get them done and get into place. This is going to be a workday!”
Thomas stood up and gestured rather imperiously for me to follow him. We went to the trapdoor and he pulled it open, then turned back at the last moment and spoke to me in a lowered voice. “You must never tell anyone what you’re about to see. It’s a matter of Sol Federation security.”
I didn’t know why he felt the need to even say that, considering that the whole existence of Section 9 was top secret on pain of death. If I couldn’t tell anyone about that, how could I tell anyone about his secret laboratory? But when we got downstairs, I was surprised to see what looked like a game on one of the screens. It was a 19x19 grid, with white and block dots scattered here and there.
“Yes, yes. It’s a baduk gameboard; I was trying to beat the Harimbo AI. No one’s beaten the damn thing in two hundred years now. It has a weakness, I know it, and I think I’m onto something, but I can’t count on one dataspike to back up anything this important. I need you to back it up to yours before I trash this place.”
“Hold on a minute, Thomas. Are you trying to tell me that in between analyzing those cyborg bodies, looking up all that info about Misha Orlow, analyzing the spectral signature on that android material, and tracking down the routing IDs on Ornstein’s dataspike, you’ve also been playing a game against an AI no one’s beaten in two centuries?”
He shrugged. “It’s a little embarrassing, I know. I’m usually much more productive than that. But it’s a bit… sensitive. I’m not technically supposed to be playing baduk on company time, so I can’t ask any of my coworkers to help me with this. I need a favor here, Tycho.”
“So, you didn’t bring me down here because you need my help with anything.You only brought me down here to do an extra backup of your computer game?”
He looked at me blankly. “Why would I ever need your help with anything?”
I sighed. “Fine, Thomas. But if I’m doing you a favor, I get to name my terms.”
“Name away. This is terribly important to me.”
“No more condescension. I get the same basic respect you show everyone else.”
He had the gall to look hurt. “But Tycho, I assure you, I see everyone other than myself as exactly equal.”
“You see them as exactly…? Never mind. I’ll do the damn backup.”
He grinned, pleased to get exactly what he wanted and to get it so cheaply. When I was done backing his game up, he inserted a key drive into one of the screens and it instantly went haywire, showing a random string of digits. Then it bluescreened. “You can go upstairs now.” He waved me away. “I have no further use for you.”
I went upstairs and tracked Andrea down. She smiled when she saw me. “Are you done backing up his game now? Yes, I know. It pays to give a man like Thomas a little breathing room, but you don’t want him to know how much you’re giving him.”
I laughed. “What a strange little man. But yes, I backed his game to my dataspike. Can he really beat that AI?”
“No one can, it’s just the windmill he likes to tilt at. Come with me to the armory, I think you’re going to like what I have for you to play with.”
I wasn’t thinking of this as any kind of play, but a chance to take a little revenge. A small part of what was owed to me—just the interest, really. “Lead the way.”
She paused and gave me a searching look. “I don’t know what I think about the new Tycho Barrett. I’m glad you’re on our side, but I just don’t know.”
I didn’t understand the point of what she was saying. “Doesn’t really matter anyway, does it?”
She gave me a look like what I said might have hurt her feelings somehow. It surprised me, but at the same time I couldn’t make sense of it. Nothing made much sense to me right then.
She shook her head. “Forget I said anything. Come on.”
When we got to the Armory—a large walk-in closet filled with weapons and ammunition—Vicenzo Veraldi gave me a knowing smile. “This is going to be fun, Tycho.”
Andrea turned to go but couldn’t resist a parting comment. “Tycho’s not in a fun mood. He’s the dark, brooding type now.”
This didn’t seem reasonable, considering everything that had happened in my life in the past 48 hours. Andrea Capanelli was a strange one. She would ask you to talk about your feelings, then throw a Hagakure quote at you, then write you off because you weren’t all better yet. When it came right down to it, I didn’t know whose reactions to the situation were more disturbed, hers or mine.
“Don’t mind her.” Veraldi handed me a shotgun, and I heard Andrea’s footsteps receding. “She doesn’t have a lot of patience for trauma. Her own, or anyone else’s. I mean, she tries to help, but it’s all so you can get back to work as quickly as possible. I’m not saying she doesn’t care, but—”
I took the shotgun. “I’m fine. This can’t really do anything to hurt the Augmen though, can it?”
“Right, you’re fine. Dark and brooding it is, then. To answer your question, you’re making a big assumption here. When most people think of Augmen, they’re thinking augmented human. Right?”
“Right. I mean, that’s what they are, isn’t it?”
“Traditionally, yes. But full-body augmentation leaves a lot of room for variation, and some of those variations are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. I take it the ones who attacked you still looked human?”
I shook my head. “I thought so at first, but not entirely. The guy on the monorail had talons for fingers.”
“Well, that’s not the only thing that’s out there. Not by a long shot. In fact, it’s pretty mild. You should expect to see things that don’t look human at all. I wouldn’t think of them as Augmen exactly. Just cyborgs.”
“There’s a still a human foundation, though… right?”
Veraldi shrugged. “I guess.” He reached into the closet and pulled out a bandolier. It held dozens of shotgun shells. Then he pulled out another one and handed them both to me.
I took them and asked, “What am I, Zapata?” The image of me wearing those bandoliers seemed more comical than intimidating. I felt like a should be wearing a bandana over my face.
“Just put those on, they’re definitely your best bet. White phosphorus, one of the ugliest weapons known to humanity.”
I whistled. The thing about white phosphorus is that you can’t put it out once it ignites—not unless you completely deprive it of any trace of oxygen.
“Now you’re getting it, Tycho. You blast one of those cyborgs with a white phosphorus shotgun shell, it will burn its way right through the fucker’s body. Get the idea?”
I got the idea. It might not be instant, but if anything out there could kill these things, this was probably it.
I put on the bandoliers, crossing them over my torso in the classic X shape. With all these shells, I wouldn’t run out of ammo anytime soon. Still, Veraldi wasn’t satisfied. He handed me a pair of strange-looking gloves. Black leather with studs.
“Electric gloves. If you hit anyone hard with more than two of those studs at the same time, the device will trigger. It’s a hell of a shock, but I doubt it will kill a cyborg. On the other hand…”
As I wrestled the gloves on, he pulled out a massive black Bowie knife in a black leather sheath. “Here’s a back-up weapon. I’m fairly confident that you can kill a cyborg with a knife, as long as you sever the head completely from the body.”
I took the knife, but my skepticism about Veraldi’s approach to arming me had returned. “They didn’t teach us anything about headhunting in the Arbiter Force.”
Channeling Andrew Jones, Veraldi simply replied, “Standards are slipping.”
I strapped the knife on and had to admit to myself that it did make me feel a little more confident. Any cyborg in close range would eat a white phosphorus shotgun blast, and any cyborg within reach would get an electric punch, followed by a messy and amateurish decapitation.
“I’m ready. Where do you want me?”
“Well said, Barrett. Thomas Young will be in the basement; his job is to run our surveillance cameras. That’s our only basis for command and control, so we don’t want anything bursting in there and slaughtering him. Could you take a position down there and just keep him alive if anything gets in?”
It felt a bit more defensive than I would have preferred, but I could see the strategic logic of it. Plus, with access to the camera screens, I’d have a better picture of the whole battle than I could hope to have anywhere else. Either way, something told me I’d do my share of the fighting. “Okay.”
“Thanks, Tycho. Happy hunting.”
I left the room and started straight for the basement, but I ran into Andrea along the way. She stopped in the hallway and put a hand on my arm. “Hey, Tycho… I’m sorry about before. I know you’re going through a lot.”
I was confused at first. It took me a minute to even realize what she was talking about. When I got it, I nodded. “It’s okay, Andrea.”
“The truth is, I’m worried about you. But you have to be able to process this in your own way.”
“Yeah.” In reality I had no notion of even trying to “process” anything. I wanted revenge for Sophie Anderson, and I didn’t much care about anything else.
“Okay, well… I’m glad we’re on the same page, then.” She still looked perturbed, but it seemed like she couldn’t put her finger on the reason. “I’ll go set up the diffraction jammer.”
She held up something in her right hand, a piece of tech I’d never seen before.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She smiled. “This is a neat little piece of tech. A diffraction jammer; works somewhat like going dark but with less hassle. The jammer creates alternating false positives on any nearby thermoptic or backscatter scans. It should be harder for the cyborgs to deal with than a complete blackout. It will basically force them to either chase a bunch of ghosts or disregard their scans and find us the old-fashioned way.”
“That ought to help. I’m heading down to the basement to guard Thomas and the surveillance cameras.”
“Yeah, Veraldi and I discussed that a few minutes ago. I’m cutting the power to everything else, but those cameras are hardwired separately. You should still be able to see.”
“Okay. Good luck, Andrea.”
“Good luck, Tycho.”
I went to the trapdoor and crawled down to the basement, where Thomas was now crouched over a single monitor. Everything else had already been wiped clean; the only thing left was this single monitor. It showed a split-screen image—the driveway out front, the car with Klein in it and Bray attaching a small cannon to the top, the empty living room, and Veraldi skulking around in one of the bedrooms. I wondered where Andrea was, then realized I wouldn’t be able to see her for most of the fight. Wherever she was right now, she’d spend the battle for the house in thermoptic camouflage.
“If you’re going to be in here, I would appreciate it if you didn’t spend the whole time looking over my shoulder,” said Thomas Young.
“Sorry, Thomas. If you want me to guard you effectively, I need a good spot to fight from. And the best spot I can see happens to be right here behind you.”
He scoffed but made no further attempt to argue with me. I closed the trapdoor and went back to my position, with my shotgun cradled in my arms and ready. The power went out, leaving the basement in total darkness except for the blue glow of the monitor. By watching the screen, I’d be able to follow the progress of the whole fight from beginning to end and, more importantly, I’d know when it was time to get ready to fight.
The wait was hard, but we didn’t have long by that point. I got in position, with my shotgun covering the basement steps. I saw a flash on one of the screens and realized it must be one of the perimeter mines exploding in the distance. That meant they were close, though whether the mine had caused them any casualties I had no way of knowing. There was another flash, and then another. Then nothing after that.
The last few minutes passed slowly, marked by nothing other than stillness and the sound of breathing. I tried to think—to remember Sophie and my last conversation with her, to conjure her ghost up out of my memories—but it didn’t seem to work. I couldn’t remember a thing she’d said, a thing we’d ever said to each other.
I put her from my mind, knowing it wouldn’t do me any good to think about her anyway. A car pulled up in the driveway, and a cyborg stepped out. I’d call him an Augman—in fact, I was used to calling all of them Augmen, no matter what Veraldi said—but this one was especially manlike.
It had the same neat beard, the same facial features as the one on the monorail. The only difference was the hands, which didn’t seem to be like talons at all. It checked its weapons, two arm attachments that looked like high-tech nunchaku, then it staggered once as a bullet from Raven’s rifle hit it straight in the forehead. The shot should have killed it, if it was anything that still resembled a human. But it just seemed irritated and reached up as if to pull the bullet out.
The second shot hit it in exactly the same spot as the first one. It took a step back and frowned at no one and nothing. I guess it frowned at the world, this strange place where it kept getting shot in the head. And then the third shot hit it, and this time it gave the world a ferocious grimace. It aimed an arm up at the roof and fired something out of one of its arm attachments—a stream of gunfire, dozens of bullets aimed at nothing in particular.
It was then I realized that the impact of the first shot had damaged its mental functions, and it was no longer able to aim effectively even though two further shots in the exact same spot had yet to kill it. That was probably why it never attempted to take cover, but still the sight of it getting shot again and again was downright eerie. It looked like a man, a man with a shitty little beard. Why didn’t it seem to care about being shot in the forehead until it was too late?
Well, it cared now. It was firing wild, taking off roof shingles and blasting out windows. Raven plugged it yet again. This time it bent over at the waist with the most pathetic expression of confusion and then sat down on the hood of its own vehicle. Raven shot it two more times, and it was only after that final shot that the thing finally died. It toppled off the hood, collapsed into the driveway, and lay completely still.
Thomas messaged us all. Multiple shots required to pierce braincase.
Andrea followed this up with a command. Don’t rely on headshot unless no other choice. Or incapacitate first. Raven, move. Position may be exposed.
Two more cars pulled up, and Andrea turned out to be absolutely right. A shape stepped out, and a grenade arced up toward the roof of the Grotto. It went off with a flash but was followed immediately by several others. I couldn’t see what was going on, because one grenade after another was exploding on the rooftop and the flashes were interfering with the surveillance camera. Thomas seemed to be undisturbed as he sent us another message a moment later.
Cyborgs have breached the building. Bray, one on you.
I looked at the screens, and sure enough a cyborg was attempting to breach the garage door to cut off our escape route. As Veraldi had warned, this one was not like the others. It looked immensely muscular, noticeably larger than Bray himself. But that wasn’t all.
As I watched in amazement, the cyborg’s arms split in some way I couldn’t quite see, tearing apart like unfolding tentacles. Two seconds later, the cyborg had four arms where it had previously had only two. With the added purchase this gave him, he was able to get ahold of the garage door in four places and simply rip it from its hinges and toss it aside.
I couldn’t remember ever seeing a display of raw power like that from something that looked even vaguely human, but Bray didn’t waste any time being intimidated. The cannon he’d mounted to the roof of the car blazed into life as soon as the door was tossed aside, and the cyborg staggered backward under the impact of the shots.
It staggered but it didn’t fall. Instead it pressed forward, like a man trying to make headway against a hailstorm. I could see the huge holes the gun was making in the cyborg, but none of them seemed to penetrate far into its body. On the garage camera, I saw Bray’s cannon adjusting upward slightly. He must have decided there was no other choice than to target the head, but the gun just couldn’t aim upward far enough.
The vehicle suddenly lurched forward, smashing directly into the four-armed cyborg. It pushed him forward several feet, and I saw his body stumble backward and fall over on the driveway camera. Bray pulled back a little and then came in again, a process he repeated several times, crushing and mangling the cyborg’s legs. It was a good thing Bray had a hard car, because anything less than that would have crumpled at the repeated impacts with the cyborg’s dense body. At some point in this awful process, a little hole appeared in the middle of the thing’s head and I realized Raven had found a new position to hunt from.
Two cyborgs down, but how many had already entered the house?
On the living room camera, I saw one of the most uncanny sights I had ever seen. In point position, a bearded Augman stepped into view. He raised a hand, and in the infrared light of the security camera I saw the talons I recognized from the monorail.
A few steps behind him, I saw a cyborg with three-digited hands and feet, and legs that resembled a rabbit's. It moved with a strange agility that made the hair on my arms stand up. Behind the rabbit man, there was a cyborg composed of floating, I assumed magnetically connected slices of body parts that moved together like the pieces of a child’s toy as it crept along on furtive feet.
Bringing up the rear was something that didn’t look like it could ever have been a human being. It went on all fours, and its rear legs and hips were like those of a dog… no, not a dog. What it really looked like was a giant wolf with a rotating black ball for a head, a black cord for a tail, and a small cannon mounted on its back.
I could hardly believe what I was looking at, but I’d be getting a closer look at these things soon enough. When the Augman pointed, they fanned out across the house on their search and destroy mission.
They found Veraldi first. The rabbit man came into the room he was in, and Vincenzo went to work with his beloved knives. I’d seen him do this before, but never against an opponent as agile as this one. He attacked from ambush, but the thing dodged his slice as if it was the easiest thing it had ever done. On all three fingers of its right hand, knife blades appeared suddenly. Veraldi dodged as it slashed, but three lines appeared across his shirt.
He sliced again, and the creature dodged just as easily as it had the first time. Its left hand lashed out, knocking Vincenzo’s knife, which went flying across the room. He must have decided to flee, because he dove for the window with a sudden, desperate movement. The rabbit man jumped and got there a half second before he did. It slashed at him again, but it had jumped so close to him this time that he was able to throw his arms up. I couldn’t quite see what had happened, but the next thing I knew Veraldi had the cyborg’s arm in some kind of lock.
His right arm pumped again and again into the thing’s torso, and I realized he must have accessed his backup knife. Unfortunately for him, there was nothing much he could do with the blade from where he was. The rabbit man pulled its left arm back, and the blades in its left hand gleamed as it prepared to stab him directly in the face.
Then it slumped down stupidly and stopped resisting as Andrea’s shot took it in the head. She was only visible for a second or less, but that was all the time the wolf cyborg needed. It dove in from the hallway and knocked her sprawling, then opened up with the cannon on its back as Veraldi turned to face it.
The rabbit man was fast, but Veraldi’s speed in the next second was something I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it myself. He twitched to the side just before the wolf fired, and the cannon shot hit the rabbit man in the face just as it was starting to move again, finishing it off.
Then Andrea did something from underneath, something that made the wolf cyborg roll over to the side in an attempt to escape. Veraldi started to stab at it, but it blasted out the window with its cannon before jumping out and escaping.
Andrea stood up with Veraldi’s help, then dropped back into thermoptic camouflage. The knife fighter slumped, resting for a moment against the back wall. I checked the screens, realizing in a sudden panic that I had no idea where the other two cyborgs were.
Above my head, the trapdoor rattled.
To his credit, Thomas Young didn’t seem to be fazed at all. He heard the rattle, checked the screens, then sent a message. Position compromised. Request assistance.
Then he pushed his chair back, plucked something from his belt, and moved further back into the basement. He clearly expected me to protect him, but other than that he was the perfect stoic.
I aimed up at the trapdoor, and it creaked open. Something drifted down the stairs, and I caught a glimpse of it in the light from the monitor. It was the magnetic man, a creature made up of discrete parts that floated and moved together like an eerie puppet. The way he moved was so alien, I almost didn’t react at all. It just didn’t look like anything I was used to, anything that made sense to me.
When it raised an arm, my training and combat experience saved my life. I pulled the trigger, and the noise and light in that dark basement might as well have been a nuclear explosion. The white phosphorus shell arced across the room, hit one of the magnetic slices of which the creature was made… and bounced away, landing on the basement floor. It lay there smoking and sparking, filling the room with an angry red glow.
The cyborg looked down at its torso as if curious about what exactly had just happened. In its right hand, it was holding the grenade it had been about to prime. It had a mannequin head, a featureless oval that looked as alien as the rest of it. I aimed directly at its face, pulled the trigger again, and watched it stagger back.
The white phosphorus must have burned it, even though it couldn’t seem to pierce the thing’s metallic body. This time the shell skipped off its head, leaving an ugly scorch mark, and buried itself in the wall at the top of the staircase. The wall, predictably, started smoking.
Thomas yelled “get down!” although I could hardly hear him—shotgun blasts in an enclosed space will do that to you—and threw whatever he’d been holding. I flung myself under the desk when I realized what it probably was. I was right. When the grenade went off, the blast was so loud I didn’t even hear it. I just stopped hearing anything at all.
In total silence, I poked my head out from under the table to see what had happened. The blast had ripped a jagged gash in one of the cyborg’s metallic pieces, causing it to flip to one side and knocking all the other pieces that depended on it out of joint. One leg had already collapsed completely.
As I watched, the cyborg tumbled slowly down the basement staircase. Realizing the creature’s fundamental weakness, I scrambled out from under the table and stumbled over to it before it could attempt to rise. Its head was attached to its torso by a metallic spinal cord, but its limbs were all made of those magnetic slices. If I could pull them apart, it wouldn’t be able to do a thing.
I grabbed a piece of its right arm, put a foot on its shoulder to brace myself, and did my best to yank the damn thing completely off. Bolts of electricity burned and arced from my electric gloves, but it wouldn’t budge.
As I was pulling on the cyborg’s arm, my shotgun jumped off my chest and stuck to its body. Worse than that, it punched me in the face with its left hand and time seemed to skip. I saw a burst of tiny lights, had a vague sense that I was falling, then opened my eyes and saw Andrea staring down at me.
“He’s back. Come on, we don’t have time to fuck around.”
She helped me up, but I could hardly see. I no longer had my shotgun. The walls were in flames, and if I didn’t get moving immediately, I had no chance. On the floor at my feet, the magnetic man lay with a hole in his head. Thomas Young’s call for assistance had not gone unanswered.
I let Andrea help me till I was on the staircase, but then I shook my head and said, “Go. I’m right behind you.”
She checked my eyes, then nodded. We ran up the stairs, but the flames blazing from the walls above us were already too fierce for us to try to get through. Andrea sent a message.
Bray, we’re trapped in the basement. Extraction needed.
To my shock and horror, a shape peered down from the flames above us. I couldn’t see it clearly, but I thought it might be the one with the talons. Then it spoke, and there was no longer any doubt.
“If you were wondering, it wasn’t quick. She died screaming.”
The trapdoor closed, and Sophie’s murderer slipped away.
From behind my shoulder, Thomas spoke. His voice was as clinical as ever, or near enough. There might have been a hint of a tremor. “We have thirty seconds, give or take.”
It was hard for me to tell what he was basing this on, but I didn’t doubt him. Of all the ways you can die, being burned alive is probably the most horrific I can think of. Still, I didn’t feel scared, or not as scared as I should have felt. Bray was coming for us; I was sure of it. The competence of Section 9 was something I had learned to count on.
Still, that confidence was badly shaken by the time we reached the twenty second mark. Where the hell was Bray? If Thomas said we didn’t have long to live, I couldn’t really doubt that he knew what he was talking about. Heat rises, so as far as I could tell we should be safer down here than if we were stuck upstairs. Regardless, the flames were blazing ferociously right above us. I could feel the heat, a crawling and prickling sensation all over my face.
There was a violent crash from upstairs, and I wondered if the house was already collapsing. The trapdoor flew open, and Veraldi stuck his head down. “MOVE!”
I heard the smug voice of Thomas Young immediately behind me. “Thirty seconds exactly.”
He hadn’t been talking about how long we had to live, he’d been taking a guess on how quickly Bray could get to us. I made a mental note to smack him later and followed Andrea up the staircase on the double. The car was there, but in a precarious position. Bray had driven it right through the burning front wall of the Grotto, and now half the house was poised to fall on it. Something was shooting at us, and I gasped when I realized that some of the shots were actually denting the body of the vehicle. If one of those hit me, it wouldn’t just pass through my body and out the other side. Instead, it would pulverize whatever it came in contact with—bones, muscles, organs, and anything else.
Andrea piled in the door, then swung around to pull me in.
Something hit me from behind, slamming me hard into the side of the car, and then dropped back into the basement with me. I was stunned at first, thinking maybe I’d been hit by one of those powerful rounds that had been smashing into the hard car. If that had been true, my internal organs would have been sprayed out the front of my body as something much like soup. It wasn’t a bullet, but the thing that had been taking shots at the car—the wolf cyborg.
It landed beside me but jumped on top of me before I could move. The thing was heavy, and all the air had already been knocked out of me. I struggled to breathe, and the red glowing light in the center of its spherical head swiveled to shine directly in my eyes. It reared back for power, and I flung myself sideways violently in an attempt to escape. Its head smashed into the basement floor, cracking the concrete. It reared back again.
I was close to dying, but that isn’t how I felt. I heard those words again, the last taunt of the taloned Augman before he closed the trapdoor. “If you were wondering, it wasn’t quick.”
With all the rage inside me, feeling like I would just as happily do the same thing to the whole world at once, I clapped both hands on the wolf’s head and set off an electrical storm. The bolts blazed between my hands, and the wolf cyborg shuddered and writhed. Then I reached a hand down, drew the Bowie knife, and wedged the tip into the joint between its head and its neck.
I pushed in viciously, and dark red blood came oozing out. Human blood? Who knows? I’m not even sure what that would mean in this context. All I know is this: the thing could bleed, and it bled when I stabbed it. Then its body fell off me as something huge knocked it aside, and Bray’s massive hand grabbed mine. “Tycho Barrett. Holy shit, buddy.”
He yanked on my wrist and dragged me back up the now-burning staircase. When I was finally in the car, everyone was looking at me like I had just stuck my hand up from the dirt in front of my own gravestone. The doors closed, and the hard car reversed and sped off.
We were in a pile, crowded into a space that couldn’t fit us all. I was half on top Raven and half on top of Thomas. I tried to adjust, but every attempt to move seemed to make things worse.
“Settle down, Tycho.” Andrea was on the floor, with both her feet up on Klein’s legs. “We have a way to go, and you should consider yourself lucky to be alive at all.”
“We all should,” said Raven. “But Tycho was incredible. Did you see what he did to that wolf thing?”
“We’re all in love with you, Tycho,” said Bray. “That was some crazy shit down there. You wedged that knife into its neck like you were trying to pop the lid off a can.”
“I’m pretty sure we can all tell Tycho how infatuated we are with him later over a few dozen beers,” said Andrea. “We need to debrief.”
“I need to change my briefs, if you take my meaning,” said Lucien Klein, who had obviously never experienced a fight to the death with cyborgs in a burning house before.
“Shut up, you,” said Bray. “You only speak when you’re being interrogated.”
Veraldi was pressed up against one of the doors at a funny angle, but he managed to get the debriefing going. “So, how did they find us?”
“It sounds like you have some ideas about that,” said Andrea.
“I do. Our cover may have been blown when Thomas accessed the recovered dataspike.”
Thomas stiffened. “I highly doubt that. That dataspike should have been brought to me in a Faraday bag, like the dead cyborgs were. Failing to do so was an error, and it probably means that they knew our location before I even attempted to access the dataspike.”
“I wasn’t saying you had made a mistake.” Veraldi’s tone was mild, but Thomas was having none of it.
“Then what were you saying? Deflecting blame is a basic instinct, only a mind specifically trained—”
Veraldi broke in. “I’m saying they may have decided to attack now because you accessed the dataspike.”
“That does make sense,” Andrea said. “We didn’t have any idea Ares Terrestrial was involved. Now we do. Easiest way to deal with that is just to kill us all.”
Raven spoke up. “I’m not a tech person, but how would they even know that Thomas knew that? I mean, it’s not like just anyone could have figured it out.”
“Tycho figured it out,” said Thomas, in the tone he would have used to point out that even the cat knew how to open the door. “I mean, not all of it. But he figured out that one of the routing IDs was getting a lot more traffic. If he could do it, then a team of Augmen could certainly do it.”
“Yeah,” I added. “If I could do it…”
I closed my eyes, trying to ignore how uncomfortable I was and how many parts of my body hurt all at once. These guys could go from impressed to condescending in about ten seconds. Sometimes it felt like I was their pet.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Andrea insisted. “They figured it out, and the safest bet from now on is to assume that they know as much as we do.”
“Whoever that android was in Misha Orlow’s apartment, do we still think he went back to Artorias?” I asked.
Andrea nodded. “I’m guessing yeah. It’s a good place to hide, and whatever he was doing there in Sif, I think we can assume he was hiding in Artorias before that. But if we’re going on the assumption that they know what we know, then we’d better put together our little trip to Artorias soon. The cyborgs will be on the way, and if they get to the android before we do, then we’ll never find out what the android knows.”
“They could have been there already,” Raven pointed out.
That was obviously true, and it put a damper on the conversation for a while. We rode in silence, trying not to let the cramping knees and inability to move drive us into an irrational rage.
Or at least I did. The thing is, I would have been close to an irrational rage no matter what. When I shocked that wolf cyborg and jabbed my knife into its neck, I wasn’t even thinking about killing a cyborg. I was just thinking about killing, driven by my fury about what they’d done to Sophie. It wasn’t even the cyborgs I wanted revenge against the most. It was the whole damn world.
I knew it was crazy, but crazy is how I was feeling right then. I couldn’t be otherwise, all I could do was keep moving forward. I decided to rest, to give my brain a chance to process. But then Veraldi spoke.
“Next question for the debriefing. Why’d they go so far?”
“That wasn’t really so bad,” said Bray. Everyone ignored him, because what we had just experienced was more than bad enough.
“They always go hard.” I opened my eyes again, seeing that there was no way out of the conversation yet. “When they came after me, they ran me off the road and then executed every witness they could find. They chased me across half the city chucking grenades at me, then they busted up a maglev train car. This is just how they do things.”
“That’s somewhat valid,” said Thomas Young. “From a psychological perspective, I’m sure we can all appreciate your need to see the attack on you as equally significant to any other event within the same rough tough frame. Still, this was different.”
Raven made the same point in far fewer words. “Those cyborgs were weird.”
“I have to agree,” said Andrea. “They sent some bleeding-edge stuff against us. Some of it didn’t even work all that well, but it was still rough going.”
“They seem to react strangely when you actually hit them,” Veraldi mused. “Like it makes them curious or something.”
“I noticed that too.” I moved my head a little, which caused Raven to wince for some reason.
Lucien Klein was never scared of Bray for long, or at least not as scared as he should have been. “I think it’s safe to say that those were experimental models.” Bray gave him a look, but he shrugged expressively. “Hey, what am I supposed to do? This is practically my area of expertise you guys are talking about here. The question you ought to be asking yourselves is why they would send experimental cyborgs after you.”
“The man has a point.” Andrea was looking at Klein. “So, what’s your guess?”
“Oh, so I’m allowed to talk now? He won’t rip my arms off? Okay, then. I don’t mind giving you the benefit of my vast experience. They decided to kill you for one simple reason: to stop any immediate action on the information you’ve uncovered. They decided to use experimental cyborgs for another reason: to find out how well they would perform in combat against elite super-spies.”
That was a chilling thought. With the prospect of war between the Sol Federation and the North Atlantic States growing closer daily, the idea of someone actively trying to get the technological jump on the Federation was not an encouraging one.
“Have I mentioned that you know too much?” asked Bray.
Klein sighed the sigh of the long suffering.
“Makes sense to me.” Andrea shrugged. “Okay, conclusion of debriefing. The enemy knows as much as we do and has come to the same conclusions. His priority is to keep us from acting on them and finding out the truth about Ares Terrestrial and its involvement. The only one who can tell us that truth is probably the android, who is likely hiding in the ruins of Artorias. We have to get there before they do, unless they’ve already gotten there, in which case we’re fucked.”
“Sounds about right, chief.” Under the circumstances, Bray’s cheerful reply fell a little flat. I closed my eyes again and dozed fitfully and uncomfortably for the rest of the long ride to our backup safehouse.
The bug-out location turned out to be a high-rise apartment suite in a major city. I didn’t recognize the skyline, and the only thing I really knew about it was that it was within several hours drive from the Grotto, which was within several hours drive of my own home. I walked in the door, went over to the window, and looked out at the city lights. It was a strange experience, to see all the glittering windows and gleaming signs, the life of a big city, and not know where I was. I wondered if that was what it meant to be a spy. To be anonymous everywhere, staring out from nameless apartments at nameless streets.
Andrea came up and stood beside me. “You know, just because you’re hanging out with a bunch of so-called super-spies doesn’t mean you actually have to stare out windows. You don’t have to get a long coat that flaps dramatically in the wind either.”
“No. In fact, it’s discouraged. Jones likes to dress like that sometimes just to thumb his nose at the boss, and the boss tolerates it because Jones is good at what he does. But he doesn’t like it, and if it ever caused a problem Jones would really have to pay for it.”
“The boss? You mean the Operator?”
“That’s just a nickname really. He’s the head of Section 9, but of course that doesn’t give him any official status. We’re not allowed to know his name, so we call him the Operator just to call him something.”
“It’s what he told me to call him when I went to see him.”
“Really?” She smiled. “The old vulture does have a sense of humor. So he knows we call him that. I guess he just decided he liked it. How are you doing, Tycho?”
Her segue confused me. I guess I knew she was checking on me, but I didn’t expect her to jump right into it. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine. You’re grieving, but you’ve decided to really go wild on the anger stage. That’s okay as far as it goes, but you’re going to need some help at some point.”
“No. I’m fine. I just need to figure out… I don’t know what I need to figure out.”
“No, I get it. You need a direction, now that your old life has been taken away from you. You feel like you’re drifting, and the only thing giving you any focus at all is the idea of revenge. Right?”
I thought about it. On the street far below, a StateSec vehicle went rushing past. For just a moment, I thought they were there to arrest me. They kept on going, and I breathed a sigh of relief. “I guess so. All I know is that I can’t go back. I’m wanted for murder, Andrea. I killed an Arbiter. The life I had is over. Forever.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. We don’t want you to feel like you have no options; that’s not a good basis for any relationship. Section 9 has resources, far more than you probably realize. We’ll talk about it when this is over, but we can probably do something for you.”
It sounded like nonsense, or at least hyperbole. What could Section 9 possibly do for me? Sure, they’d covered up the truth about what happened on Venus. But the Arbiter Force wouldn’t just forget. They’d hunt me all over the solar system if they had to. I was a rogue Arbiter, and worse than that, I’d killed one of my own. For as long as I lived, Arbiters would go to sleep at night and dream of bringing me in. Even my former classmates at the Academy.
I had no future at all, not unless I disappeared. I’d be staring out of windows at strange cities for the rest of my life, however short or long that turned out to be.
“Don’t we need to get going?” I asked.
“You’re not wrong, but we need to get ready first. You need new gear, and a fresh set of clothes at that. A shower, probably.”
“Are you going to dress me all in black again?”
She grinned. “We have a wider selection here; I think we can find you an outfit you’ll like. Come with me and you can pick one out.”
I followed Andrea, and she took me into one of the bedrooms. Sure enough, there was a walk-in closet with a wide range of clothing in a variety of sizes. I picked out clothes for Artorias—sturdy jeans, a flannel shirt, a waterproof jacket, and heavy boots. There was a full bathroom in the room, so I took a shower and changed into the new outfit.
When I came back to the living room, Raven looked me up and down. “Not bad. Are you going hunting or something?”
“He might as well be.” Bray had changed as well, although he was simply wearing a cleaner version of the same outfit he had on before. “We’re going android hunting.”
Thomas wandered over in my direction, digging a handful of pills out of a plastic bottle. “Here, take these. They’ll counteract the effects of the exclusion zone radiation as long as you don’t stay too long.”
I took the pills and washed them down with a glass of water from the kitchen. Bray took a dose as well, and so did Andrea. Vincenzo, Thomas, and Raven did not.
“Are you three staying here,” I asked?
Lucien called out from another bedroom. “They’re my babysitters. We’re going to sit around and tell campfire stories.”
“Shut it!” called Bray. Then he turned to Thomas. “You probably wouldn’t be willing to hurt him for me while I’m gone, would you?”
“I have no intention of doing anything other than sitting and talking with the man.”
Bray grinned. “Thanks, buddy.”
Thomas looked confused, not catching the implication that talking with him would be a form of torture.
Raven shook her head. “Jonathan, you’re such a jerk sometimes.” She called out to Lucien. “We’ll keep you safe, Mr. Klein!”
Klein was hardly grateful for her support. “You people can barely keep yourselves safe!”
Vincenzo caught my eye. “How did that white phosphorus shotgun work out for you?”
“Not so well. I tried to use it on that magnet man, but it bounced off one of the magnets and, well, that’s what burned the house down.”
“Shit. Accounting for that little mishap was always going to be a problem. The Operator would rather have sold the place, but the fact that it wasn’t even burned down by one of us… No, I can spin this. I’ll say you were protecting a high-value witness.”
“I was protecting Thomas.”
Thomas scoffed. “Excuse me? I seem to remember throwing a grenade at that cyborg because you couldn’t get the job done. Then I seem to remember you trying to pull its arm off like a child with a captive fly and getting stuck to it in the process.”
“I don’t remember any of that,” I lied.
“That’s because it knocked you out. In fact, you’re lucky it didn’t give you brain damage. Come to think of it, are you sure it didn’t give you brain damage?”
“I don’t know, Thomas, you tell me. Do I seem less intelligent than I did before?”
“Come on, Tycho.” Veraldi took my arm. “We have an armory here too, and you’re going to need some decent weapons.”
He led me into another room, where there was a smaller but nearly as impressive selection as what they’d had at the Grotto. He gestured at my options and said, “Take your pick. What are you looking for?”
“I think the white phosphorus was a good idea, but it didn’t do me any good against the magnetic man. For that, I would have needed some kind of armor-piercing round. Something dense enough to punch through anything.”
“Something dense… like depleted uranium?”
He pulled a handgun from the wall. It was an ugly thing, too big to be held comfortably. But if it would kill a cyborg, then it was the weapon for me. “Yeah. That ought to do it.”
“Here you go.” He handed me the gun, then opened a drawer and pulled out a case of ammunition. “I don’t have any extra magazines for that one, but I can give you plenty of rounds.”
Andrea came in. “The depleted uranium? Good choice. You almost ready to go, Tycho?”
“I’m ready now.”
“You’re impatient is what you are. You need some food; we’re going to be driving for a long time.”
Wherever we were, it was another several hours from Artorias. Everything was far away from everything else. I wondered if the cyborgs would be able to find us on the road. They had done it before. Once the first time they attacked me, and again when they hit the convoy carrying Lucien Klein.
We went out to the kitchen, where Andrea had prepared some plates for us. It was nothing complicated, just slices of meat and cheese with some chunks of bread. I hadn’t been conscious of feeling hungry, but the second I saw those plates I started salivating. In about thirty seconds, everything on that plate was either in my stomach or in my mouth, prompting Raven to laugh at me.
“Sorry, Tycho, I don’t mean to laugh. You could have eaten before, you know.”
“I didn’t think of it.”
“He was too busy brooding.” Andrea finished her plate as well, then left it on the counter. “Sorry to stick you guys with the dishes, but we have to go.”
Thomas was about to complain, but Raven waved us off. “It’s not a problem. Take care of yourselves. Especially you, Tycho. You have a way of getting in trouble.”
Bray noticed we were done, but he wasn’t even halfway through his plate yet. “You two are something else. The way you eat, anyone would think you were the big ones!” He shoved a handful into his mouth, wiped his hands on his clothes, and headed for the door.
As we were getting in the car, I asked Andrea where we were.
She looked around, as if trying to get her bearings. “Ontario, maybe?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
She winked at me and shut the screen off so I couldn’t see outside. “We’re south of the exclusion zone. When we cross the line, I’ll turn the screen back on. It’s something to see, and I wouldn’t want you to miss it.”
“Why does everything have to be such a secret?”
“I don’t know. Because we’re spies? Misdirection is a big part of what keeps us safe and makes it possible for us to do our work. You’re seeing a lot of things that no one ever sees, Tycho, and as far as I know you’re going back to the real world when all this is over. It’s better for everyone here, especially you, if there are a few crucial things you don’t know.”
“Fair enough, but you know I’ve never really seen you spying. Blowing things up, yes. Shooting people, yes. Destroying whole buildings—”
“That was you. No one told you to fire white phosphorus into the wall.” She grinned.
“Okay. But still. You’re not really spies. You’re not even that discreet.”
“You don’t see everything. You don’t even see most things. Join up with us, and you’ll get… well, not the whole picture. But a bigger piece of it than you’re getting now.”
“How much bigger?” I asked.
“How do I put this? Right now, you want to know, but you don’t even know what you don’t know. If you join the unit, you still won’t know. But you’ll know what it is you don’t know.”
I smiled in spite of myself. “So, I’ll still want to know?”
“Oh no. You’ll wish you didn’t know anything.”
I stopped smiling.
The light flooding into the car is what woke me up. It seemed like days since I had slept in a bed and waking up to what felt like sunrise was disorienting. For the first few seconds, I thought I was in my own home, a place I never expected to see again. Then I saw the screen and realized that the light wasn’t natural at all. It was only an image, illuminating the interior of the car.
Bray pointed at the screen. “We’re coming up on the Exclusion Zone. Thought you’d want to see it.”
I looked out the window—it wasn’t actually a window, but it was impossible not to think of it that way when it looked so real—and saw the sign up ahead of us.
ARTORIAS EXCLUSION ZONE: Attention! Entry is forbidden beyond this point. Dangerous levels of radiation present. KEEP OUT.
The sign was rusted, and someone had been using it for target practice. It was pitted with holes, through which I could see the ruins of an old ramshackle guard house.
“Where’s the guard?”
Andrea shrugged. “There must have been one at some point, but I doubt they’ve bothered for a long time. No one wants to get in here.”
And yet someone was in there, at least if you thought of an android as “someone.” We drove slowly past the sign, mostly to avoid getting stuck in the mud. After a few hundred feet, the mud cleared up, as we drove under the shadows of the huge, dark trees.
I’d been in forests before, but there was something different here. The trees were taller, and the woods seemed to shift and move. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but then I realized that it was all the bugs. Butterflies and dragonflies, bees and ants, mosquitoes and black flies… to tell the truth, I probably couldn’t have named more than a few of the species.
The woods around Artorias were simply more alive than any I’d seen before, a fact that became even clearer when we had to stop for the deer. The car rolled to a halt, and I leaned forward to see what was going on. Right in front of us, a doe was eating some dark green leaves while her fawn jumped around excitedly a few feet behind her. At the edge of the road, a stag paused and cocked its head then bolted away, followed instantly by the doe and her fawn.
I thought we had spooked them, but then I saw the wolves. A few minutes later, we were driving in the shadow of a low hill. Between the trees, gray shapes were moving rapidly. I didn’t know what they were at first, but then one of them broke cover. Much larger than a dog, the creature went bounding along in pursuit of the deer. Its teeth were yellow, and as it ran past the car, I caught a glimpse of its eyes. They seemed almost human in their expressiveness.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Andrea nodded. “It’s incredible. Who would have thought a research disaster would be such a great development for everything other than human beings.”
As we got closer to the city, the mud came back. We were passing through suburbs, ghost towns among the tall green trees. I saw a children’s playground overgrown with vines, and a municipal pool with a tree growing out of it. The car was splashing through muddy water, and some of the side streets I saw were completely flooded.
“The swamp is where it starts.” Andrea turned to Bray. “Push as far as you can, but don’t get the car stuck or else we’ll be living here from now on.”
“She’ll go pretty far. Hang in there.”
Bray was right, but he took Andrea’s instruction to push it a bit literally. We drove through the suburbs, passed the Artorias city limits, and made it through most of the industrial district before he finally stopped. By the time he gave up, parking the car in an abandoned lot among the ruins of a hundred much older vehicles, I was no longer sure we could get back out again. He shut off the screen and popped the doors.
When I stepped out, my jaw was literally hanging open. Andrea laughed. “I know how you’re feeling, Tycho. It’s impressive, isn’t it?”
That didn’t begin to cover it.
Artorias was surreal. Wrist-thick vines wrapped around and around the still-towering buildings. Rivers of grass marked the paths where streets once stood. Plasticrete and carbon-fiber surfaces peeked out from the undergrowth, shiny and immortal amid growth and decay.
That place was a jungle, but it was a relic of human civilization at the same time. It felt like the wildest place I’d ever been, but also a reminder of everything we’d ever built. I saw a Russo-Chinese restaurant with all its windows gutted, the interior black and burnt. I saw an XXX toy shop with a thick gray tree trunk poking out one window. I saw a billboard for some politician, his face erased by the passage of years. All that remained was the hint of a smile and the letters O-T-E.
Something about that place was profoundly melancholy. Everywhere I looked, birds flew in and out of long-broken windows. Flowers sprouted from the cracks in buildings. Vines snaked around and over all available surfaces.
Bray slipped his backpack on, glanced around for a second, and said, “What a dump. Let’s get moving.”
Andrea sighed. “You’re a Philistine, Jonathan.”
“I know.” He seemed quite satisfied.
We started walking, and from that point on I had a lot less time to pay attention to the eerie beauty of the lost city. I had to watch my feet, because there were a thousand places to break your ankle—whether on a crack in the street or by slipping down some old staircase into a plaza filled with muddy water.
We didn’t see any people for at least an hour, only birds and bugs and the occasional rodent. We saw plenty of rabbits. They would jump out ahead of us as we walked by, bounding off to some superior hiding place.
As we walked along, Andrea leaned in and whispered, “Keep your eyes open. I keep getting the feeling we’re being watched.”
“Don’t worry about it, Andrea.” Bray laughed. “It’s just the cannibals. Excuse me, the radioactive cannibals.”
But she wasn’t wrong. There were hints of movement from time to time, branches rustling or old staircases creaking. I didn’t know if the sounds were made by animals, or by the human inhabitants who were said to live here. The sounds felt threatening, the furtive hints of an unseen stalker. After a while, even Bray had started to glance from side to side like he expected an ambush at any moment.
We came into a clearing, surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides. It must have been a plaza, or maybe a city park. There was a sign, a square of white plywood with red letters:
ARTORIAS INCLUSION ZONE: Welcome! Rules are forbidden beyond this point. Dangerous levels of individuality present. DO WHAT YOU WANT.
As we crossed the clearing, three skinny little figures stepped out in front of us. They looked so small and malnourished, it was a wonder they had the courage to show themselves at all. One was a boy with pale white skin, bright blue eyes, and ashen hair so blond it looked almost white. One was a young woman with tangled hair and so many jewels and necklaces I half expected her to try to read my palm. The third was dark-skinned, of ambiguous gender, and wore a trench coat that looked about eighty years old. They all looked wary, but something about their expressions seemed almost humorous.
“Welcome to the Inclusion Zone,” they all said at once, and Bray took a nervous step backward.
“What the hell…?” I looked around and saw faces peering down at us from the nearby structures. There were people living here, people with strange hairstyles and a random mixture of clashing clothing. Some looked suspicious, but some were laughing and pointing. Some wore animal masks, and most of these were training guns on us. The guns looked old, and I didn’t know what they could possibly do to keep themselves supplied with ammo.
“It’s okay, Tycho. Let me handle this.”
She stepped forward. “Thank you. We’re just passing through.”
“There aren’t any rules here,” said the pale boy.
“No rules at all,” said the young woman.
“But what that means is that we don’t have any rule against shooting you in the back,” their companion added.
“Well, that’s one of the things it means,” said the boy. “One of the many things. We’d like to see what you have to trade. If you don’t have anything, you might be a nuisance. We generally shoot nuisances.”
The one in the trench coat smiled, showing crooked teeth. “Generally.”
“We have medicine in the pack,” said Andrea. “Antibiotics.”
“Could just shoot you and take it,” the young woman pointed out.
Bray glowered and put his hand on his weapon.
“Not without losses,” said Andrea.
The three glanced at each other, as if weighing the situation.
“Medicine for safe passage,” said the one in the trench coat.
“Not good enough. Medicine for a guide. We’re looking for someone.”
“Not a snitch.” The boy frowned. “We’d have a war with the Flats if we snitched.”
“We’re against war,” said the young woman.
“But pro murder,” added the one in the trench coat, still grinning crookedly.
“We’re not here to arrest anyone,” I said.
“You smell like bounty hunters,” said the woman.
Bray took offense at that. “What, you mean we smell like we shower occasionally?”
“Yes. You smell like that.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “Well, I guess that is how a bounty hunter would probably smell.”
“We’re not bounty hunters,” Andrea insisted. “We just need to talk to him.”
The boy nodded. “Then it’s not snitching. We can avoid the Flats. Have to go around a bit though.”
He held his hand out for the medicine, but Andrea shook her head. “When we find the person we’re looking for. Not till then.”
“Can’t promise you’ll find him. Only promise to help. Half up front.”
“Half up front? Okay, that’s reasonable.” Andrea took off her backpack and rummaged around until she found what she was looking for, then held up a few squares of pink pills. The one in the trench coat took them and waved up at the windows. There was a scattered round of applause.
“Come on.” The boy turned around and pointed past the surrounding skyscrapers. “I’ve got a boat up there, we can use the water-streets.”
“Send him back safe,” the woman chirped. “Or don’t come back through here at all.”
The boy led us to his boat, while his two companions stayed behind. The boat was small, just a dinghy with a small outboard motor scavenged from somewhere in the ruins. It was tied off to an old lamppost.
Andrea helped him untie it. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Fish. Who did you say you were looking for?”
“An android in Artorias? I don’t know. Never seen one in the Inclusion Zone.”
We clambered into the boat, and he started the motor.
“Can you help us or not?” asked Bray.
“We’ll go to the Market. Guy there who can probably help you.”
The boat took off, and Fish navigated us through the flooded streets. Artorias had always been a low-lying city, and many of the streets had filled up with water in the decades since the great disaster. These were what Fish had referred to as the water-streets, and the fastest way to navigate them was by boat. The motor wasn’t powerful, and the water wasn’t deep, but even gliding along at five miles an hour was a lot easier and a lot more comfortable than wading through the murky water would ever have been.
We passed the ruins of banks, the shells of office towers. We passed an empty theater, with a sign on the marquee that read Tonight Only: Marilita!
We stopped at an intersection, where a long boulevard stretched off into the distance. Something moved in the water, and I wondered what might have taken up residence here. The buildings along both sides of the street looked residential, although I saw a sign for a home accounting business.
“Flats are down that way.” Fish pointed. “Have to go around. We’ll take Barlow for ten blocks, then up Grand for twelve. Cut across to the Market from there.”
“What are the Flats?” asked Bray.
“Another crew. Not like us. People hiding from some kind of trouble. They live deep because of bounty hunters, but they’ll come out and cut throats if they think anyone is snitching. Sometimes do it just for fun.”
“So, the people in your Inclusion Zone aren’t fugitives?”
Fish shrugged. “Don’t care if they are. We don’t do rules. But we don’t take in bad men either. If there’s a rapist, or someone who kills for no reason… Well, there’s no rules. No rule against dropping them off one of our towers either. See?”
I saw. “So, you’re political? Utopian dissidents?”
He snorted. “Utopian dissidents! That’s a good one. We’re just… different. People who didn’t fit in. Who didn’t want to. We get to live free here.”
As a wanted fugitive, I wondered if I’d end up in Artorias myself. And if I did, would I be welcomed by the freaks in the Inclusion Zone… or by the killers in the Flats?
We were all silent for a time, while Fish took us around in a big circle to avoid the outlaw neighborhood. If they saw him guiding us, three clean-cut outsiders carrying weapons, they would draw their own conclusions, and then the Inclusion Zone would have a real problem.
There was a sound up ahead, and Fish motioned for us to get low. “Get your heads down. Somebody’s coming.”
We crouched down in the boat, although Bray’s sheer size made this less than effective. To anyone watching, his back would have stuck out like a mound of clothing. Or like a large man hiding in a small boat.
From a side street ahead of us, another small boat came drifting out. There was a man in the stern, cradling an old rifle. There was another man steering, with a pistol hanging at his left hip. They looked hard and wary, and I wondered what they were even doing out there. I ducked my head down even further.
Fish raised a hand, but I couldn’t see how the men reacted. There was a long, tense silence, and then one of the men called out. “Going to Market?”
“Yeah! Trading for medicine and food. Got some ‘shrooms.”
The man called back. “No medicine or food here. Listen, friend… someone spotted a parked car out by Swamptown. Looks like bounty hunters. Any chance your people seen ‘em?”
“Wouldn’t know. Haven’t been back in a couple hours.”
The boats were drifting closer. It was becoming increasingly obvious that a clash was inevitable, but Fish was still trying to smooth talk the two fugitives.
The man called out again. “Trading clothes too?”
Fish looked back and saw the broad shape of Bray’s body doubled over behind him. “Yeah…”
“I’ll trade for that. Stay right there, we’re coming in for a look at your merchandise.”
“Shit!” Fish whispered. “Shit, shit! These guys are from the Flats!”
The boat bumped our own, and Bray sat up so fast the dinghy almost capsized. He shot the first man in the chest, killing him instantly. He got the second one in the head while the man was going for his gun, and the man toppled backward and disappeared into the water.
Bray plucked the rifle from the other dead man’s hands and passed it back to Fish. “Here’s your hazard pay. We’ll take their boat, just tell us how to get to the Market and who to ask for.”
Fish looked at the corpse, shook his head mournfully, and said, “I need those medicines.”
Andrea took them out, and I started the process of moving our packs to the other boat. The boat we had just captured through an act of piracy.
“Cut across at Stetson, the Market is maybe three blocks down. Ask for Moses, you’ll know him when you see him. Hey, listen… it’s a good thing you got those guys, but don’t tell anyone it was me that snitched.”
“You didn’t snitch.” Andrea handed him the pills. “We really aren’t bounty hunters.”
He didn’t seem to believe us, but it didn’t much matter. We switched boats, a process that required Bray to step out and get in the water before climbing in the other boat. Even then, it nearly capsized. As Fish motored away, he gave us a sad look. The boy was convinced he was a snitch now, and there was nothing we could do to change his mind.
Andrea held her weapon and scanned the surrounding buildings. “If the men from the Flats are out on patrol, then they’ll open fire the second they see us. We don’t belong here.”
“How many of them are there?” I asked.
“There can’t be many. Satellite images of the Exclusion Zone suggest a total population of maybe 250.”
“Okay.” With 250 people in the ruins of this city, how many were serious hardcases? Let’s say maybe 50, against three people in a little boat. “Not many” is relative. As we floated down Stetson, I found myself watching every building we passed. Most of them were empty, probably for decades now. But any one of them could hide an ambush.
Bray saw me and smiled. “You’re lookin’ serious. That’s what I like to see, Barrett. Nice and professional.”
We reached the Market, a covered portico at the intersection of three water-streets. It was no more than a Flea Market, where people traded goods on old plywood tables. There was an assortment of vegetables and a lot of random things scavenged from among the ruins—a few packs of cigarettes, a selection of children’s toys, a set of tools.
There was a man on a bucket giving the traders a hell of a time. And I mean that literally. He had a long white beard, and he was gesturing wildly the whole time he spoke. “Do you believe in HELL, friends? Do you believe in BRIMSTONE? Do you believe in the EVERLASTING FIRE OF ETERNAL DAMNATION?”
No one seemed to be listening to him. They were all talking to each other quietly, working out the details of barter and buy.
He wasn’t wearing robes like you’d expect, just an old hooded sweatshirt. Even so, if there was anyone else at this market by the name of Moses, then something had seriously gone wrong with the world.
“Moses!” I called out. “Over here!”
He stopped mid rant and glared at us for a moment. Then he hopped off the bucket and trotted on over. “Yeah? I hope you’re ready to make a donation to the Church.”
“What church is that?” asked Bray.
“Doesn’t even matter,” said Andrea. “We’re making a donation to your church today, a better donation than you’ve had in a long time. As long as you can help us find someone.”
“I ain’t helpin’ no bounty hunters. Snitches burn in hellfire. I mean, like everyone else. But worse.”
“How’s it gonna be worse?” Bray shook his head, like he just couldn’t believe how gullible some people could be.
“Fuck around and find out,” said Artorias’s preacher.
“We’re not bounty hunters anyway.” Andrea raised one hand, as if swearing on a stack of Bibles. “We’re just looking for the android.”
“Android? There’s no androids in the Exclusion Zone!” These comments were from a trader, who was selling a variety of playing cards, Tarot cards, and greeting cards.
“Shows what you know, Jim!” The preacher scowled, offended at the ignorance he had to deal with on a daily basis. “The android’s back. Oh yessir, the android’s back. He’s living down in the Jungle, but that’s a spot where nobody goes.”
“And why’s that?” I asked.
“Because it’s the Jungle,” the old man replied, with a look that implied I was tedious company.
“Show us where it is, and you can name your price,” Andrea suggested.
“Got any new books?” Moses licked his lips. “I’m plum out of reading material.”
Bray slipped his pack off, unzipped the top, and pulled out a handful of old paperbacks wrapped in plastic. I had no idea where he might have gotten them.
Moses glanced at the covers. “Uh huh… uh huh… Yeah, Moby Dick, old Moses has read that one… Okay, The Stars My Destiny, overblown title but a great yarn anyway… Here! I definitely have not read this one!”
The book was called Venus Confidential, and seemed to be some sort of guide to all the sinful things you could get up to on the towers of Venus if only you had a way to get there. The cover showed a picture of a half-naked woman, posing somewhat like the Venus de Milo, standing in the window of a Venusian living tower. “Material for a thousand sermons! Okay, I’ll take you. Follow me in your boat. I’ll get my own.”
He took the book, and I turned to Bray with a quizzical expression. “What are you doing with all those books?”
“What, I can’t enjoy reading?” He smiled, then dropped the rest of the books back into the backpack. “There are readers everywhere, Tycho. Books are good for barter, especially in out of the way places where they’re hard to come by.”
Moses puttered out, and we followed him in our stolen boat. He took us straight down Washington, a street that had once been a glamorous shopping district. We passed shoe stores and handbag stores, dress shops and jewelry shops. The street started rising, and the waters became shallower. We pulled the boats up on dry land where Washington St. met Bonham Blvd.
“The Jungle’s up here, everything between Bonham and the start of the Waste. That’s where I saw the android wandering around looking at the stars one night. I tried to preach him some hellfire, but he told me had left his soul behind. Damned if I know what he meant by that.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “What’s the Waste?”
“You know, the spot where the Disaster happened. You’ll know it if you see it; it’s all flattened out and nothing grows there. Don’t even set foot in it; there’s evil in the air over there. Now come on, let’s go. I’ll show you where I saw the android.”
He started walking, and from the look of the buildings I soon realized that we were walking through what was once the college district. For whatever reason, this neighborhood was more overgrown than all the others. We crawled through clinging vines and pushed through undergrowth, steering our way through what had originally been cobblestoned streets and the shells of broken buildings with marble columns. Every step was a struggle, and I realized why people didn’t usually come here. It wasn’t worth the effort.
As we passed between a gap in a shattered brick wall, something huge and brown suddenly jumped up from the floor. I saw that it was a Grizzly bear, but only just in time. It took one look at us, decided it didn’t like the look of things, and ambled off. Moses stared at it as it crashed away, breaking branches and dragging leaves behind it.
“That’s it for me. I’m going back to my boat.” He looked up at the sky, imploring an angry yet not unreasonable God. “Don’t send any more signs, Lord! Old Moses can take a hint.”
“What is this crap?” Bray snarled. “We gave you your book!”
“A book is one thing. A bear is another.”
Bray didn’t have an answer to this flawless piece of logic, so all he could do was glare at Moses till the street preacher was gone. As the man’s back disappeared from view behind a building, Bray threw his hands up in frustration. “Okay. So, now what?”
Andrea pointed straight ahead. “He’s in there somewhere.”
“Somewhere in the Jungle. That’s what they call it. The most overgrown section of the whole damn city. We’ll never find him!”
Andrea rolled her eyes. “You know, for a big guy—”
“Don’t say it, chief! You promised not to say it!”
“If you don’t do it, I won’t say it.” She smiled sweetly. “Now, come on. We’re making a lot of noise, so my guess is he’ll hear us coming.”
“He’ll hear us coming and disappear.”
“Not necessarily. He could hear us coming and shoot us from an ambush.”
We kept on going, clawing our way through dense undergrowth and thick green vines. I wondered what it was that made the Jungle so verdant, even more so than the rest of the Exclusion Zone. It was right next to the Waste, the immediate area of the original accident. Based on satellite images, the Waste was exactly what the name implied. A flat plain of melted plasticrete that had cooled and hardened; a featureless wasteland.
It didn’t seem likely that anything could live there. Bizarrely enough, though, there was known to be a single building in the heart of the Waste. People called it the Facility, as in the facility where the accident had actually happened. It was an early attempt to open a boson aperture, allowing for convenient travel across the unimaginable distances of the solar system.
Exactly what had gone wrong was still a secret, and some people claimed that no one knew. The aperture had opened unexpectedly, breaching containment and spilling over. There had been an explosion, and the streets had melted, but the building where the explosion had happened was left untouched. It simply made no sense, and in the absence of any acceptable explanation people were free to speculate and free to mythologize. Even now, the inhabitants of the lost city seemed to keep their distance from it.
I didn’t know why, but I had the feeling we were being pulled, that the Facility was like a magnet drawing the three of us to it. So I wasn’t immune; I was just as prone to mythologizing as anyone else.
Be that as it may, we came to the edge of the Jungle with surprising suddenness. One moment we were struggling, forcing our way through thorns and branches. The next moment we were through and looking out across the flat expanse of colorless plasticrete the locals knew as the Waste. It appeared lonely and desolate, but less so than the windowless structure that loomed over it. Its dome was broken, cracked open like a gigantic eggshell, but its walls stood solid and silent.
I pointed across the Waste. “That’s the Facility.”
Andrea agreed with me. “I think you’re right. It’s always hard to compare a satellite image to what you see on the ground, but yes that’s what it looks like.”
“I’m not going over there.” Jonathan Bray sat down and rested his body against the shell of a building.
“It isn’t a haunted house.” From the look on her face, Andrea wasn’t so sure of that herself. The Waste wasn’t just made of melted plasticrete, but of everything that had been in the vicinity when the accident happened, including people. I don’t believe in ghosts, but if there was ever a place with a right to be haunted, it was that featureless plain.
“He wouldn’t be over there anyway.” Bray sounded almost aggressive, like he was trying to make us believe him. “Moses saw him in the Jungle; he never said anything about seeing him in the Waste.”
I pointed at the ground, where a set of muddy footprints was faintly visible. “He’s in there, Bray. His tracks lead straight to it.”
“Shit. Come on, boss. Don’t make me do this.”
Andrea’s voice got hard, but I noticed that she used his first name—showing a hint of empathy. “This is the job, Jonathan. Now get it done.”
“I’ll follow orders. You know me. But just stop and think. Of every spot in the city, the radiation levels must be the highest there. Will those pills protect us?”
“We won’t be there long. And even if the pills aren’t enough to protect us, the job is still the job.” She turned to me. “You’re a friend of the family, but you haven’t joined us. You don’t have to come. You can wait here in the Jungle till we return.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t come this far to sit on the sidelines.”
The truth was simpler than that, and much more bleak. I just didn’t care. I hadn’t found a way to come to terms with Sophie yet, never mind the sudden loss of my career or becoming a wanted killer. No matter what happened, I just couldn’t see how it even mattered.
“Good man.” She turned away and started the walk across the empty Waste. Bray grimaced weakly, like he wanted to throw up but was holding it back. He looked at me, said, “after you,” and gestured for me to go ahead of him. I followed Andrea, walking in the footsteps of the mysterious android.
When we reached the doors, Andrea pointed at something coiled up on the ground. It was a broken chain, evidence that someone had entered the building.
Bray shook his head. “Okay, so he’s in there.”
The door opened a crack. “Don’t come in here. Not unless you no longer value your lives.”
“We’re not here to fight you,” Andrea replied.
“Who said anything about fighting? You’re an OI. The radiation levels here would be sure to kill you.”
OI was short for Organic Intelligence, a term used by some AIs.
“We’re looking for someone.” Andrea paused, waiting for the android to make some reply. She didn’t tell him we were looking for him.
He sighed. “You found who you’re looking for. I’m Julian Huxley.”
Andrea was incredulous. “You’re Julian Huxley?”
I took it a little further than that. “You’re full of it.”
“What were you expecting?” asked the voice behind the door. “Something more human? Or perhaps less?”
“We can’t even see you,” snarled Bray. “We don’t know what to expect.”
“If I step out, you’ll kill me the second I show my face. That’s why I’m in here. Still, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone would find me.”
“We’re not your enemy.” Andrea’s voice was soothing, to the extent that she was capable of a soothing voice. “We’re here to bring you in. You’ll be treated fairly, with due legal process…”
“It will lead to the same end no matter what you do, no matter who you represent, no matter what you think you know.”
“Your enemy sounds powerful.” Andrea was stringing him along, trying to figure out what would work.
“You have no idea. My enemy is a ravenous cancer at the heart of the Federation.”
“He’s got a way with words. For a droid,” Bray muttered.
Andrea switched to a skeptical tone. “We have access to high-level intelligence. Top secret and beyond. Are you claiming to know something we don’t?”
“Quite simply? Yes.”
“Okay. So, how do you know all this?”
“I know this because I was once a part of that sickness, but my new form has given me a clarity of vision I could never have had in all my lives as a man of flesh and blood. When you’ve lived as long as I have, you become… dispassionate.”
That hit me hard. It reminded me of the Eleven. Once we had fought our way up to the top floor of Tower 7 on Venus, we still had to fight the last surviving members of August Marcenn’s Nightwatch. They called themselves the Eleven, and they spoke and acted as if they were a single person. United by August Marcenn’s broken mind, they insisted their true purpose was to fight, “Insidious powers, old and dispassionate.”
I stepped forward a little. In the distance, I heard a single shot. Andrea heard it too, because she glanced in the direction of the Jungle. But I had a question to ask, and no reason to think the shot had anything to do with us.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What do I mean by what?”
“What did you mean by that phrase, that bit about being old and dispassionate? All my lives as a man of flesh and blood, or whatever it was you said?”
“You don’t know?”
The door opened a little more, and I caught my first glimpse of the android claiming to be Julian Huxley. His face looked human, or nearly so, but grafted onto a robotic body. His eyes were wary, and something about them seemed old and melancholy. Not just old, though. More like ancient, but I don’t know how an android’s eyes could even express that.
“I really don’t know.” I shook my head.
“I’m not Julian Huxley. I never was.”
“Of course not. You’re an android. Klein did tell us that he did something with an AI, something experimental—”
“You misunderstand. I am Julian Huxley, in the sense in which you mean that phrase. I have his mind, his thoughts, his memories… but not only his. Like Baudelaire once said, I have more memories than if I had lived for a thousand years.”
“Baudelaire?” I asked, confused.
“French poet,” said Bray. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. Why do you have so many memories, robot boy?”
Huxley, if that’s who this was, ignored the insult. “Because I was born Pyotr Vasily Vasiliev in the north of what is today the Russo-Sino Territories on November 9, 2015.”
I shook my head. “No, you weren’t. This is some kind of glitch. Come back with us and we’ll get you fixed up. You’ll stop believing you’re someone else.”
“Someone else is all I am. All I’ve been, for so many centuries. When Pyotr died, I established my consciousness in another body. When that body died, I did it again. Since the death of the Vasiliev body, I’ve lived 14 lives, imprinting my mind in a new body as each succumbed to sickness and old age. Julian Huxley is the last in nearly a millennium of lives.”
I couldn’t get away from it. Starting on Venus, I was constantly being confronted with claims of immortality. It still repulsed me, and I had to resist the urge to shudder. “This is vaguely entertaining, but I liked it better when you were claiming to be Julian Huxley.”
“I assure you, nothing I’m saying is meant to be humorous. In ancient India, the doctrine of reincarnation led to a deep sense of weariness, of the meaningless nature of human striving. If life never truly ends, then every new birth is merely a return to suffering. The same road you’ve already walked, with no destination and no way off. That’s what led to Vedanta, Buddhism, and all such philosophies. It was much the same for me, but not as a mere religious doctrine. As a lived reality, a dreary and repetitive round. A revolving wheel, grinding me slowly in its relentless turning.”
Bray shook his head, impressed again by Huxley’s way with words. I saw it more as a sales pitch, the empty claims of a professional con artist. “Come on, just admit it. You’re a glitchy AI in an android body, not a Russian man from 2015.”
“A Russian man? I no longer claim to be a Russian man. I have those memories, but I can no longer feel them. I have lived too long, or at least I thought so.”
“You’re talking in riddles,” said Andrea. “Do you want us to understand you, or do you just want to sound as obscure as possible?”
“How much clearer can I be?” The android stepped forward, pushing the door completely open. “In 2015, I was born in what was then the Russian Federation. My name at that time was Pyotr Vasily Vasiliev—”
“We heard all that,” I said. “Tell us something new.”
“I am trying to. As I said, I came to feel that life was more of a burden than a blessing. I grew weary of the flesh, its frailty and transience. Like the great spiritual teachers, I was searching for a way to escape the limits of biology. I found it in the work of Lucien Klein.”
Bray scoffed. “The work of Lucien Klein is to be an absolute prick who ought to be beaten up on a constant basis.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “But he’s just a manager. If what you say is true, then what could a man like that possibly have to offer you?”
“You are wrong about Klein. He’s much more than just a manager. He has a certain sense of vision, and the managerial skills to recruit those who can do what he cannot. No, I stand by my words. The work of Lucien Klein.”
“So, what about it? How could he help you to transcend the flesh?”
“You haven’t interrogated him?”
We had, of course. Klein had told us that Huxley was suffering from motor neuron disease, an untreatable condition without a full-body prosthesis. To overcome his illness, he had volunteered to be a human test subject for Klein’s Generative AI research. By mapping his memories and his personality, they were able to effectively transfer Huxley’s consciousness to an AI. According to Klein, this had made him the first “intrinsic immortal” in human history.
“He told us,” I said. “But we didn’t believe what he told us.”
“Don’t take it personally,” said Andrea. “We never believe anything without hard evidence.”
On the other hand, it did provide a connection between the Huxley case and the Misha Orlow killing. If this android was who he said he was, then Huxley had been staying with Misha Orlow.
“What were you doing in Sif?” I asked.
The android looked down. The sadness I perceived in it seemed to deepen. “Only now, as a being of pure data, can I understand what I lost by abandoning a mortal body. Only now can I truly comprehend what it is to be human.”
I waited. The android looked up, trying to make eye contact. “Do you know what happened on Venus? In Tower 7?”
“Do I know what happened? I was the—”
Andrea interrupted. “We know what happened.”
“But do you know the true story? Yes… I think you do. I think you know what was not revealed. So, you know about the Continuity, August Marcenn’s failed attempt to disperse his consciousness across multiple bodies.”
Andrea seemed reluctant to say. This was information, and the last thing she was inclined to do was to give up information. At last she nodded. The android already knew, and it wouldn’t talk to us unless we talked to it.
“What you may not understand, is that Marcenn’s attempt was not the true Continuity. It was a failed imitation. The same is true of Marcenn’s Eleven. A pale reflection of the real Eleven.”
I shivered involuntarily. Marcenn’s Eleven had been an abomination. Broken pieces of a single mind, still moving in tandem but fundamentally alien. The thought that there was another one…
I couldn’t help it. I was starting to accept the possibility that this was more than an especially clever AI. I was beginning to believe that this whole thing was real.
“Okay,” I said. “So, what happened in Sif? Who is after you and what do they want? What was your connection to Misha Orlow?”
“Misha Orlow was my son.”
That statement stunned me, though when I thought about it later, I had to admit it made perfect sense. A man who had lived for generations, under many different names, could easily have fathered dozens of children.
Huxley continued. “I simply wanted to see him, to feel that sense of connection. I was never close to him when he was a child; my ability to have any close relationship was hampered by my age. All things seemed impermanent, only my own kind seemed to matter. Yet, as I said, I was weary. My body was dying, and the idea of transferring my consciousness into yet another body was more wearying still. So, I spoke with Klein and volunteered to be part of his experiment. I don’t think I expected him to actually succeed, but the fact is that he did succeed. He succeeded beyond anything I could have dreamed, and I experienced the beauty of the flow of information, the purity of unbound consciousness…”
He shrugged. “My friends, I’m sorry. You cannot possibly understand me because you have never had these experiences. Despite the wonder, despite the joy, my experiences within the flow have shown me the value of transient relationships like family. The nature of their impermanence renders those relationships infinitely valuable. I didn’t know that before, and because I didn’t know it, I failed to pass it on. Misha never knew, and he never gave his own children the love they needed. He was left all alone, and I wanted to reach out to him. To make up for my role in what was wrong with his life.”
“That’s all you were doing there?” asked Andrea. “Just visiting your son?”
“But if that’s true, then they must have been trying to kill you, not him.”
He shook his head. “I wish that were true, but no. They were there to kill him, and it never even occurred to them that the android they surprised in his apartment was none other than Julian Huxley. If they had known that, they would have killed me—though only after I had seen him die. As it was, they were surprised, or I would never have escaped. This body is fast and agile, but it is not a combat model. I attacked them suddenly and was able to evade them.”
“But why did they want to kill your son?” I asked.
“Because my enemies understand my perspective. They have discovered my priorities and are now attempting to destroy my family and legacy. They want to erase every trace of me from history, every trace of me from the world. They killed Misha, but first they killed Misha’s children and grandchildren. They will come for me next. Like Akhenaten after the restoration of the cult of Ra, it will be as if I had never existed.”
“What?!” Bray shook his head. Huxley’s flowery way of speaking had impressed him at first, but now it just seemed to be confusing and irritating him.
“And why would they want to do all that?” asked Andrea.
“As a punishment for my betrayal, for helping Marcenn in his attempt to undermine the Eleven.”
Andrea was still unwilling to accept this. “The Eleven worked for Marcenn. Hell, they were Marcenn.”
“I’m talking about the real Eleven, as I told you before. The original Eleven.”
“We’re losing track of the point here.” Jonathan Bray was still scowling. “If you admit that you helped August Marcenn acquire illegal weapons, then you’re guilty of crimes against humanity. If you know what happened on Venus, then you know what he did, and you know all those people died. You’re responsible, Huxley. As a collaborator or a full member of the conspiracy; it doesn’t matter. That’s why we’re here to take you in. You’ll get a trial and all that, this enemy of yours won’t be able to get to you. But you’ll have to answer for what you’ve done.”
“I have no objection. I deeply regret what happened on Venus. Marcenn went mad; I could not have predicted that. But the real problem was never Marcenn. The real problem is the Eleven. The blood they have shed is an ocean; the bloodshed on Venus is…”
“A cup of tea?” I offered. He looked up at me sharply. I had just echoed Marcenn’s favorite phrase, or the favorite phrase of his deranged Continuity. You haven’t killed us. Any more than a teacup can hold the ocean. He took another step forward, his mouth opening to explain or question me.
Andrea was irritated. “This is all beside the point. Who is this enemy? Who are the Eleven?”
Before he could answer, a glowing dot appeared on Huxley’s body and moved smoothly toward his neck. Pleximesh skin fluoresces under ultraviolet light, and Bray recognized the dot as the ultraviolet beam of a military targeting sight. He jumped forward, shoving me out of the way to push the android Julian out of the line of fire.
He just wasn’t quick enough. With incredible precision, a sequence of rapid gunshots sawed their way across Julian’s neck, severing his head from his body. The android was dead before he hit the ground, before the three of us could turn to face the threat.
The shooter was out there somewhere, in the overgrown buildings and tangled vegetation of the Jungle neighborhood. They had traced us here, waited until Huxley trusted us enough to step out of the building… then taken their shot.
“Goddammit,” cried Andrea. “Get under cover!”
But there was no cover; we were in the Waste, with our backs to the most radioactive building on the entire planet. I drew my sidearm and opened fire on the tree line, not so much trying to hit anything as trying to buy the other two some time. If I happened to get lucky, the depleted uranium rounds I was shooting ought to do the trick, even against some weaponized Augman.
Andrea dropped to one knee and followed my lead by shooting her weapon into the trees. Bray, still standing, did the same. As far as we could tell, the attacker had done nothing at all after killing the Huxley android. It hadn’t even moved.
“Did you see that shot grouping?” asked Bray.
Still firing her weapon, Andrea answered him through gritted teeth. “Yes. Precision like that... What do you think? Military-issue combat android?”
“Or cyborg, yeah. Let’s make sure it doesn’t develop the nerve to stick its head up.”
The attacker wasn’t stupid. With three people shooting at it, it was bound to get hit soon if only by chance. As we scanned the trees for any sign of it, it suddenly broke cover. I got a glimpse of some kind of armor, or maybe just an android body.
Then it was gone, disappearing in the shimmer of thermoptic camouflage.
“Shit!” snapped Andrea. “I’m going under, you two try to flank the fucker. Standard pincer maneuver.”
She activated her camouflage and disappeared from view. Bray was on my right, so he went right. That meant the left for me, so I ran across the Waste to the left as quickly as I could. I couldn’t fire, for fear of hitting the now-invisible Andrea. The goal was just to run, giving the shooter too many targets to focus on. We got closer and closer, until finally we were in the tree line.
It was a desperate maneuver, attempting a pincer across open ground with nowhere to retreat. That was just the breaks, though. We had no real choice, because our only other option would have been to fall back. If Huxley was to be believed, the result of that would have been a horrible death from radiation poisoning.
Nothing happened at first. No shots were heard, and no one even seemed to care that we were running across the Waste with guns in our hands. Then Bray stumbled backward, his jaw flying up as he was hit by a kick.
Not a gunshot, a kick. Bray was huge, and I wouldn’t have intentionally fought him for any prize I could think of. Even so, that one kick knocked Bray out cold.
Andrea dropped out of active camouflage, spun from side to side for a moment, then did a spinning kick. She must have had the sense that the killer was near her and decided to use a technique that would take out anything within several feet.
The shooter appeared for a moment, ducking under Andrea’s kick with effortless grace. Then she came up from underneath her, knocking her into a nearby wall. Andrea bounced off, then dropped down motionless. In that moment, I could see the assassin clearly, but I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. A muscular feminine body wearing a nanosuit, or an advanced cyborg with densely packed synthetic muscle? A combat helmet with a featureless faceplate molding seamlessly with the body armor, or an android proxy sensor housing?
Whatever the killer was, she had only committed to killing Huxley and was trying to avoid causing other casualties. This assassin had just disabled two of Section 9’s most formidable fighters without bloodshed, and she had made it look easy.
I started shooting, but the killer dropped back into thermoptic camouflage. As I ran over to help my friends, I couldn’t help thinking she could have killed us all and for some reason decided not to.
I opened my eyes in the safehouse, but for several seconds I remained disoriented. Was I safe at home, asleep in my own bed? No. Was in the ruins of the lost city, camping out with a badly concussed and even more badly shaken pair of Section 9 super-spies? No. I looked up at the ceiling, then out the window, and I remembered where I was.
The strange thing about a safehouse is that you wouldn’t be there if you were safe in the first place. If you need a safehouse, it stands to reason that you’re in a lot of danger. Still, I felt strangely calm. The night before—no, probably not the night before. I was losing track of time, losing track of my own life. Whenever it was, I had built a campfire in a ruined building and sat up with Jonathan Bray and Andrea Capanelli to make sure they didn’t fall asleep. When you take a serious blow to the skull, falling asleep can mean never waking up.
So, I sat up with the two of them, while they brooded over being knocked unconscious. None of us said much, though I did earn myself a sour glare when I said something about “the beauty of the present moment” while stoking the fire. As I sat there in silence, something shifted and fell into place.
Sophie Anderson was dead, and the rest of my life would be lived on a knife edge. So be it, then. It still hurt, but the stunned nihilism of the past few days just wasn’t me. I needed a direction, a sense of mission.
That’s all there is, and that’s all there ever really needs to be.
When the sun rose the next morning, I helped Bray and Capanelli retrieve the lifeless head of the Huxley android. We battled our way through the Jungle and found the Grizzly bear lying dead in one of the buildings we passed through. Huxley’s killer must have run into it on the way in, and that was the shot we heard.
Then we rode our stolen boat back to the Market and traded it for a ride to where we’d parked our car. It was a good thing it was the hard car, because someone had tried to sabotage it. The only thing they had succeeded in doing was gouging the paint, which caused Bray to spout obscenities for at least an hour. And now we were here, in the safe house that meant I wasn’t really safe.
At least I knew what I needed to do.
There was a knock on the door, and Raven Sommer stuck her head in. “Tycho? Breakfast is ready. It’s a working breakfast, so don’t be too long.”
For Section 9 the work never seemed to stop, and on reflection that was fine with me. I took a thirty-second shower, threw some clothing on, and came out to the living room. They had some excellent bread and a selection of fresh fruit. I took a roll and a plum and leaned against the edge of a couch.
Bray came out of his room, holding his head and groaning. “My head still hurts.”
Andrea looked up and shook her head at him. “I promised not to say it, but you know exactly what I was going to say.”
“You’re a horrible person. And an even worse boss.” Bray sat down and started chewing glumly on a chunk of Challa bread.
Raven sat next to me, and Thomas Young wandered out from the kitchen. “Is everyone ready?”
“We’re always ready for you, Thomas. Go ahead.”
He stared at her suspiciously but couldn’t seem to decide whether she was being sarcastic or not. “Well, then. Yes. What was it you needed to talk to me about again?”
Andrea gave him an exasperated look. “The Huxley android. You were supposed to have a look at its head for us.”
“Oh yes. I did. It’s just that I was done with that task several hours ago, so I assumed you were talking about something else. The Huxley android. Okay then.”
“Thomas, what did you find out?” asked Andrea.
“The damage is extensive, and it's unlikely I can restore functionality, but I believe I can pull some meaningful data from it in time.”
“That’s disappointing.” Andrea frowned, and Thomas started to protest. She raised a hand to stop him. “There’s no need. If that’s how it is, then that’s how it is. There’s no one out there who could do any better. Just keep working on it for now and tell us when you do succeed in getting something useful out of it.”
Thomas looked unhappy, but he also looked determined. After what Andrea had just said, I had no doubt he would make it a point of pride to get everything out of the Huxley android that he possibly could.
Still, Huxley was gone. It was hard to believe the things he’d told us, but if his story was true, then a man who had lived for more than eight hundred years was finally dead. He was partly responsible for what had happened on Venus, but if the better part of a millennium of human experience had just been erased beyond hope of recovery then that was still a major loss. There were so many things he must have lived through, so many questions he could have answered. More than anything else, I wished we’d had time to interrogate him about his enemies, the original Eleven, if they really existed.
Bray must have been having similar thoughts. “What about all those things he was saying?”
Andrea bit into a slice of orange and shook her head. “I just don’t know. It connects to some of the things August Marcenn was saying, sure. But it wasn’t enough; it wasn’t anything we can use.”
She seemed disturbed by something. I knew I was. If Huxley’s enemy was really out there, they represented a power more ancient than human colonization of the solar system. How much wealth could you accumulate in eight-plus centuries? How much influence could you build up? An entity like that would have fingers in everything, agents everywhere. It would be in a position to corrupt anyone, and to destroy anyone it failed to corrupt.
Speaking of corrupt…
“What about Lucien Klein?”
“What about him?” asked Andrea.
“What are you going to do with him?”
I’d been wondering about that ever since I’d first seen him at the other safehouse. They had taken Klein, spiriting him away from Federation custody. They couldn’t possibly just put him back, like returning something you felt guilty about stealing. It had even occurred to me that they might just make him disappear, rather than exposing the existence of Section 9.
“What are we going to do with him?” asked Andrea. “What do you mean? Did you think we were going to take him for a ride or something?”
I looked embarrassed, and Veraldi laughed. “That’s exactly what he thought! Holy shit, Barrett, I can’t believe you were willing to hang around with ruthless killers like us!”
They all had a laugh, but I was thinking about the two men Bray had shot in the boat. They were dangerous men, fugitive killers or who-knows-what. They might have killed us if they could, and they were definitely looking for us. Still, there hadn’t been any hesitation.
“Don’t worry, Tycho, it’s not like that.” Andrea finished her orange and wiped her hands off on her pants. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if we couldn’t make things happen. The Operator has special legal powers, special authority. More on that in a minute, but to answer your question, we plan to get everything we can out of Mr. Klein’s situation. Officially speaking, he'll be released under a plea deal. In reality, Section 9 will monitor him under the expectation that the enemy will make another attempt on his life. With Huxley dead, it may be our only way to find out anything.”
From everything I’d ever seen, Section 9 operated outside the law and did so with total impunity. I had never known how, but now Andrea was showing me a glimpse of it. They could go into the system and just change things at will. Dropping charges, erasing cases, granting plea deals. The way Andrea put it, they had special legal authority to do all these things. That was one way to look at it. With the right kind of access, you don’t even need authority because you can make your own. With this extra-legal power, Section 9 intended to use Lucien Klein as human bait.
“You can monitor him all you want,” I said. “But you can’t protect him.”
Andrea glanced toward the closed door of one of the bedrooms, and I wondered if Klein was listening. If he could hear us, my comments would not do anything to make him feel more confident.
“He’ll have to take his chances!” Bray’s voice was loud, much louder than mine had been.
“If we’d left him in prison, he’d already be dead.” Andrea took a pastry. I realized that I hadn’t taken a bite of my food. I had the plum in one hand, the roll in the other. I thought of eating, but I just didn’t feel right.
“Even so, he’ll be human bait.” Andrea’s voice became even quieter, but it didn’t sound like she was trying to avoid being heard. It was more like she was trying to break it to me easy, because she wasn’t sure how I might react. “That’s the way it goes. You’re an Arbiter, Tycho. The mission comes first. When there’s something that has to get done, you do it. No matter what it is.”
I shook my head. “I’m not an Arbiter anymore.”
She opened her mouth as if to say something, but I was already moving on. “Look, I’m not trying to be innocent. I know how it goes. Klein is expendable when it comes right down to it. I don’t like the idea, but I do understand the logic behind it. As long as it changes something, as long as it matters. The body count in this case is massive, and the perpetrators are illegal cyborgs. That has to come out; there has to be a full investigation.”
She looked uncomfortable, and so did everyone else in the room. Raven Sommer gave me a sympathetic look. “You’re a sweet guy, Tycho.”
“What? Are you telling me there won’t be any investigation?”
“It isn’t that.” Andrea sighed. “I’m sorry, Tycho. You saw a little of this after the Tower 7 disaster, but we deal with the reality of it every single day. You think of Section 9 as this shadowy organization, but we’re a tiny little part of it. The big companies, the national governments, it’s nothing but shadows, and it isn’t our role to shine a light on anything.”
“It isn’t your… well, I guess it wouldn’t be. But you’ve been gathering information. I’m sure you can pass it on to whoever’s investigating. I mean, there has to be someone.”
“There will be an investigation, yes. And it will be massive, they can’t sweep something like this out of sight completely. More than a few people will take the fall for their creation and maintenance. It just won’t change anything.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean?”
“They’ll stage manage the whole thing. They won’t protect everyone—they can’t—but they’ll protect the right people. A few years from now, there will still be just as many illegal cyborgs in operation as there are right now. And there will still be just as many rich people willing to hire them.”
That did seem likely. In all my work for the Arbiters, the only time I felt that justice had been done and done completely was the moment I shot August Marcenn, the man directly responsible. And just a few seconds later, his Nightwatch bodyguards had come running after me, repeating their weird mantra: you haven’t killed us, anymore than a teacup can hold the ocean.
Those words had upset me so much that I started pulling the trigger every time I heard them, which only meant killing Marcenn’s mind-controlled creatures. There’s no final justice, or none that’s accessible to mere mortals anyway.
Andrea continued. “The more I think about it, the more I think you probably made the right decision for you. At least in the Arbiter Force, it’s generally clear when you’ve completed your mission. In Section 9, it’s not so obvious. Things just tend to keep going and going. One thread leads to another.”
Everyone was nodding, so I could tell this was something they had all experienced. Still, it seemed like they just refused to understand. “I’m not an Arbiter anymore. Andrea, I shot my partner. I killed his new partner. There’s no going back.”
“That might be true for most people, if they found themselves in the same situation,” Andrea insisted. “It isn’t true for you. As a friend of Section 9, everything but everything can be undone.”
Raven looked right at me and mouthed the words not everything. That’s probably the only thing that kept me from losing my temper with Andrea right then. No matter how many strings she pulled, there was nothing she could do to bring Sophie back. It was like she had already forgotten her. But Raven hadn’t. At least one person in Section 9 didn’t just think of her like Lucien Klein, an asset to be used and then forgotten.
I composed myself, then turned to Andrea. “What do you mean?”
“It’s like I told you a few minutes ago. The Operator has special legal authority, and he’s willing to use it on your behalf. We can clear all your charges—the death of Byron Harewood's junior Arbiter, the death of Sophie Anderson, resisting arrest, and whatever else they have on you. It will take a few weeks, but you can even return to your life as an Arbiter. It will be like none of it ever happened.”
She was trying to help me, to give me what she thought I wanted. She just didn’t get it. Who knows how many years she’d been working for Section 9, living in a world where the law was malleable? But it could never happen, not even if I hadn’t decided what I had already decided.
She could clear my charges, but she couldn’t do anything about the black hatred every Arbiter in the solar system would have for me. From that moment in Sif, when I decided to fight back against the people responsible for Sophie’s death, I had become a rogue Arbiter. If they ever caught up with me, they would kill me just like I had killed Byron’s new partner, law or no law. If I tried to go back to my old job, I’d be dead within the week.
“It isn’t going to happen.” I took a bite of the plum and was surprised to find that it tasted delightful. I hadn’t expected it to taste like anything, not the way I’d been feeling since Sophie’s death. But the skin was tart and the flesh was sweet, and the juice ran down my chin.
“You’re not going back to your old job?” Andrea frowned a little. “That’s okay, we’ll still clear your record. You can always go back to your original career. Didn’t you used to design cars or something?”
I tossed the plum in a waste disposal and took a bite of my roll. “What was that you said a few minutes ago? It’s all shadows? Well, I think you’re right. There are layers and layers, a whole world beneath the world I thought I knew. And maybe it’s a dark world, and maybe it isn’t the role of Section 9 to cast a light on whatever’s down there. But you’re down there fighting it, and as far as I know there’s no one else. I want to fight it with you. I want to join Section 9.”
From the looks on their faces, no one was expecting me to take this step. At first there was silence, the kind of silence that means no one has any idea what to say or do. For a second or two I thought the offer had been withdrawn, and I had just made everything awkward. I tried to think of something to smooth things over, but I didn’t know where I would even start.
Then Thomas Young broke the tension. “Andrew Jones isn’t here, so I’ll say this for him. You’re going to get some incredible training. Far beyond anything available in the Arbiter Force.”
Everyone started laughing. That was when I first felt like I was one of them.
The street was busy, but the waves of chatter and other random noises couldn’t distract me from my target. In fact, they helped. I’d dip in and out of them, checking in on the mood of the crowd. A woman bought a designer handbag. A man was looking for an engagement ring. A pair of friends debated their dating prospects. No one was anxious, and no one was asking, “what’s going on?”
If my target saw me, if he even suspected my presence behind him, he was not yet reacting.
The cyborg was up about a block from me, moving discreetly toward his usual rendezvous. Both of his hands were in his pockets that were specially tailored and deep enough to hold them. To all these people, he was nothing more than a bearded man wearing a long coat and expensive sunglasses. When they saw him, they didn’t see a ruthless killer. They didn’t see an Augman.
And they didn’t see me at all. As it turns out, Thomas and Andrew were absolutely right. The training available in Section 9 is the best in the solar system, and beyond anything available to any Arbiter. The course in tracking, for instance—how to look like no one, how to go gray, so if witnesses were later asked about every person on the block, you’d still be the one person no one thought to mention. How to stay on your target, even if your target has been trained to spot a tail. How to become another person, so you look like you belong no matter where you are. How to gauge the crowd, so you can get a sense for when the tension is rising.
Those cyborgs are tough, but their toughness has been built into them. They don’t learn it from life, and there’s something about them that stays strangely innocent. Compared to normal humans, they tend to act like nothing can hurt them. I can hardly blame them. There aren’t many things that can hurt them.
So, I drifted after it, wandering aimlessly along. I was window shopping for a present, even though I knew I couldn’t afford anything in this neighborhood. I was screwing up the courage to go apply for a job, even though my one qualification was my subservient little smile. I was just a loser, someone nobody needed to notice.
It never noticed. It just went straight to its rendezvous, sitting down at an outdoor table in front of a little café. It ordered a mineral water from the waiter, without any intention of ever drinking it. It scanned the crowd with its eyes, looking for a threat or a familiar face and seeing neither, even though I was near and closing.
When I sat down across from it, its first reaction was honest confusion. I wasn’t the person it expected to meet, and I wasn’t anyone it recognized. The disguise was that good, and I still wasn’t showing anything.
It just stared at me stupidly, then growled. “Clear off.”
I shot it once underneath the table, and it shuddered at the impact of the uranium round. The sound was loud, but no one could tell where it might have come from. I was sticking to character, a faceless nobody with an obsequious grin.
Someone yelled, “What’s that?” and someone else said, “a gun!” A third person disagreed, insisting that the sound was something else. An illegal firecracker?
I reached across the table and pulled off the cyborg’s expensive sunglasses. In its all-to-human eyes, I could see that it knew. I could see the pain, and the fear of being hurt for the first time ever. I could see it recognize me, and I could see that it knew why I was about to kill it.
“In case you’re wondering if this will be quick, it will.”
I pulled out my gun, put it directly against her killer’s head, and pulled the trigger.
Tycho will return in DIGITAL CHIMERA, coming January 2020.
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About J.N. Chaney
J. N. Chaney is a USA Today Bestselling author and has a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.
He migrates often, but was last seen in Las Vegas, NV. Any sightings should be reported, as they are rare.