I hadn’t laughed like that since… well, since far before I was implemented. The Projekts beats any hilarity out of you soon enough.
My handler regarded me with a patient, pained expression just two shades away from his usual just passing the message along, agent blandness. It was the same look he wore when telling me damage tallies were going to be added to my debt. He glanced at the walls, probably collating all the information I’d already gleaned from the bloodspatter and starbursts of scorching characteristic of CoreTech weaponry — it was enough to make me wonder if they’d taken Geoff again. Slivers of bone driven into the pressboard walls like shrapnel, too.
Definitely not Geoff. But not enough blood, either. Throats shredded postmortem in most cases, to hide what?
The silence turned elastic. He kept watching me. I kept examining the corpses. That’s three attackers. Four — wait, more than that. Trained, but they didn’t take this place apart like a raid team would. This was something else. “Yeah, the hero of the Gene Wars is going to swoop in and save us. John Nikor’s a myth, Sam. Just like the Collective, fairies, and buttercups.”
“So is your little boy. There’s not enough blood here.”
You’re just now noticing? “He didn’t do this.” My unease sharpened. The Collective — that particular little fable was what I’d been trying to remember since the agents with their silver-sheen eyes, but I just filed it away for further thinking. My bandwidth needed to be spent on the here-and-now.
Sam’s thoughtful nod could have been mistaken for a twitch. “That’s CoreTech weaponry. Looks like they replicated some parts of the process.”
“The process.” Come on, give me something to work with.
“Where is he, Jess?” Sam stopped, giving me a thorough scan, and I winced a little internally. It wasn’t like I could hide it forever, though. “Oh, shit. You’ve lost him.”
“Now would be a good time for you to come clean, Sammy.”
“Do you know who took him?” The rain outside slackened a bit, slightly less deafening.
Not yet. “Working on it.” Still, it was vaguely cheering to think maybe Sam — and by extension, the Agency — might consider me an asset to be retained. A little backup would be nice, especially now that I’d basically sent out a floating blue-neon Cirquit billboard. The risk would be enough to send me hightailing back into the desert, if not for the prospect of seeing which fish rose to the bait. I could leverage the ensuing fracas to find out who’d taken Geoff.
One way or another.
Sam’s autonomics didn’t budge. “I can bring you in. Offer’s still good.”
I tilted my head fractionally. Never taking the first offer is good tactics. “Don’t insult my intelligence. The Agency’s not very forgiving.”
“Not Agency. Weren’t you listening? Nikor, Jess. The legend himself. The Rebellion’s always looking for disaffected agents.”
You expect me to believe that pile of fourpad shit? _“Don’t have time for holoserials and fairytales.” _Too quiet. I don’t like this. Nothing on my scans, but still, my hackles were up.
Even the most intrusive implementation leaves a space for instinct. I’d crouched near the little girl in the spincotton frock, my balance shifting as autonomics slid into subtly altered patterns. The nanos responded, prepping me for combat. Hormones shifting, brain glucose uptake spiking hard, enhanced muscles primed for action.
And Sam noticed. He switched to subvocal. “I don’t hear anything.”
Of course he didn’t. There was nothing to hear.
Consequently, when they blasted through the wall with CoreTech plasilca-film explosive, they knocked him down.
But not me.
Fast. Implemented-fast, but no commchatter and they weren’t buffered. Stunprobes crackled, a statbolt whined past, and I kicked the one looming over Sam’s prone body. Heavy, but not agent-heavy, the male — tall, a shock of floppy dark hair with chips of something pale in its long flow clacking as he flew — curled around the force of the kick and collided with a blond male in standard-issue City shocktroop wear. Deep navy to blend with shadowed corners, plasleather worn to suppleness, loaded with weapon straps, for a moment I was in-City again, and this was just the same as every other liquidation of a high-value target carried out in alleys, cheap Cirquit rooms, or corporate highrises.
One hit me from the side with a whip-flexing shockprobe, a starburst of tooth-gritting clampdown before my buffering shunted the crackle of stat aside. Feedback through a few intake channels, a brief squeal ignored out of habit. A shockprobe will reduce a warmbody without buffergear to seizures and pants-pissing on its mildest setting, but even dialed all the way up they’re only a minor annoyance to a liquidator.
The pressboard wall shuddered as I used momentum from the one who hit me to crash into another, my hand tangling in straps and giving a quick jerk. He spun away, smashing into the wall again. The entire structure groaned. We’d have the place broken down to the slag in no time, at this rate.
Move. Staying still would give them an advantage. One of them had a statrifle unlimbered, and the whine of recharge peaked just before I dropped and rolled again, the plasilca knife I’d plucked from my first target singing a high stressnote as a flash scoured the inside of the shack. Thick ozone reek, the statbolt splatting on the wall and scorching a familiar starshape.
Decisions, decisions. Did I keep them away from Sam, or hope they would mistake him for a threat? Oh, for the love of—
I was already committed, the plasilca knife shrieking as it whip-bent and my hand darted down, opening the blond’s femoral artery and flashing back up, severing what I could in the inguinal fold with a vicious twist as I pushed off again, just barely dodging another darkhaired male whose face was a rictus. His strike went wide, lips skinned back from his teeth, and if I hadn’t been so busy dodging another crackle-hissing statbolt I might have been startled by the shape of his swollen canines.
As it was, I dropped and rolled again, pushing off with all the force enhanced muscles could give me and colliding in midair with the first floppy-haired bastard. The bits of gleaming in his hair were bleached bone, knotted into the strands with spincotton, clacking as he growled at me.
The sound-profile was strange, but I didn’t have time for more than record-and-flag because we were both airborne. Force transferred, one hand in his hair, I dragged the plasilca blade across his throat and shoved. Arterial spray splattered, I landed hard, the floor cracking. Noisome dust puffed up, my hair full of splinters. Skewers of pressboard jagging up, another statbolt whined, and a short grunt of effort punctuated the chaos as I wiped the third’s legs from underneath him, my palm threatening to slide on damp blood-greased pressboard before I gained my feet again with a convulsive movement. Where’s the last? Dammit, they’re quiet. Not even a pulse until they’re right on top of you.
The third, squat and corded with muscle, hissed as he fell. Another strange sound, but I didn’t have time to think about it. So fucking fast, implemented reflexes straining to keep up.
If he hadn’t been sloppy, new to the enhanced speed of his limbs, he might have hurt me. As it was, I got a good fistful of his hair and surged up, legs flying loose. My right heel brushed the ceiling, I had enough height and twisted as I dropped, dragging his head in ways no cervical structure could support. A short sharp crack, my feet thudding down on sagging pressboard, a rain-soaked burst of air through the hole in the wall mixing with the stink of blood, stat-scorch, death, and slag.
Extending in a lunge, the fourth shocktrooper tracking me with the rifle’s muzzle. This is going to sting. Calculating the intervals — he would get off a shot, I was too far away. Where was Sam? Was he still stunned? Facilitators weren’t as durable as—
Crack. The rifle clattered to the floor, and Sam stepped aside, almost mincingly. The dripping point of an alloy bar thrust out of the fourth man’s chest, and I had time to study his graying face as shock took over and he fell with a shack-shaking thud.
I dove for the CoreTech statrifle, grabbing the strap before it hit the floor. Sam shook his head. Blood and dust grimed onto his face, his eyes blazing and a chilling little smile on his lips, he didn’t seem the same facilitator I’d been getting my marching orders from for years.
“So that’s how it is.” He toed the body of the fourth shocktrooper. “Great.”
What? I didn’t bother asking. He was talking about Nikor and getting cryptic. Maybe a cognitive degrade? I had dumped him in caustic sludge. Maybe some had worked its way into his cerebellum.
Of course, I was halfway to believing fairytales were coming to life myself.
I eased my way across shattered flooring, trying to avoid the strewn ruins of slagged warmbodies. I sank into a crouch next to the blond. Blood spread sluggishly from his slashed thigh, but not nearly enough. Huh.
“Jess?” A new note to Sam’s voice. What was it? Didn’t matter.
I sniffed, tasted the air. The copper of fresh blood was somehow off. I touched a fingertip to the blond’s leg, reflexive chemtesting returning a series of answers that made no sense at all. The edges of the slice up his thigh quivered oddly. I’d cut almost down to bone, laying open the artery. He should have bled out in seconds.
“Jess, I’d get away from that if I were you.”
I ignored Sam again. Used my thumb to pry up the blond’s upper lip. Canines, retractable — see the pouch there? Musculature changes there and there. Modified jaw structure — must hurt like hell to have that clamp down. Interesting. Geoff’s are neater, though. This is just a sloppy copy. “These guys are too fast,” I murmured. “Too strong. No implementation, but they have to be implemented. Unless…”
“Yeah, you’re looking at CoreTech’s second-gens. Didn’t think they’d let them out-City, but they must be desperate.”
“Mh.” A noncommittal noise. Keep talking. Second-gens? Was Geoff the first generation? Or a later one, refined? Perfected?
The later generation of what, though? Shocktroops that didn’t need implementation, probably. But if they had these assholes primed and ready for exploitation…
The scramble to retain Geoff wouldn’t make sense unless the process wasn’t perfected yet and they consequently needed the iteration he represented, whether earlier or later.
The edges of the thigh-wound quivered a little more, flushing rosy even in the dimness. There was a creaking crackle from across the room — just like nanos fusing cervicals together.
The blond’s cheek twitched.
“Jess.” Very calmly, and very quietly, Sam took a step towards me. “I really think we should both get out of here now.”
I think you’re half right. I uncoiled, my weight balanced throughout the entire motion. The only corpses that weren’t twitching were the slagged warmbodies, and the one Sam had pinned with a slag-alloy bar. “You go ahead.”
“You have no idea what these guys are capable of.”
“And you do? Either start talking or get the fuck out of here.” I inhaled smoothly, brought the statrifle up to my shoulder. Now was a fine time to wish I’d stopped to get my cached gear on my way from the security headquarters. “Because these motherfuckers have information, and I want it.”
“I can give you answers. I’d love to. We just should really get out of here.”
“Go on, then.” The statrifle’s whine settled into the ultrasonic of a full charge.
He sighed. “You were never this much trouble in-City.”
“Maybe you just weren’t paying attention.”
“Believe me, I was. Jess, please.”
The creaking sounds intensified. I tilted my head slightly, scanning. They were damn near invisible to infrared, even though they bled hot. No scars on their chins, but modified teeth, jaws, musculature. Fast and pretty indestructible.
Well, maybe not indestructible. But still, this kicked implementation right where it hurt. So why would a corporation release them into the wild like this?
Maybe they weren’t released.
I needed a few cycles to rest. I needed to think this through. I needed to find Geoff. What were the chances of these enhanced warmbodies serving that last overriding purpose?
More twitching. More creaking. More crackling.
“Jess.” Firmly, now. “I don’t want to have to drag you out of here.”
“As if you could.” I racked the statrifle, the descending throb of its powering down sending a ripple up my back. I glanced at the hole in the wall, and decided it was as good a direction as any to make an exit.
If Sam was smart, he’d follow.
Just behind the crest of a slag-heap, I hunched my shoulders and watched the activity below. Warmbodies swarmed the site, two or three in ancient containment suits. Hauling the bodies out, picking over the belongings — a scuffle broke out a few rags of clothing, but all in all, it was a quiet affair.
Only one of the shocktroopers was carried out — the one with the alloy spike through his chest. Did they leave the rest in there? Impossible, there was good gear to scavenge.
Sam, next to me, was motionless as only an agent could be. He observed a safe distance, though. Whether it was caution or distaste, I wasn’t going to guess.
“They’re looking for him too.” Not subaudible, no reason to grumble when the warmbodies were so far away. “Or at least, they were. Agency just knows I was dumped in a vat, not that you had anything to do with it; Core and Niful bid for two HK teams but didn’t want Control knowing anything about the kid. I’ve fudged the reports as much as I’m able. As far as Control knows, you’re a casualty too. Tied off, game over.”
They still weren’t bringing the shocktroopers out. The security troops — the half-dozen or so who had been out of the headquarters while I was there — didn’t look uneasy. They didn’t have a cordon set up.
It was a puzzle.
“You could thank me.” Sam moved just a little, cycling muscles to keep them ready. “Or say you’re happy to see me now.”
Look at that. I’m well past my teen years and implemented to the max, and yet I still feel like rolling my eyes. The swarming died down. Nobody wants to stay near slag any longer than they can help it. What would it be like to live in it? Breathe it in?
At least the desert was cleaner, somehow. Or maybe it just seemed that way.
“Shut up.” He had never been this chatty before. No wonder he was in facilitating, if he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I was beginning to wish we were in-City again.
The warmbodies trickled away. I waited. It was a good thing I wasn’t too attached to this clothing — what little of it was left after the past twelve hours would have to go in a furnace. Even chemshower won’t get slag out. At this point I was wearing more mud than fabric. The rain had slacked still further, and thin traceries of steam rose from my skin before the nanos readjusted camouflage mode.
Just wait. Even though I could talk myself into going back down there and ripping up the floorboards, I stayed put. Enhanced healing — did they feel pain? If they did, sooner or later one of them would break and tell me everything I wanted to know.
Torture’s unreliable, though. They might just tell you what they think you want to know.
Often, the quickest way to what you want is just waiting. Even fully implemented agents sometimes fail to grasp that simple fact.
Respiration slowing. Cycling through my own muscles, so softly, so patiently.
Where is he? Are they feeding him? Will anyone kiss him goodnight? Listen to him breathing during the day? Is he all right? Little worry-mice running around inside my almost-invulnerable brain. Just because you can pop a subroutine over the autonomics doesn’t mean you can’t still feel.
Yet another thing I wished they would have told me before implementation. It wouldn’t have made any difference, but still.
Dark smears, oozing free of the shack’s dim bulk. They didn’t move like warmbodies, or like agents. They slid along as if greased, silent as death.
Only not quite. Three shadows, and an unsound. It didn’t register on intakes, it didn’t lend itself to a profile. It hit behind the ear, in the place where a tickle tells you it’s going to rain, or that a particular rooftop run or corporate war is about to get ugly.
That’s how you hunt them, then. Autonomics clamped down, and the dark smears blurred up the slag-choked path towards the low punky glow that was Carsona. Moving in standard raid formation, you could see the corpsec training all over them.
So what do you think they’re going to do?
I thought about it, and looked at Sam. “They weren’t born like that.” Hushed, conspiratorial.
He shook his head. The rain had plastered his hair down, darkened it. A wet gleam from his eyes, and a little heat bleeding off both of us now in steam-trails. “No. They weren’t.”
We weren’t born like this, either. I ran over everything inside my head again. The eastern rim of the world would soon be on fire. A warmbody wouldn’t see dawn approaching, but I did.
And so would they.
“You’re a facilitator.” I stretched, a little gingerly, and stood up. Mud splatted free, the skywater more a mist with pretensions than an actual rain.
“I wasn’t always.” His throat moved as he swallowed, looking over my shoulder at the town’s nacreous glow.
Are you sure? But maybe he could have meant he wasn’t always implemented. Maybe we’d both been thinking the same thing.
“You’re going to tell me about them.” My hands loose, my subroutines all even. “Then I’m going to find my kid.”
“We’re going to find your kid.”
“Maybe? You’re going to dump me somewhere else?”
“It all,” I told him, “depends on what your fairytale wants with him.”
I stripped off the slag-steaming rags on the way; the chemshower was ancient and rickety but it worked just fine. There was no actual water, but it didn’t matter — slag sometimes burns if you add H2O, no reason to make the nanos repair that too. Especially since I hadn’t had a good solar charge in a few days, and expended serious effort on the shocktroopers.
Wandering naked through a corporation town at dawn gives you time to think. I checked my internal chrono, wincing at how much time had passed. Staying here was a fool’s game, but leaving meant I wouldn’t be able to watch who came scrambling to the table and deduce who’d taken Geoff.
Collecting my gear was Sam’s job, and it was there when I got out of the chemshower. For a moment we were in-City again, the facilitator standing guard while the agent cleaned up, the mission moving into another phase or the prearranged break drawing closer.
There wasn’t a bed in this sorry shack of a room, but at least it wasn’t slagged. Just a pressboard cube atop one of the smaller liveries, smelling of fourpad and a deeper, gassy, warmbody reek as well.
I ran my fingers through my damp hair, tugging at tangles. “Start at the beginning.”
“CoreTech’s scrambling. Their project’s gone sideways.”
Again, I didn’t roll my eyes. I decided on a spincotton shift and pair of denims bought for hard credit in New Vega. I did give Sam a single eloquent glance.
He must have felt it, even though he didn’t turn around. “Or psychotic, your choice. The second-gens have slipped their leash and gone hunting.”
“Oh, it’s Geoff now?” He sighed, peering out the window past a sunbleached rag of drapery. “Actually, I don’t think so. I think they’re just thirsty.”
Thirsty. “My kid’s first-gen?”
“No, the first gens died off. Something about anaphylactic shock and UV. Your kid’s the zero. A metagenius built him, but a few days after decanting the builder was found with a hole in his head and a suicide note.”
Interesting. A quick scan of my saddlebags. I wondered if I’d be able to pick up the fourpads again, especially the one who liked to eat my hair. He made an odd gurgle-snort sound when something surprised him, and his loping pace was easier than any other fourpad’s was likely to be.
That’s the trouble with spending time with warmbody things for any length of time. You can try not to get attached, but it doesn’t work.
“Who did the metagenius work for?” There were no little pops or pings in the saddlebags. Maybe Sam intended to keep me in sight.
Sam let out a soft breath. “Jess…”
I suppose it was only fair. After all, I’d rammed a lectricprobe through him, and later torn his head off. To his credit, though, it didn’t hurt. The statpistol, dialed up to max, stunned me for a few precious seconds, but that was enough for him to pop the sticky silico-stretchy numbpatch onto my bare arm. They’re counted and recounted, only signed out with two authorized Control representatives present, doled out grudgingly, and almost never allowed out into the field.
It didn’t matter where he got it. The point was, I went down hard, everything in me shrieking as the nanos decoded the chemsignal — time to protect the host by shutting down consciousness, the same tingling and flood of warmth as sinking into the restraint tank for upgrades, fighting it, fighting it, no use.
Jump to: Chapter Eight
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.