The bar was dim, full of fauxsmoke. Modern ersatz cigs don’t kill you like the old ones, and synthetic liquor doesn’t bite either. Cushioned, to keep warmbodies from hurting themselves.
Across from me, wheat-haired Sam slumped, staring at the amber fluid in his glass as if the ice cubes were going to suddenly spell out a message from on high.
Maybe they were. His washed-out gray eyes shone briefly, a reflection of blue neon. The iris pigments have to be original, for some reason nanos won’t touch them. Still, within certain canons, you can get what you want once you’re implemented. You can be striking, but not distinctive.
“Do this,” he said suddenly, “and you’ll be quits.”
I blinked at the picture. Nice-looking kid, maybe eight or nine, an engaging gap-toothed smile and a big vertical surgical scar on his chin. Thick dark hair cut straight across his forehead. He was frowning slightly, not looking into the camera, everything around him blurred. Telephoto, probably, and black and white.
Color exposes things. Like the shadow on the kid’s cheek. Bruise or dirt or something else. Didn’t matter.
Paper’s still best for this kind of work. The glorious future’s swimming in it, even if it’s made from reshuffled organic matter instead of precious tree fibers. It burns, and then it’s deleted. Not like anything electronic. Convenience means trackability.
I slid the glossy 8X10 back into the envelope. “What is this shit?”
“Control knows your feelings. They’re prepared to do certain things to overcome them.”
No reason to take kid jobs, that’s my personal view. Stay in the shadows and stay out of the under-18 pool, that’s just good business sense, in love, war, work, what-have-you. Having rules is dangerous — you start following the rule instead of thinking — but at the same time, you need some guides when you’re a liquidator or you go right off the rails.
A fully-implemented agent going off the rails is just begging for Dismissal. So you just put your nice, technologically redone, almost-invulnerable skull down and do what they want, it’s the safest course.
“There is no overcoming my feelings.” I slid the envelope across the table; it bumped the bottom of his sweating drink. His lips thinned. “There are agents who don’t mind that work. I do.”
“Triple your fee, and quits. Or you can move into Facilitation.”
“I don’t want a desk job.” And I don’t owe you or the Agency anything.
Not that “owe” really entered into it. “Own,” on the other hand, did. Such a tiny change, one little letter, and you had unvarnished truth. I’d figured that out on my own.
“Clean slate. Untraceable identity.”
“Please.” How untraceable, if you’re giving it to me? You think I’m stupid? “I said no, Sam.”
I don’t know if Sam is his name. I had to call him something, just like he picked a name for me, and he’d been my handler ever since the Agency decided I was indeed useful enough to warrant the cost of implementation. I wondered how many other agents he had. Sometimes.
He looks so average, Sam’s the only name that applies. Not Joe, because Joe Smith, really? Not John, because that’s so Freudian. But Sam Smith? The alliteration makes it a good peg to hang him on.
“Jess.” He even said it kindly, staring at his glass. “You can’t say no.”
Referring to me that way instead of with a number, or as Agent. Interesting.
Heartbeat, respiration, glandular balance all stayed the same. My glucose uptake spiked a little, the brain inside its lovely indestructible casing perking up. Galvanic skin response stayed flatline, though. Full implementation gives you near-perfect control over the body’s autonomic. You have to start watching for psychological “tells” instead of physiological ones.
Dear old Sammy, fully implemented too, was flatline as well. After you’re implemented, well, you’re just the messenger. Doesn’t pay to shoot you, though they pretty much always try. Doesn’t pay to kick, because the Agency always kicks harder. Doesn’t pay to do anything but toe the line, ride the rail, nod and yessir, grin and bear it.
“I don’t do kids.” It surprised even me. For one thing, I’d used audible communication instead of the subvocal grumble that’s standard for meets. For another, I put a finger on the envelope and shoved it, again, the sturdy wet paper crinkling a little as it pushed his glass. Another fractional application of force, and the drink would end up in his lap.
Unless implemented reflexes kicked in.
“Keep it down.” He stayed subvocal, and that irritated me.
Audible again, this time consciously. “Is this how you got into Facilitation?”
“None of your business.”
Score one for me, I’d forced him to shift to audible too. Bonus, he even looked irritated.
“There are other agents.” There are always other agents.
A shrug. He spread his hands on the tabletop, nice manicured fingernails, cared for but not overly femme. Everything in moderation. It was probably why he was in Facilitation instead of actual work.
“Control decided on you.” I’m just passing the news along, his tone said, plainly. Don’t get irrational. “Refusal will mean Dismissal.”
“You’re not serious.”
I settled back in my chair. Looked out over the restaurant again. It would do no good to rip his head off. It would just get reattached, unless I dropped it in a vat of something corrosive enough. Even if I did, it would only buy me a little time. They could broadcast a killcode; I wasn’t stupid enough to think I’d found every implanted dismiss switch in my reinforced bones and enhanced muscles.
Even if I had, there would be operatives after me, the whole City would be a trap, and it wouldn’t be personal.
Nothing ever is.
“Why?” It surprised me, hearing the unanswerable come out of my own mouth. I hadn’t asked such a stupid question since my intake interview, back when I was a frightened little warmbody. “I mean, why this kid? What about his parents?”
Sam sighed. He reached up and pinched the bridge of his completely nondescript nose. It was by far the most emotion he’d ever shown.
Then he told me.
I started laughing. Audibly. Loud enough that a couple warmbodies eating late lunch or early dinner glanced in our direction, incuriously. I’d like to say it was then I decided, but I’d be lying.
When I took the job, I had every intention of seeing it through.
The first step is always to watch. Some fully-implemented assholes think practically indestructible means run in like an idiot and waste resources — not just ammunition but time, effort, emotion.
Just because you can control the autonomics doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything. I wish they would have told me that when I “volunteered” for implementation. Then again, I wouldn’t have cared — I had to get out of the Projekts, and quick. I look and sound nothing like I did, but every time I venture into the crumbling concrete tenements I have to clamp a subroutine over my heartrate, so I don’t end up feeling young, warmbodied, and terrified all over again.
This wasn’t the Projekts, though. This was a nice suburban Ring street, live trees and all. Static gens on each corner to keep the air clear, so the greenery didn’t bend and die under a choking layer of coalescing smog. The houses had permabrick faces; it took serious money to look like the antique middle class nowadays. This entire neighborhood was joint-corporate-owned, what they used to call company housing. The houses don’t all look the same, but the differences were all of the same kind.
The kid’s house was middle of the block. I settled across the street, in a hypergrown tree — it looked like a birch crossed with something, but I didn’t bother to test its helix to find out. My camosuit matched its shifting shades, but I might as well have been naked. Precious few warmbodies think to look up. The permanently cloudy bowl of the City’s sky isn’t very attractive. Some say that out in the Waste there’s sunshine, but I didn’t know.
A sleek silver railbus paused at the corner. A gaggle of schoolkids, all in corporate uniform, tumbled out. Navy blazers, the crest of their parents’ corp owners stitched in shimmerthread, trousers for boys and plaid skorts for girls. The A-gens were already the loudest, each one with a coterie of Bs taking their cues from the dominants. The rest fell elsewhere on the scale, gamma, epsilon — but there was one they all avoided — a thin, gangly kid with a cap of dark hair and a NifulCorp badge on his blazer.
The camosuit ruffled, having to work a little harder because I’d gone too still. My instinctive shifting, mimicking the tree’s motion as an unsteady breeze flirted with its force-grown green branches, had paused.
Was it then? Every once in a while I replay the moment, searching for an internal seismic event. I don’t know, even now. I watched, now making fractional movements with the tree, as one of the A-gens shouted at the dark-haired boy.
“Scar-face!” The A-gen, a freckle-faced redhead who had probably just squeaked past the border into management material, added a few more._ “_Retard! Freak!” The taunts flew with a snatched-up stone.
The dark-haired kid’s head snapped aside. I lifted the nocs, carefully, swept the entire group of kids. Some of the Bs blanched, the other kids shied away, and one of the other As — a girl with long light platinum hair that had to have been coded in — made a face. I read her lips. Leave him alone, Croy.
Croy didn’t think so. “Got a girlfriend, freak?”
A thread of bright crimson traced down the kid’s cheek. His eyes were big and bright, and the hate in them was clearly visible. Or maybe I was just projecting, because I would have fought back, even at that tender age.
This kid, though, didn’t. He just hitched his backpack up and trudged down the street, away from the now-laughing group of B-gens around Croy the redhead.
I dropped the nocs. They dangled against my chest. Huh. NifulCorp was heavy-duty genetics, they worked hand in glove with the Agency on some aspects of implementation. They also did a lot of embryonic coding, building better babies for those who could afford them.
A couple more pebbles hit the sidewalk behind the dark-haired boy, with desultory clipping sounds. He put his head down, thin shoulders slumping. The posture should have shouted victim. Unfortunately, there was a certain arrogance to it, probably fuel to the fire when facing unsteady A-gens.
Scuffed brogans, frayed hems on his trouser-legs, his collar was shabby, and his blazer worn at the elbows. Puzzling. The kid was a significant investment, and they let him run around like this?
Investment or not, I had a job to do. It wouldn’t take much time at all.
He climbed the steps, head still down, and put his thumb on the printlock. I almost heard the click all the way across the street. Croy was still loafing at the end of the street with his coterie, laughing loudly. The others had begun to peel away in smaller groups, only the closest in status or relationship to the A-gens walking with them. The platinum girl flipped her hair pertly over her shoulder, a nice balanced group of Bs buzzing around her. She’d probably breezed right through the initial dominance tests.
“Geoffrey.” His name, breathed out subvocally. I almost twitched, not realizing it had come from me.
The kid couldn’t have heard. But he halted as the doorlocks chucked open in response to the printlock’s nudging, and looked over his shoulder.
Those eyes. Huge, and dark, and…
What? Haunted? That was absurd. There was no such thing.
Of course, there was no such thing as him, either. Yet there he was, in broad daylight, that scar on his chin quivering a little. Why hadn’t they reconstructed it better? They had the tech, and if he was what Sam had said, a creature right out of sims and fairytales, this made no sense.
I was thinking too much. I should have just done it them.
Instead, I went to see Barlowe.
Pop-fizzing of static-laden gunfire, lots of cheap blue neon, the smog close and choking building a layer of grime on all surfaces. Everyone who can afford them wears nasal filters. It makes the Projekts a land of silver-proboscis insects, hurrying back and forth, ducking when flying ammunition passes overhead like a wave. Rooftops belong to druglords and runners, whole wars fought over certain streets or desirable vantage points.
Agents don’t need filters. Still, every time I ventured into the Projekts, I wore them, partly to fit in and partly because, well, why make it harder on the nanos? They recharge themselves, renew the body, they’re every little practically-immortal’s helper, and after a while I felt pretty protective of mine. I’m just a skin sack for the whole beneficial colony to carry itself around, but still.
The Agency can’t broadcast a killcode to your own nanos, the survival imperative’s too strong. So it was the implanted dismiss switches, and scans could find most of those suckers, even the most ingeniously-hidden. Of course, more could be inserted, if you got maintenance or reworking. A lot of agents figure, oh well, the Agency keeps you in the red as a matter of course, might as well get upgraded and add to your debt.
Barlowe had deactivated a clutch of hidden switches I didn’t know existed inside my flesh, and I paid him untraceable hard bitcoin and information for the service. Still, he survived in the Projekts. It would be idiotic to not leave a few in, just for insurance.
I hunched my shoulders and hurried along, mimicking the crowd’s flow. Dirt-colored caftan, grime smeared on my face, the corroded silver glints of new nasal filters reworked to seem old, I was just another anonymous hustling bit of scurryware. I surfaced at the Rawlin Ave. station and kept working my way, meandering, to Cirquit Quartah. There wasn’t any point in going directly to him. Make every move as if you’re being tracked, that’s just good tactics.
It makes the times you slip the leash and drop off the grid much better. Sometimes I even do it randomly, sometimes I do it and pop up in the same place. If the Agency is watching I want to be normal. No agent ever goes without slipping the leash a few times, or trying to.
Every agent has shadowside contacts. If you stuck to only the official ones you’d be Dismissed for ineffectiveness soon enough. Barlowe, though, wasn’t quite officially unofficial enough.
For one thing, I wasn’t sure who owned him. A couple corporations thought they did, but the more I dug — oh, very carefully, respectfully, to be sure — the less I knew.
If he wasn’t owned, or if he was only slightly owned, well. Nobody’s free anymore. I wasn’t even sure anyone had ever been. Even cannibals out in the Waste had to trade with City scrappers, or so I heard.
Anyway, I slid into Cirquit and dropped off the tracking grid in a new way, ducking through a Phan Tong restaurant and the smoky steam-hell of the kitchen, cheap stathydroponic produce and vat-grown proteins slathered with synthetic seasonings imitating what it used to taste like. Or just someone’s idea of what it used to taste like. It could break your brain to think about too deeply.
Barlowe was now in a repurposed railbus hanging over Martell, deep in the Cirquit. He looked up and grunted as I slid through the bead curtain hanging just inside the regular entryway, a skinny old fluff-haired man with ancient hyperalloy implants at knees and elbows. A scan would show him as only a little implemented, not even up to minimum security standard for a drugrunner or a corporate officer. He had an ocular over one eye, good work without a tag. That was another thing — his implementation wasn’t even back-alley registered. It was completely innocent of anything approaching a serial.
Which meant the Agency would hotlist him in a split second. They’re the power they are because of their stranglehold on implementation; even illegals pay them. One way… or another.
“There she is,” Barlowe rasped. His nose was incredibly long, and he scrubbed the back of his liver-spotted right hand under it. “My little wind-up girl. What’ll it be? What have you brought old Papa?”
“Good afternoon, sir.” I’d found him through a contact I had to liquidate a few years ago. Poor old Pinok, just smart enough to get into a game he was too dumb to survive in. “How are you feeling?” Soft and polite was the best way to handle the cranky old bastard.
“Oh, she wants something big, does she? What now? Only visits when she needs things. Ungrateful little girl.” He jabbed a finger at me, stained orange-ish by ersatz nicotine. His fluff of white hair was a rooster’s tail, lifted high and proud. Not that I’d ever seen a rooster except on packets of Copona cigarettes, but still.
“I can leave.” I turned aside to study the glass case near the door. Little trinkets scattered across stained silvery tinselcloth; he had a legitimate pawner’s license and paid his bribes to enforcement punctually. “If you’re busy, sir.”
He snorted a very rude term, shuffled around his counter. One claw shot out, closed around a half-full bottle of ersatz rye. He took a healthy draft of it, scrawny throat working, before offering me the bottle.
I lifted it to my lips, politely, but as usual he didn’t check to see if I drank. Instead, he went past me and bolted the door, turned the ancient sign, with its old-fashioned blonde pinup girl showing her warmbody ass, to Closed, and shuffled back for the counter. “Come back. Might as well scan you while you’re here. Though you’re clean.”
“Maybe.” I carried the bottle back. “Sir, I have a question.”
“Oh, I’ll bet you do.”
“It’s about Egress.”
That got his attention. He stopped, turned around, and eyed me from top to toe. A leisurely survey I suffered, letting the bottle dangle, thinking about the fractional application of force that would turn its heavy-bottomed cornglass into a weapon.
His response wasn’t what I expected.
His tongue wet his lips, a dry lizard flicker. “My God, Sarah, what kind of trouble you in?”
It wasn’t until I was back out in the Ring, my Projekts protective coloration discarded and my head full of the weird humming that always happens when a job heats up, that I realized what was… bothering… me.
There were plenty of other agents who wouldn’t make a fuss. My psych profile was crystal-clear, I should know. They’d analyzed me twenty ways for each month of my life. Over and over, question after question while I was strapped into the sensachair, my warmbody responses monitored endlessly.
Of course, they wondered about the triggering event. People don’t just walk in off the street and request implementation. Oh, you know, sure they do, but I was good material. If I’d been born out on the Ring I might have passed some dominance tests and ended up a corporate somebody. My health scan was clean, my legal record nice and spotless, my grades — before I dropped out and went to work running to survive — had been respectable. Why do you want implementation? What does it mean to you?
I gave the same answer in a hundred different ways. I’m tired of being poor. The Projekts are a dead-end street. I heard there are implementation programs where you can work off your debt. As if I was some starry-eyed idiot who believed you could ever work it off.
I watched the kid’s house. The windows were squares of golden light. Rifle would be best, piercing even shock-resistant film, no muss no fuss, I’d be gone before the body hit the ground. Just a shattering and a light thud, painless and easy for him.
Why wasn’t I doing it? Why was I thinking about…
It turned out I was a great candidate for full implementation, all my measurements right square in the optimal zone. A doctor in the Free Clinic (hard bitcoin required, no records kept, rejects fallen from Ring grace doing both staff and medical work) had remarked as much, offhand, while he eyed my scan on tempfilm that was already eroding, my feet in the stirrups and the cold probing between my legs. It only took a few minutes, and I was scraped empty, cauterized, and out the door. The cramping only lasted an hour.
Why tell the Agency that? Greed, I figured, was an acceptable motive for what I was asking for. The other wasn’t their business.
I could have ended up security detail, but I’d been skimmed off the top and slated for delicate Agency work. Erasures mostly, sometimes warnings, sometimes one side or the other of a corporate war when one half — or both — received Agency aid. Even inter-Agency turf wars. Waste of resources, those, but what do I know? I’m just a tool.
The house, closed up and prim behind its permabrick, was just like every other damn one in its row. Except how many others were sitting on a secret this big?
What was really bothering me? Questions. Just like usual, only this time they weren’t the usual ones.
Why, really, would the Agency send me? Were they asleep at the switch? My psych profile was unexceptionable even where it detailed my rebellious streak. You couldn’t be a good agent without one. Thinking on your feet and solving problems with the required flexibility downright required it. Why me, instead of someone else who didn’t have a problem — someone who would probably have found a vantage point and picked him off that very afternoon, coming home from school?
Retard. Freak. Scarface.
The offer of a new identity, being quits, or Dismissal. It was blindingly obvious. Something here stank more that Barlowe’s undies.
I slithered down out of the tree, deactivated the camo, and strolled across the street nice and slow. Hands in my pockets, a featureless dark blazer and dungarees, letting the security cams get a good look at me. Subroutines over all my autonomics to keep them nice and even, with quicklocks in case of anything I’d need to alter glandular balance for. I went up the stairs as if I was an old family friend, and didn’t press the scanbell. Instead, I knocked, a quick light flurry of taps.
Sometimes people still did that.
There was a pause, a bit too long, and every one of my nerves, implemented and original, twitched.
They weren’t expecting me. Someone, stupidly, opened the door.
The male wasn’t a problem, he went down as soon as I ripped out his carotid implant. The female came down the stairs in a rush — smell of something red and rich, I kicked the door shut and went down, rolling, as she fired over my head. A blue-white static bolt went overhead with a whoosh, there was a whine of turbo recharge and the chucking of a manipulative re-rack, she had her back to the wall. “Stay down!” she yelled, and for a moment I thought she was talking to me.
Through the copper of blood and the scorch of ionization, I could smell her, high emotion pumping out through her warmbody pores. Fear, determination, adrenaline. Familiar.
Legs like coiled springs, entire body buzzing with leashed violence. The house was narrow, the stairs came down on the right into the entry hall, kitchen to the back, what was probably a den off to the left, lighted but empty. I jackrabbited up — she almost got me, too; I felt the brush of the static bolt. It sizzled past my hip, blasted another hole in the hall wall behind me.
I backhanded her, the greenstick crack of a reinforced but still warmbody neck breaking, and I subtracted the gun from her as she folded down.
When warmbodies go, the sphincters always loosen. It’s like the final reminder that in the end, they’re all the same. I didn’t know if agents have the same trouble. The nanos are pretty efficient, we can digest just about anything that has any trace nutritive value, plus there’s solar and static capability built into our skins.
I braced the gun. A TekStan static, heavy-duty, if a bolt had hit me I would’ve had a headache for about ten minutes. I checked the handle — innocent of a corporate logo, but that didn’t mean anything. TekStans were like candy, except this one was just on the edge of Agency hardware.
I expected screams. Crying. Something, anything. Instead, silence. A single hummingbird heartbeat I could hear — did they have dampers? Secondary security could be up there.
I slid easily, noiselessly, up the stairs. The banister was odd — metal, a weird resonance. Entire house could be boobytrapped. Hm. Interesting.
Padding, small feet on synthsilken carpet. I realized there were no pictures on the walls as I leveled the gun.
He peered out from behind a heavy shockproof door, the edges of its bolts scintillating in the warm golden light from a bloodspattered fixture overhead. How had blood gotten up there? Messy, messy.
Huge dark eyes, terribly blank. Was he in shock? I could do this kindly, so quickly he wouldn’t feel a thing. If he swung the door closed it would take a while for me to break it.
He didn’t. He pushed it open, and stepped out into the hall. His hands fell, little white birds, to his sides. He was painfully thin, and still in his school uniform. This close I could see a line of grime under each fingernail, and smell… what? A dry dusty scent, my scans going a little weird as they tried to pin down what was off about him. Even though Sam had told me, I don’t suppose I’d believed it until I got into close scanrange.
Did the other kids feel that instinctive tickle of something alien? Was that why the dominant boy had it in for him?
“You’re one of them.” Oddly flat, his little voice. “You’re here to kill me.”
We stared at each other. The gun, socked against my shoulder, whined with a fresh charge. Just a tiny bit of pressure on the trigger, a gentle squeeze, and flesh would vaporize. If what Sam told me was completely true…
“It’s okay.” That same flat tone, the scar on his chin flushing a little. “I’ve been expecting it.”
I couldn’t help myself. “What kind of kid are you?”
“I’m an investment.” Patiently. “I guess I’m not earning out.”
Still staring. I caught a whiff as a random air current moved down the hall. A little dirty, healthy young warmbody, but that weird dry tang. Fear, too. But over it, resignation. The room behind him was a glare of white, and I realized the rich smell downstairs had been spaghetti sauce. Stathydroponic tomatoes, to be sure, and weak garlic that had never seen the sun, but still, it was a rich person’s meal.
But the kid looked hungry. That room behind him was bare. No pictures on the wall, and he hadn’t changed into a corporate T-shirt and dungarees, like any other corp kid, from dominant right down to epsilon. I’d bet hard bitcoin he didn’t play outside. I’d further bet he didn’t have many toys. You’d think they would have enriched his environment, so to speak, but I guess that sort of thing’s expensive nowadays.
His feet were bare, and his toenails curled around the end of his toes. If he was an investment, he hadn’t been well taken care of.
I lowered the gun. Its whining sawed at my nerves. “I don’t want to kill you.” I even managed to say it like I hadn’t maybe decided it right that moment. “If I don’t, though, they’ll send someone who will.”
“I already told you it was okay.” Very patiently, as if I was subnormal. “You smell funny. Cyborg?”
I nodded. The gun pointed down, loosely. “I don’t want to kill you,” I repeated, and then I said the most absurd thing I’ve ever uttered in my entire life. “I want to escape.”
Those dark eyes got really big. Geoffrey considered me, the fear struggling in him. I could smell it, sharp and chemical. He was really only eight years old. Too young for this sort of thing.
Aren’t we all.
“Me too,” he said, in a very tiny voice.
Oh, fuck, I thought. I’m Dismissed for sure.
For the first time in years, Sam was late to a meet. I expected as much.
I’d had a lot of time to think, coming back from Cirquit again. There were only a few ways any of this made sense.
Unfortunately, even those few ways ended up with me messily dead. The kid, too. A practically immortal warmbody, Sam had told me. Regenerative organs. Unfortunately it can’t transplant, and there are other… issues. It requires… liquid… nutrition.
No wonder the Agency was involved. Even without transplantive capability, the process to create this kid would kick implementation right in the teeth.
Sam sat down across from me. This diner, not far from the Projekts, silver and bullet-shaped, its windows filmed with caustic smog and heavy grime, reeked of grease and despair. Dusk filled the street outside, railbuses turning on their forward lamps in deference to archaic laws. It wasn’t like it mattered, it was always twilight down here on the ground.
I let the silence build. The warmbody waitress shuffled over, Sam ordered a cup of sludge. Mine stood in front of me, cooling rapidly. A simple chipped white compressed-clay mug, probably older than me. Maybe even older than Sam. It was a miracle it hadn’t broken by now.
When I looked up, he was studying my face. We were both flatline, and his hands rested in plain sight on the tabletop. So did mine.
“It’s done,” I said, evenly. “Confirmed kill.”
He actually turned fractionally paler. His autonomics were probably struggling something fierce. I glanced over his shoulder. The waitress had vanished into the steam-heat of the kitchen, despite the sludgepot bubbling right on the counter. Ah.
He blinked. As tells went, it wasn’t a huge one, but then, when you’ve sat across from someone for years, getting your marching orders, it doesn’t have to be.
I was over the table, my hand cramping as I shoved the sharp point of the shivprobe between two strong flexible ribs, my other hand wrenching his head aside with a screech. It sounds different than breaking a warmbody’s cervical spine, stresses going up into high harmonics. Precision of force is needed, to fracture it just right.
His body bucked and crackled, static overwhelming subroutines, paralyzing systems. He did still have implanted Dismissal switches, they popped and fused just like Barlowe said they would with the palm-activator he’d given me, slapped against Sam’s bare skin.
Bet that’s uncomfortable. I pitched aside, rolling, as the windows cracked and shattered under a hail of static and projectile fire.
Dragging a twitching agent along the floor while security troops — mostly warmbody, since I could hear audible chatter — is not a lot of fun. It was better than being caught in the barrage the instant someone outside guessed I wasn’t quite as easily led as they thought I was.
Corporation. Maybe Niful. This didn’t come from Control. Or is the Agency hand in glove with a corp for this experiment? Turf battle? No, too public.
Someone’s fingers were going to get singed over this. If Sam was running on the side… but why? And why pick me? I’d never turned down a mission, threatening me with Dismissal wasn’t necessary…
…unless he wanted me pissed off enough to not kill the kid. Maybe he’d been banking on it?
Didn’t matter at the moment. The kitchen was deserted. Automations whined, dishwashing and steamjets going full-bore. Distractions. There was a door to the alley, I tossed Sam’s weight out first with a sickening crack as they blew in through the front of the diner. Sounded like a rocket, probably ArGen tech. Could mean nothing.
Get moving. I tossed Barlowe’s other present — wasn’t he a giving soul? — behind me. Followed Sam’s heavy, limp body, an uncontrolled jump that ended with me on top of him, rolling as projectile fire spatted the concrete behind me. The lumps of dead warmbody near the refuse containers were probably the diner’s staff, and the waitress’s tired legs were forever still now. Maybe she’d thought it was a police action, maybe she even believed they would keep her safe.
I dumped my still-twitching burden safely behind said rubbish bins, snapping the silicacine cuffs over his wrists and sticking the gag in. Barlowe said he’d be out until I took the sharp shivprobe through his chest away, but no use in being less than thorough. That done, I whirled, the camo fizzing as they switched to static bolts. The detonation of Barlowe’s toy behind me was an EMP pulse. It would fuzz their scopes and oculars something fierce, but mine were buffered.
A momentary scan pinpointed heartbeats quickened with excitement, sweat with adrenaline tang, whistling breaths. Some of them had autonomic implants, but the control isn’t perfect. Not even close.
Not like an agent’s.
Time to hunt.
“The body?” Barlowe wanted to know.
I dumped the contents of Sam’s pockets onto the glass counter. “Dropped in a vat of IcarenCorp chemsludge. It will give us a few hours before they fish him out and start asking questions. They may even think he’s me for a little bit.” I let my fingers travel over the assorted odds and ends. “See? Identicard, a plasma impress… He expected me to bring the kid, or tell him where he was. Idiot.”
“No.” Barlowe eyed me, his ocular glinting for a moment. “I would’ve expected it too. You don’t have the childkiller look, Sarah.”
“Abby?” A piping little cry. “Abby?”
I controlled a flinch. Geoff appeared, slightly damp — looked like Barlowe had run him through a chemshower. He’d also found the kid some clothes. With a blue long-sleeved RebeCorp T-shirt, dungarees, and boots held together by a judicious application of stat-tape, he looked a lot more normal.
But those eyes.
He ran around the end of the counter and flung his arms around me. Clinging for dear life, I guess. “You came back!”
“I said I would.” I tried not to sound irritated. Barlowe’s eyebrows, such as they were, had risen to dangerous heights. “We can’t stay here without bringing them down on you. They might find you anyway.”
Barlowe waved a horny, callused hand. “I’ll be somewhere else. I’ll even look different.” A pause. “About Egress.”
“What about it?” I was raw all over. That made twice I’d almost gone at him. I kept expecting — maybe even hoping for — a betrayal, Barlowe thinking he had a good chance to make some cash. Someone wanted this kid, bad. Of course they did, he was worth a lot. His organs might be regenerative; even if he wasn’t useful for replacing worn out corp exec’s warmbody failings he’d make a fine soldier.
Why did they have him stashed there? Perfect cover, but no place for a kid.
Still, would it have mattered? When a corporation controls you, it’s not an enlightened despot. You’re fungible. I hunched my shoulders, trying not to feel terribly exposed. A lot depended on the next few minutes.
Barlowe poked through the piles on the countertop. Blue neon fizzed outside. “This will get you through Station. You’ll have to figure out how to break out of the train in the Waste. You sure you want to do that?”
“Another City will be just as bad as this one.” I shrugged. “Get out from broadcast range for killcodes, scavenge enough tech to… I don’t know. There’s settlements. Some of them might not even be completely owned.”
“Optimist.” Barlowe made a few of the bits on the counter vanish. I’d brought him little bits of Facilitator kit he could sell, too. They would be hot, and they wouldn’t last long, but if anyone could turn a profit on them, he could. They lulled any suspicion he might have. “Next you’ll be telling me you believe in Nikor’s Rebels.”
You don’t know what I believe. I glanced down at Geoff. Figuring out how to get him what he needed to… eat… was going to be difficult at best. “I’m as clear from Dismiss implants as you can make me, right?”
“You’ve been clear for a while now.” Barlowe grumbled a bit more. He reached over the counter, motioning for Geoff to press his thumb on the plasma impress. The kid glanced at me, and when I nodded he licked his thumb and made a good stamp. It sealed onto the fresh identicard, and I did the other one. Two brand-spanking-new passes with nice safe code on them. I slipped both in my pocket. “So, Sarah… any last request?”
“Got a coat for the kid?” Thankfully, the bead curtain had stopped clashing and slithering behind me.
“He does,” Geoff piped up. “I’ll get it.” He was gone behind the counter like a shot.
I was glad. I didn’t want him to see what happened next. But still, when he came out, very slowly, clutching a ratty parka two sizes too big for him, I didn’t care for the look on his face.
“They would find him,” I managed, a bit lamely. “And you… you need to… drink.”
Geoff’s mouth was slightly open. The tiny sharp points of his canines showed, and any idiot could see they were subtly modified. The scar wasn’t surgical, the flesh separated naturally so the jaw could crack wide and get good purchase.
“He’s fresh.” I sounded harsh even to myself. “Don’t waste it.”
Barlowe’s body twitched, too, when Geoff sank his small fangs into its wrist. I held him there, a railprobe right through the old man’s forehead, and listened to the sucking sounds.
He was quiet until the train’s doors closed. I was turning over the problem of how to get off a sealed train in the middle of a wilderness inside my mostly-invulnerable skull.
Geoff sat between me and the wall. “Your name’s not Abby.”
I heard trains once had windows, before the Cities sealed up and Egress became a dirty word. Everyone on a train keeps their distance. There were only five in this sixteen-seater compartment, and if we kept it down, none of the others would hear us over the noise of repellers waking up and gears grinding.
I settled into stillness. We weren’t past the walls yet.
The Waste was either a radioactive desert or a lush Eden swarming with flesh-eating insects and brain-fried cannibal rebels. At least, so they told us in school.
Right now I had my doubts, and I hoped they were good enough.
“It is now,” I answered, finally. Names don’t matter. Not for me.
“Why did you… he was nice. He wanted to help.”
“I told you, they would have found him. That’s what they do, the people I thought I was working for. The people who made me.” And believe me, this was cleaner than what they’d do to him.
The identicards had gotten us this far. Had Sam been thinking he would flee with the kid? Was he working for another City? Corporations were largely interCity, the Agency had offices in every hub, of course. Sam might have been expecting a warm welcome somewhere else. I’d probably never know.
Geoff was silent. Why did it sting? Why was I also feeling the need to explain myself? “You wanted to escape. We’re going to. I had to kill him, kid.” Aren’t you grateful? You should be.
He probably didn’t know if I’d take care of him as a proper investment… or not.
The lights dimmed, and the train jerked forward. When I derailed it I’d have to scavenge through the cargo cars for anything useful.
“Are you gonna kill me now?” Very quiet. I caught a breath — copper, fear and whatever lingered in his mouth from his meal. He was looking a little rosier, but that could have been the dim light. If there weren’t mammals out in the Waste he could survive on I was going to either have to think of something else or watch him starve to death.
I’ll find something. I have to. “Of course not. What do you think I am?” I thought about the doctor, and the sucking sound as tech pulled a bundle of multiplying cells out of me. My feet in the stirrups, and the cold. Why do you want implementation, Miss?
Another long pause. Then, surprising me, his small fingers — so fragile, so easy to hurt — threaded between mine, lying discarded on the armrest. He squeezed, almost painfully hard, and I was very gentle.
“Mom?” he said, testing the word.
For the second time, an audible laugh caught me by surprise. The sound of the train gathering itself as it lurched out of Station covered the noise. The stench of the lavatory behind us was why nobody had chosen this pair of seats, but I could shut off that band of nasal receptors.
“I’m not the maternal type, kid.”
“That’s okay.” There it was again, the wistfulness. “I’m not a real kid.”
I took a deep breath. Another. The scraping inside me, and my own fierce determination. A baby in the Projekts was an anchor, and runners needed to be light and fast. The cash I’d skimmed from several shipments spent to cut and cauterize the deadweight away, and knowing they would catch me when the accounts didn’t balance. There was a way out, in a doctor’s chance observation, instead of the desperate jumping around I’d been working over and over.
Bright white light, the cold, and the hideous cramping only lasted an hour. Eight years ago. Funny, that.
“Yes, you are.” I had to work to make the words audible. There was an obstruction in my throat, even though all my autonomics were flatline. “You’re my kid, now. Better be quiet and rest.” I glanced over the interior of the car again, and a plan began to form.
He didn’t take his hand away. I didn’t take mine away either.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” I told him, and held his fingers as the train slid through the City’s walls.
Jump to: Chapter One
About the Author
Lili Saintcrow was born in New Mexico (which probably explains everything, given the nuclear testing) and spent her childhood bouncing around the world as a military brat. She fell in love with writing in second grade and has done it obsessively ever since. She currently resides in the rainy Pacific Northwest with her children, dogs, cat, and assorted other strays, including a metric ton of books holding her house together. You can find her at lilithsaintcrow.com/, on Twitter at @lilithsaintcrow and on Facebook.