He marched right up to the bar, a loose limber stride just a touch too long to be natural. It took him out of strike range, and the peculiar grumble of subaudible — standard for meets — thrummed through my audio intakes.
It would be ridiculous of me to stand near the table. Besides, the further he was away from Geoff, the better. Nothing else in scanrange, everything as it should be. Had they cordoned off the entire township?
If they did, I’m going to have to get creative. _“_Sam.” My own subaudible grumble, none of the warmbodies around us would pick up anything amiss. I stalked to the bar as well, just out of physical range. If he was walking in like this, he obviously wanted to talk. Or to delay me.
Which meant I had time.
A small grimace, just a fleeting expression. Other than that, he was flatline as usual. Just the messenger, passing the news along. My own autonomics were the same. He was handler, I was flex liquidator, and I’d already killed him once.
Time would tell if I could do it again.
“Whiskey, please.” In audible range, sunny and polite, he may have even winked at the owner. I could have told him charm wouldn’t work.
Madam B eyed him for a long moment, and he sighed theatrically, fingers flicking and a flash of hard bitcoin sparkling on the bar. It magically produced a drink; she gave me a long considering look, glanced at him again.
My lips curved in a facsimile of a smile. “One for me, too.”
“Sure.” She poured, a long amber stream of liquid, and I took the shot, cracked the bottom of the glass against the bar with just the right amount of force. Her eyes narrowed as she sized both of us up. “No trouble.”
“He’s just here to talk.” I gave Sam a sidelong glance, stayed audible. “Isn’t that right, Sammy?”
“Never knew why you called me that.” Another fractional grimace. Maybe he was looking for an emotion-of-the-year award.
Then we’re even. “Jess” as a name is strange, even from you. “It’s alliterative.” I considered the glass. Heavy, and cornglass fractured if you did it just right. The edge was good, but it would be the thick base that was most helpful, if I twisted it around his eye and savaged one-half of his optics. “Bland. Fungible. Short.”
“Thanks.” He switched to subaudible again. “You’re looking well.”
Empty compliment. My heartrate and respiration nice and even. “Mad at me?”
“Let’s call it pleasantly surprised. That the kid?”
Subroutines, clamping hard over everything. I smiled, gazing at the mirrored back of the bar, every warmbody and item in the room marked and alternatives clicking over inside my head. “Told you: target eliminated. As far as the Agency’s concerned, he’s dead. You keep it that way, or it won’t just be a nice bath you get.”
I probably shouldn’t have gone straight for a threat. It was a psychological tell the size of a blackbox Agency building, but at this point, he had to suspect I had an agenda where the kid was concerned. I just didn’t want him to know precisely what kind of agenda.
Not yet. Not until the information would serve my purposes.
Again, he switched to audible. “You’ve created problems.”
I’ll just bet I have. I’ve been trained for it, after all. “What kind of problems?”
He studied the mirror too. “I can help you. If you let me.”
I’ve heard that one before. “Not interested, thanks.”
Our gazes didn’t meet. I knew I was faster, implemented for liquidation. A facilitator, however, might be smarter.
He sighed. “You’re in over your head, Jess. If you want to stay alive, you’ll give me the kid and we’ll both walk away.”
I pushed the glass along the scarred top of the bar, slowly. Sam produced another hard bit; Madame B poured him another shot. He took it down, exhaled softly.
There were so many things I could have said. Ever study biology? Did they ever teach you anything about bears? Extinct now, but ferocious, and they had claws and teeth, and when you came for their cubs, well. That was too close to a clue. I could have threatened him again. I could have informed him that he’d take the kid over my dead body, and if he wanted that he was woefully understaffed, no matter what he’d brought with him.
All of it was empty. If he had Agency backup it was just a matter of time.
Do things efficiently. Save your strength.
I settled for looking at his face. Studying the line of the jaw, the pulse of his carotid, noting his metrics again. He wasn’t as optimal as I was for implementation, but he was close. What was he doing walking in as if he owned the place? I wasn’t that big of an Agency asset, there was no need to handle me with kid gloves. Did they have a pulse, lectric or otherwise, prepped? It wouldn’t do any permanent good, I was buffered.
So was he. The most they could do was incapacitate me for a short while.
Audible, again. “Jess. Please. I don’t want to see you Dismissed.”
Awful concerned, aren’t you. “You make it sound like it would be easy.”
He paused. Then, the crowning absurdity. “Whoever you’re working for, we’ll triple it, and bring you in safely.”
This made the second time I laughed out loud in a bar talking to my handler. It was getting to be a habit. “Now I know this isn’t Agency business. Who owns you, Sammy?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Come on, Jess. Running out of time.”
Aren’t we all. I turned, giving him my back, but only an idiot would have jumped me then. He didn’t, and I aimed for the shadowed booth.
The New Orthodox synth-torturing priest was observing this with a great deal of bleary but bright-eyed interest, spooning his mush in. He was right in the strike zone, and if Sam jumped me now there was no way the priest would ever play another tinkling little jig on the ancient synth again.
The moment passed. Geoff looked up at me, and that haunted, frightened expression was back, plastered all over his face with blue Cirquit neon. My throat had dried, for some reason, a new thing to subroutine. Did the kid think I was going to just hand him over? I spoke as softly as I could while still remaining warmbody-audible. “Things are about to get a little noisy.”
“He’s like you,” Geoff whispered, pale little words. “Is he here to kill us?”
I’m fairly sure he wants you alive. Which is not as reassuring as it could be. “When it starts, you go upstairs,” I said. “Barricade the door. Don’t open it for anyone but me.” I searched for something else to say. I’m probably going to get killed wasn’t reassuring either, was it?
Neither was I’m sorry I wasn’t smart enough.
“When’s it going to start?” A flicker of his tongue, nervously wetting his lips.
I didn’t blame him. “Pretty soon.” Because my scans were picking up activity now. Very subtle, very quiet, but definitely activity.
Which could only mean one thing. Agents. Multiple. It was time for me to get creative.
The first place I was going to start was with my handler. But he was already moving, ghosting out through the swinging door. Which was odd.
“It’s started,” I told Geoff. “Run.”
Egress meant I couldn’t take much in the way of agent kit with me. Plus, best to be safe and not take anything even remotely traceable, right? Go light and fast, pick up gear along the way, a runner’s habits. Always something lying around that’ll help; people are trash-creating machines, and what’s trash is often usable.
All of which meant I was facing multiple hostile agents with a TekStan hybrid statrifle, two projectile guns with variable-ammo capacity, a few interesting bits looted from the cannibals, and my own native wit.
I slid out through the swinging doors, skin darkening rapidly to draw in as much solar as possible from the dying sun. I couldn’t afford another evisceration, not with multiple hostiles and my free source of energy about to take its nightly bath.
You do realize you’re about to die, right?
No matter how thoroughly implemented you are, going into any fight makes the stupid warmbody part of you nervous.
Especially when you know it’s a losing battle.
There wasn’t a cordon — no thrumming of baffled thopters, no queer deadness of a commwall. Just four blips in my head, moving through a mental map of the township, too quick to be warmbody and too silent to be anything other than liquidators.
A short running start, a leap, and the weightlessness of almost-flying. A whoosh of air pressure changing as I landed across the street, a sun-bleached canvas awning giving resiliently underfoot, but I didn’t apply enough force to tear it, only enough to stretch and another leap put me on the roof of the Livery. At this angle I could see most of the township — and they, no doubt, could see me.
The comm channels were alive, six encrypted streams. So they were working together, and there were decoys or hidden agents. Sending four of them could mean they wanted to neutralize me and pick up the kid.
Or it could mean I was Dismissed.
Time to hope Barlowe really did get all my implanted switches out. The rifle socked into my shoulder, and a hot blue-white static bolt whined as it smacked a leaping paper cutout of a shadow. The shadow folded up like a spider flicked into a statrepeller, and even buffered that probably stung, because I’d caught whoever it was going fast.
There was a reason that out of all the hardware the cannibals or train robbers had been carrying, I chose this particular version of TekStan rifle. There was a batch of them dumped offmarket years ago, because nobody in-City would use them. You could mod them, but they turned unstable when you did, and the oscillations could give buffers a hard time. You just had to mod them enough.
I was just hoping the damn thing wouldn’t blow up when I pulled the trigger any number of times tonight.
Another crunch, this one metallic. One coming in from the left, I fired off another bolt and flung myself back, my boots scritch–scratch on hardened tar sealant, and by the time another one streaked in to hit me from behind the township folk were starting to realize something was going on.
Of course, it could have been the shattering sound as I kicked one of the liquidators right through a propped-up solar panel. Sparks flew, static fizzing as I followed it with a shot from the rifle, twisting in midair and dropping as a repeater probe-bolt whizzed overhead.
Oh, no you don’t. Another twist, aiming off the edge of the roof and bringing the rifle up, its recharge-whine almost at the right pitch. Next would come temporarily sacrificing the high ground to draw in whoever was hanging back and watching, because that would be the most dangerous of the bunch, the agent with enough brains to let everyone else throw themselves on the pile first.
Move. Weightless again, feet thudding on sand-grimed concrete, pitching forward to roll as a whisper of displaced air behind me meant someone had their wits about them. A stunning blow across my back, rolling again, up on my feet with my bootheels squealing and grinding. It was a male, taller and heavier than me, but that can mean next to nothing when you’ve got control of the situation.
I didn’t. There was a high piping scream, punching through the noise of breaking glass as I socked my hip into the male agent’s side and threw him into an ancient window of cracked plasilca and strengthened with alloy bars. Geoff tore out through the saloon’s swinging doors as I straightened. A last flash of sunlight threw all the shadows into high relief, the township’s lights flickering into life and confusing the optics even more.
“Abbymom!” Geoff yelled, and the doors burst open behind him again.
Female agent, blonde and blue, in dark spinwool jumpsuit just like the others; her optics must have been upgraded with something, because they were full of a weird silvery shine, stuttering in and out as she blinked. She had to be the smartest cookie of the bunch, because she hadn’t taken the bait and come for me.
Instead, she was streaking straight for my kid, and there was no way I was going to reach him in time.
Nightmare-slow, implemented muscles popping and even my nanos probably screaming as I bolted for him. Too late too late too late, and next would come the crack as she snapped his neck, or the explosion of burned meat and boiling blood, or maybe she’d just bury a blade or two in him. She could just grab and bolt, and then I’d have to not only fight off the other agents full of City gear and probably updated especially for this run, but also go after her and hope to hell I could catch her before—
Light. Searing, bright-white, I went down hard as the male hit me from behind again. Reflex tucked and rolled me once more, slapping the palm-held statpop switch against his neck. More crackling to add to the chaos; if he had implanted Dismiss switches they would be fusing — the statpop was Barlowe’s little toy, one of the many I’d scanned thoroughly until I knew I could replicate them, a little bit of planning and forethought paying dividends yet again.
Quit thinking about Barlowe. He was a necessary casualty. There and gone in nanoseconds, one of those stray thoughts that happen during a fight when you’re hit bad and the body doesn’t know it yet. Legs up, wrapped around the male agent as if we were Projekt kids playing acuesta pig-a-back, my fingers cramping slightly as his body bucked against the feedback. A wrench, hair tearing, the angle was wrong, we were still tumbling along the ground and he’d slowed me down too much. Another pull, my arm at an awkward angle, and cervical structures fractured in a song of high stress.
More statbolts whined. What the hell? I shoved the male’s limp body away, fish-jumping until I could get my feet under me, and was upright again just as a smoking body thudded down where I’d been lying a few seconds ago.
_Oh shit, shit shit shit— _
“DOWN!” Sam bellowed, and I dropped, landing on the smoking almost-corpse. Agents are theoretically invulnerable, but you can hurt us plenty, if you know how.
Another tearing sound, and it wasn’t just a static bolt, it was a full-fledged ball of plasma, searing the air and raising every hair on me as it blinked through space. It hit another agent — male again, a real bruiser, probably did black-box or bodyguard work — square in the chest, and I would have winced if I hadn’t had other problems. The commchannels were still encrypted, but stuttering wildly in and out. This guy had the new oculars too, a flat silver shine over his entire eyeballs.
Don’t they want to pass as warmbody? Who’s fucking firing that? Did they miss? Am I just that lucky?
There was a heap in the middle of the road, in jeans, those stat-taped boots, and a Static Rebe T-shirt torn by a scramble in some rocks the first time we’d outrun a worm. He was on hands and knees, shaking his head, dark hair shivering with reflected light and blisters rising on one cheek where the last flash of unfiltered sun had struck him. So small, and I skidded on my knees, smoke bursting from the tough reinforced pads on my jeans as I grabbed him, folding over him as the plasma cannon roared again. The next shot would strip the flesh from my reinforced bones and might kill every nano in me; I squeezed my eyes shut, there in the middle of the road, and thought about how I was going to throw Geoff clear even as three-quarters of me was vaporized.
A smoking, humming silence. Footsteps. Breath coming in high hard gasps, getting enough oxygen in to fuel another desperate move. I tensed. No way to outrun a plascannon, the fucking thing was still live, I could smell the ionization. The kid trembling in my arms. I told you to run, I wanted to say. Dammit, I told you to go upstairs and lock the door.
Maybe he even had, and she’d gone in through the window. Now wasn’t the time for debrief, and it wasn’t like it mattered.
There were other matters to take care of at the moment.
“Jess,” Sam said, quietly, “let’s get these bodies taken care of.”
My head turned. I blinked through the fog of combat and lifting smoke. Roasting, just like a cannibal feast — the nanos were going to have a hell of a time patching them together. If there were any of the silver motes that hadn’t been knocked clean out of them.
Sam lowered the plascannon’s sleek silver bulk from his shoulder. It began powering down with a sweet piercing harmonic that sent shivers all through me, and through most of the township’s buildings as well. There were probably warmbody casualties too. Hell of a mess.
I stared at my handler. He was scuffed up too, blood painting the left half of his face. Head wounds, messy, and he probably didn’t get his hands dirty often. Facilitators, you know. Pulling strings, sitting behind desks, running errands, and passing along messages.
It was just like a number of in-City jobs, a facilitator pulling a liquidator out of the fire. Sam, pulling me out of the fire. Like the CranCorp core-handler fiasco, or the war between RebeBron and KalaskilCorp. All those times he’d stepped in, because the facilitator is not only handler, support, and liaison, they’re also the one who gets docked if they lose an agent outright.
“What the fuck?” I whispered, through dry lips.
A loose easy shrug, the plascannon’s deep dark eye losing its winking pupil. It shut off completely, and the silence was immense. “I told you, I’m here to help.”
If you met a facilitator, you’d figure out pretty quick they’re damn smart. What you don’t see until it’s crisis time, though, is that they can also talk warmbodies into just about anything. A combination of verbal facility and an acute grasp of psychology, as well as pheromonal control, plus something tests can’t pin down. It’s a sort of charisma, a dominance factor as well as an indefinable, just like a liquidator’s psychological flexibility.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to display it. One of the benefits of agent speed is that you’re gone before the dust settles. By the time the warmbodies had stopped cowering and started peering into the dusk, Geoff was trembling against me in a shack at the end of the slums. The wooden walls — creaking as the desert turned from hot to cold and breathed all over Vega Township — were flimsy but they kept us from being seen by warmbodies, and some of the other leaning, sand-eaten structures around us were even unoccupied.
Sam disappeared briefly and returned with our gear and fourpads, as well as a couple shaggy beasts of his own. There was fodder enough for them in the secondary shack leaning against the first, and the creatures settled into happily munching. I, on the other hand, was nervous as a runner approaching her first rooftop — something about those agents bothered me, but hard as I tried, I couldn’t figure out what.
I was too busy keeping my ears perked for trouble, or Sam returning. Whichever came first.
When my handler slipped back in through the piecewood door, shaking dust out of his wheat-gold hair, I had the TekStan to my shoulder and Geoff behind me.
Sam sighed, heavily, and dropped the bar — just a heavy creosote-soaked piece of lumber — into the alloy brackets. It wouldn’t do any good, since the walls were flimsy enough to walk through, but maybe it made him feel better.
“There’s no need for that,” he said. “I’m on your side.”
“Pardon my teensy little bit of disbelief.” The whine of a fully-charged rifle grated on my nerves. Geoff’s ragged breathing didn’t, but between the two sounds, I was having too much trouble keeping my subroutines tight over my autonomics. “What the fuck, Sammy?”
“Aren’t you even going to say thank you?”
“Start talking.” My hand tensed, ready to squeeze the trigger fully and sting him. That would give me enough time to wrench his head off as well, and this time I wouldn’t just drop all his parts into sludge to keep him down for a little while.
This time, I’d consider a permanent solution, and take his plasma cannon. I could use something like that. It was the entire reason we were still here where he’d left us with a muttered stay here, for fucksake.
“I was going to get the kid out of town.” Sam lifted his hands, slowly, and rubbed at his face. After years of seeing him betray no emotion at all, it was a little shocking. “Someone wants him set free.”
“Free?” A laugh boiled right under my breastbone, but my control was better than his. It didn’t even get close to the surface. “That’s a laugh. You gave me a kill order.”
Geoff didn’t twitch behind me. He pressed close, his face against my back, as if he could blot all this out just by making everything dark.
Sam dropped his hands. “Your psych profile said you wouldn’t kill a kid, Jess. More importantly, I didn’t think you would, either.”
“Oh, I will if I have to.” My autonomics started to realign, settling under the subroutines instead of fighting them. “Just not this one.”
That earned me a long, appraising look. He folded his arms, eyebrows drawing together a little, and it occurred to me that his signaling emotion could be a trap. Or it could be genuine. Either way, he was a liability, even if he had just saved both of us.
Why would a facilitator do that? Plasma cannon can blow all the nanos out of you, and if you don’t have even one left in your meat you’re on the fast-track to oblivion. It’s possible to save an agent that’s been hit by a plas-blast, but it requires quick action and a stasis tank, and I didn’t think they had filtration and stat-neutral narcofluid, let alone gallons and gallons of restraint gel, out here in the Waste.
Maybe whatever lie he would tell would still give me something useful. So I gave him some bait. “Niful stole him from someone else. The Agency was contracted to steal him back, but decided he represents a kick right where it hurts — in their bottom line. And you — who the fuck are you playing for?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” He tilted his head a little before settling into fully implemented immobility. “Is he okay?”
“Like you care.” I didn’t ease off the trigger. “Answers, Sam. Now.”
“Niful stole him from someone else, yeah. The Agency wanted him for study and dissection. We wanted him out of the city.” Slight emphasis on the we, as if he didn’t think I’d catch the change and wanted to give me a clue. “I thought, that after eight years of working with me, you’d come back and tell me there was a problem. That you’d ask me for help, and I’d get you both out—”
“Like I said, you’re my favorite. And your psych file was pretty clear. Just not the child-killing type, Jess. I suppose we should all be grateful for that.”
“That’s insulting. You’re a crappy negotiator.”
Geoff shivered, his breath hot through my shirt, a circle of damp on my back. The calculations were instant, instinctive, and hateful.
I could say it. Take the kid. Or just leave Geoff here with Sam suitably disabled for a short while. I could vanish into the Waste, and forget all of this. There would be no reason to pursue me after that.
In other words, true, absolute freedom. If I was just going at this from a survival standpoint, that was my best bet. Any other avenue, even with a possible fourth player — original corporation, NifulCorp, Agency, and whoever Sam was hinting at — muddying and jostling around, just ended up with a short suicidal run before someone dropped me and did whatever they wanted with the kid anyway.
Just put your head down and get out of here. Walk away.
I wondered what it felt like when the plas hit and blew all your nanos out. Did it hurt?
Another faint twitch of expression crossed Sam’s bland, open face. It looked for all the world like disgruntlement. “I was hoping you’d have developed some trust in me. A rapport. Your file said you would.”
Maybe the file doesn’t know everything. “You’re another cog in the machine, Sam. Just like me.”
“More like a spanner in the works; always has been part of your considerable charm.” A ghost of a smile. “The offer stands. We’ll pay you triple, whatever they’ve promised you, and we’ll make sure you’re safe.”
That we again. A bluff, most likely. “Disap—” I squeezed the trigger midsyllable, and the flash was enough to blind even buffered optics. “—pointing, Sam.” I’d deliberately kept my eyes open, not giving him even a blink’s worth of warning. I shook my head, waiting for my vision to clear, rifle still held ready even though Geoff’s trembling took on an intensity I didn’t like at all.
Sam lay splayed on the floor, twitching. The modded rifle hadn’t blown me up, and that was fantastic. Luckier than I had any right to be. He would be out for only a few minutes, unless I moved fast.
I shook free of Geoff and braced myself. Another high-harmonic squeal, and I found my breath was coming higher and harsher than I liked as I wrenched my handler’s head from his body, tossing it across the room as the rest of him twitched and jerked. Probably really uncomfortable. I’d say I’m sorry, but I’m not.
With that taken care of, I turned on my heel. Two strides got me back to Geoff, and I went down on one knee with a jolt, grabbing his shoulders and examining him.
He stared at me, glaze-eyed and shaking. It made me wish I could just transfuse some of my nanos into him. If they wouldn’t corrode him from the inside out, being tuned to my helix down to the last strand of RNA, I would have. I couldn’t fully implement him, but shit if I didn’t want to.
He was so breakable.
“Geoff.” Quiet and firm. “It’s okay. It’s over. We’re leaving now.”
His chin trembled a little, the thick, seamed scar quivering. “Abbymom?”
“Right here, kid. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.” I winced even as I said it. Strict honesty would add if I can help it, but he didn’t need to hear that. He had enough to deal with already.
“You could have let him take me.”
Hearing his lost, forlorn little voice say it out loud was squirm-worthy. I swallowed, hard, for no particular reason at all. “I wouldn’t do that, Geoff.”
“Because you’re my kid.”
“But you…” He blinked, sense returning to that dark gaze. “But why, Abby?”
I don’t know. Only I did, I just couldn’t explain it, and we needed to get the hell out of here. I needed to think about things, especially those agents with their weird silver eye-sheen, and I thought best while moving. “It’s Mom, Geoff. Mother if you’re feeling formal. You can top off with one of his fourpads while I go through his gear, and by dawn we’re going to be far away.”