He's Taken

Edited by Brian J. White

March 2015

Carsona was a corporation town. It was also close enough that the skimmers could have been raiders picking through its refuse, or even inhabitants out for a joyride. Geoff and I would have avoided the place, but whoever had taken him would have come through here.

Or at least, so I hoped. Whoever it was, they hadn’t left a trace. Not even a thread of scent. Had Geoff surfaced from sleep and gone outside to find me? Unlikely in the daylight, but it could have happened. I hadn’t even left him a note — not that we had any paper, anyway.

I shouldn’t have left him.

To top it all off, he’d been right. It started raining.

The clouds raced in like greased cargo containers down a magchute, and a wall of water crashed down on the desert. Rivers poured off the solarcatch panels, gullies opened up in the sand, the three streets — because Carsona was bigger than Vega by a long shot — became quagmires, and the entire township staggered under the weight. The late afternoon was a steam-hell, the sun doing its best to reassert its primacy but unable to reach through a pall of heavy black skyveil. Thunder rolled, and it was my first time hearing sky-collisions without a City’s dome of stat-veiling muffling them.

It was also my first time feeling raindrops untainted by City smog or condenser-wash. The reflexive chemtesting in my skin returned some interesting results I might have wanted to explore, if the furious little black worry-mice hadn’t been running around inside my head.

I should _not have left him_.

The convoy station was a ramshackle affair, drips and rivulets working through its presswood ceiling and falling into a sad collection of slop-pots in every conceivable shape and size. Crowded, too, because a convoy had just arrived. It was the perfect time for me to infiltrate and blend, and it was also the perfect time for whoever had taken Geoff to exfiltrate.

Assuming I wasn’t too late.

The corporate logo was a red globe on a blue background, not one I’d seen before. GeoNara. Pasted on everything, from the buildings lining the thoroughfares to the sodden pieces of trash chucked into rusting cans. It took me less than two minutes to figure out the town was part of a mining and prospecting constellation, and that its last boom cycle had been a while ago. The veins for precious metals might be tapped out, but there were other layers in the strata around here that might be worth something.

Whoever took him was good. Damn good.

Agent good.

It was a fine time to wish I had some Agency backup. Running trace on someone in the middle of a desert is a thankless fucking task.

That was what I’d been counting on. Probably what whoever snatched him was counting on too.

How didn’t matter at this point. What mattered was finding out who. That would give me where, and when it did, they would see just how creative a flex liquidator could get at taking apart everything in her way. And if they’d hurt him…


I drifted through the town in the heavy rain, sop-soaking and alert even though any onlooker would have sworn I was blind drunk. There were a few watchful predators, but none of them quite managed to catch up to me.

No breath of an agent in town. Nothing out of the ordinary. No encrypted commchatter, not a hair out of place. It was just a sleepy collection of out-City trash scrabbling away at surviving.

That was the biggest joke of all. No Ingress, and limited Egress, that was the rule with Cities. Couldn’t let any contaminants in, and if you weren’t on a sealed train who knew what you were carrying? Still, though, why did people stay? There was a whole collection of dreamers and scammers in-City who said when I make Egress as if it was something to look forward to.

I could have told them outside wasn’t any better than in, from what I could see. Still, if the Cities didn’t want to lose plenty of their cheap workforce, the limits on Egress made sense.

Where is he?

I’d almost suspect a thopter had come down and whisked Geoff away. I’d torn apart every piece of gear, but there were no tracers in anything. No sign of a struggle, no sign of him. Just disappeared into thin air.

Someone had to have taken him. Sam, maybe? But where?

Doesn’t matter. Going to find him.

Really, it was laughably simple. I crouched in an alley, the rain thrumming every surface around me, and ran over my plan once more.

Risky. Almost-stupid. Minimal chance of success.

All I had.

Okay, agent. Time to get arrested.

I got to work.

Corporations run townships differently than in-City conclaves. In a City, you’ve got the hub — the Ring, where the skyscrapers rise and the security troops patrol — the Ring suburbs where those who earn out or claw their way into corporate grace have their climate-controlled homes with little strips of genengineered monoculture weed masquerading as lawn. Then there’s the Projekts where the industrial cogs in the machine rent their holes, and the Cirquits where the heavy machinery throbs and the only thing left to fear is sliding even further down on the ladder because at least you don’t live in the Slags.

The Projekts were rough, but the Slags… well.

Corporation townships don’t have Rings. They’re only there for one thing: maximum efficiency in extracting cash or resources. Whatever doesn’t serve that extraction doesn’t get built. Nothing gets repaired, either, unless it’ll improve efficiency. Nobody survives unless there’s a use for them.

All of which means one thing: the security offices have top-of-the-line gear; productivity requires the armored fist and the stat-rifle. And it means something else: it’s easy to get hauled in, when you’re in a corporation township.

It can even be fun, if you like that sort of thing.

When you’re looking to start a fight, you don’t pick the biggest place — they deal with stopping chaos before it starts on a daily basis. You don’t pick the smallest, either, because that won’t make enough noise. You want the juicy center, the place just big enough to make a ruckus and small enough to overwhelm.

So I stamped into the middle-sized cantina, the one with a bead curtain that rattled every time someone came in, and the statfield was turned down all the way. No dust to keep out, not with all the water hanging in the air. Mud coated the peeling plas-lino floor, barely drying before boots smeared a fresh layer down. It was crammed with steaming warmbodies gulping down ersatz or grain alcohol before climbing back into the convoy transports, or celebrating their safe arrival by poisoning themselves. Locals would be here to fleece the newcomers or get a bit of excitement, and the whole place was as crammed and blurry as only an afternoon of hard drinking could make it.

I shoved my way up to the bar, careful to bump into several of the warmbodies — not too hard, but not too softly either. The mood in here was just right, fermenting and bleary, nerves not as sodden as they would be later but inhibitions nicely blunted.

Wet and draggled as I was, nobody paid me a second glance except those I stepped on during my trip to the bar.

In the end, it’s always easy to start a fight. All you have to do is spill someone’s drink.

I jostled a big bear of a man — probably a mechanic, carrying a powerful fug of lubricant, sweat, and burning metal — with just enough force to slop his glass of grain alcohol. He growled an obscenity, but he didn’t have enough dominance in him to start a melee. Still, I trod on his toes as I staggered past, all the warmbodies now marking me as drunk and witless.

By the time I’d made a complete circuit of the cantina’s main floor, I’d antagonized just about everyone who was likely to have a temper. That wasn’t what had the whole place on edge, though. It was the carefully balanced pheromone mist I was pumping out, saturating the warmbodies with uneasy aggression. The roar of conversation had turned saw-edged, but the bartender — only about half as intelligent as Madam B back in New Vega — was too busy mixing and pouring to notice.

Walls of glazed mud, shored into place with pressed pulpfibre and scrap, dripped with condensation as dusk rose and the temperature dropped. I waited just a little longer, letting the pheromone mist ferment and take on a darker, sharper edge.

A knot of caravaneers loudly but genially arguing over some arcane bit of trivia at one end of the bar didn’t notice when I sidled nearby. Twenty seconds of fine-tuning the mist, hearing the pitch and timbre of the argument change, and I struck, all but throwing myself against the biggest of them. His cornglass mug went flying, grain alcohol spilled, and he bellowed, lashing out.

From there it was simple. Feinting and ducking, blurring to different flashpoints in the crowd, adding just enough pressure to keep everything boiling. I even helpfully threw one or two of the warmbodies who tried to restore order out through the bead curtain into the sea of gritty mud.

By the time the security detail arrived with shock batons to sort everything out, the entire cantina was a shambles, the bartender cowering in the only shelter he could find — the malodorous pit they charitably called a restroom. It was no great trick to get shocked or cuffed, I just had to go rigid before going limp, and pretend that it hurt. They assumed I was just another caravaneer, and within fifteen minutes I was stat-locked in a cell hollowed out of crumbling sandstone, in the basement of the security detail’s nerve center.

Just where I wanted to be.

The head of security was a hard-bellied male warmbody with white muttonchop whiskers and a shiny fist-shaped alloy badge. The blue and red of his uniform had only faded a little, and the rest of his salt-and-pepper mane was slicked back with rancid fat mixed with cheap synthesized cologne.

The shockflex restraints at my wrists hummed slightly as I shifted my weight. Rolled in mud and splattered with both ersatz and grain alcohol, no doubt I looked sorry indeed. I’d heard them taking out the flotsam of the fight in ones and twos for a couple hours now, sorting through the mess now that everyone was reasonably sober.

The nameplate on the desk read Berry, its mellow brass gleam no doubt lovingly polished every week. The lino was glossy, though it had been patched in places. Leaning back in his dangerously creaking chair, the big man in town regarded me from top to toe.

The door closed. Subroutines over every autonomic. They had security measures, yes. But all the scanhops, triggervalves, pressure sensors, and bioscanners in the world won’t help when they’re not even switched on.

Too easy.

My awareness roved in wide arcs as the chair creaked. There was the terminal, sitting dead and dark. After so long in the damn desert it was a relief to see a rectangular black block with fitted input jacks and a pair of split keyboards. Looked like a PransTech 5806, not the newest but not entirely obsolete either. It would have linkup capability, and once I—

“Ain’t you a pretty little thing.” The warmbody heaved himself up. His chair grunted. I had to replay the audio inside my head just to make sure he’d actually said that.

I’m covered in mud and stink of fourpad and stale alcohol. Your oculars need adjusting, sir. All the same, it made everything simpler. Once again, a warmbody sank to the lowest possible level.

Was there ever a time when they didn’t? After a while, when you’re so thoroughly implemented, you sort of… forget.

“You ain’t got no ID, and no multipass either. So. What’s your name, honey?”

I peered through filthy, matted strings of hair. The restraints at my wrists were flexcable with low shock capability. Easy. The warmbody was taller and probably thought he was heavier than me, and was most likely used to the desperate offering whatever they could. Good thing my gear was safely hidden.

You thought Geoff was safely hidden too.

Distraction. I let the warmbody heave himself a little closer.

“Now, you don’t look like you like being dirty. You tell me your name, and we’ll get you a nice bath. Hot water. Wouldn’t you like that?”

I wondered how many times he’d said this to any female without ID unlucky enough to end up in one of the sandstone cells. I wondered how long ago was the first time he’d said it. So far, this was depressingly textbook.

He was almost in range.

What’s that? Footsteps. Running. My hormone balance shifted, my weight sinking into my left leg. If they’d scanned me — but I’d have felt it.

Like you didn’t feel someone watching you and your kid? Move. Move now.

I didn’t, though. A runner’s instinct, keeping me loose and ready because he was still just out of optimal strikezone. There was a thudding at the door.

“Berry!” It was the same pimple-faced guard who had prodded me out of my cell. “Attack!”

“For the love of—”

The guard started babbling, something about bodies out at the Shalter place. “Everything busted up and there’s — you ain’t gonna believe this, Sheriff, but there’s blood, throats torn open and everything. Whatever did it drank their blood.”

The muttonchopped disaster stepped squarely into the strike zone, and I moved. Kick to the side, the pimpled guard’s knee cracking like a twig, and the flexcable of the restraints groaned as I looped it around Berry’s neck. The shock capability tingled pleasantly across my buffering, but turned the warmbody into a jitterlocked piece of meat. A quick yank to keep it snug, another precise application of force to the guard’s solar plexus with my other foot. Just like dancing, not even half-speed.

Creaking as the small bones in Berry’s neck fractured. He kicked as the shocks jolted through him, but it was child’s play to keep him from regaining his balance, and motor function degrades almost instantly when the carotid is clamped anyway. I wouldn’t have saved him for Geoff, though — an acidic note to his sweat shouted disease.

I didn’t have time to slowly strangle him, so I gave another quick jerk, cleanly fracturing the cervicals, and let his body spill to the floor. Dragged the gasping, kitten-weak guard further into the room by his ankle, and heaved the reinforced door shut, priming the pressure sensors on the keypad with a quick tap.

I didn’t want to be disturbed.

The sheriff’s bowels had released. It didn’t matter, but I did drag the guard away from the mess. The terminal lit up when I pressed the corekey; the spectral light from the four screens — only four, this was the desert — bathing the entire room in a harsher glow.

What I wouldn’t give for a nice KanthCoroCorp deck. Oh well. Adapt and make do, agent.

“Here we go,” I muttered, more to give the guard something to focus on than out of any real need to be audible. His gasping and the irregularity in his heartbeat would need to be dealt with soon, because I wanted him conscious enough to question.

Whatever did it drank their blood. My fingers danced over the split keyboards, splitting queries and narrowing down options. The linkup wasn’t even password protected.


The guard’s hitching breaths smoothed a little. “Berry,” he moaned. “Berry…”

Shock. I’d have to question him soon.

First, though, there was hacking to do.

“The Shalter place” was a slumshack on the very periphery of Carsona, surrounded by piles of slagorra that steamed under the rain. The stuff — byproduct of producing the heavy elements for fuelcores and other indispensible tech — sent shivers over my skin, even buffered. It was a good thing the nanos made sure you didn’t get gene-fraying from the stuff. Slag was element-rich in its own right, but working with the stuff meant you had to replace your labor every couple years. The mutations just get too bad, and once the worst of it sets in the skin starts splitting and liquefied stuff that used to be warmbody comes trickling out.

There was no cordon yet. Without the late lamented Berry to bark orders, there was time before someone sorted things out, went above their paygrade, and actually started trying to untangle what had happened.

Not that they’d ever find Berry’s body. His replacement was likely to be just as loathsome, but that wasn’t my problem. Neither were the other security personnel I’d disposed of at headquarters, more as an afterthought than anything else.

Might as well be tidy, if I was going to cause chaos in this backass burg as well as New Vega. There’s no reason to ever be sloppy or haphazard.

I toed open the pressboard door and slid inside, exhaling softly.

Bodies flung everywhere. The throats were savaged, almost torn free. Splatters of arterial spray — relief and fresh unease warred uneasily inside my savagely controlled autonomics. Geoff didn’t tear, he made neat little wounds and drank until he was finished, just like a good little boy should.

Not nearly enough blood. Multiple attackers. Look at that, too — stat-burns. Starlike pattern. Shit. CoreTech weaponry. I wonder—

I didn’t even get a chance to finish the thought. A betraying creak as weight shifted, and a long lean shape landed on the bloodsoaked flooring. I almost, almost struck, but ended up giving just a betraying little twitch before I recognized him.

Sam, his wheat-gold hair disarranged, actually glared at me. “Will you quit doing that? I’m here to help.”

“I left your head in the room,” I pointed out, spinning down from redline with a purely internal sigh. “What more do you want?”

He brushed aside my generosity with a single, efficient hand-wave. “We have to jump, Jess. Where’s the kid?”

Which answered one question, maybe. I crouched, keeping Sam in my peripheral as I examined a small, crumpled body. Slag distortions had given the little girl extra fingers and turned her face into a runneled mass, but her spincotton frock had been clean before death visited, and a short scan revealed no malnutrition markers on her bones or in her slagtouched flesh.

Even the slagged sometimes care for their spawn.

Sam was twitchier than I’d ever seen him. “Jess? Where is he?”

“Not gonna tell you, Sam. Shut up.”

“I want to help, Jess. Someone else wants to help you too.”

“Oh?” If you pitch me about the Agency now and promise me all will be forgiven, I’ll kill you for good. I might even enjoy it. “Who’s that?”

I expected him to say anything other than what came out of his implemented mouth. Sam bent down to pick up a long, sharp-ended piece of slag alloy. “John Nikor, Jess. Who else?”

I’ll admit it.

I actually started to laugh.

© 2015 Lilith Saintcrow

About the author

Lilith Saintcrow

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.