Black Hat Collective

Edited by Brian J. White

August 2015

They came from below.

It wasn’t Zion. It was just a shell, and it was clean because it was a decoy, a shell built over the entrance, booby-trapped and full of nasty surprises for anyone stupid enough to mount an assault. The Trapp field could lose the three aboveground generator-vents and still seal the entrance doors; there were secondary vents hidden away.

Hide, Sam had said. Don’t go down below.

I began to surface about two and a half minutes after he’d hit me with the second pulse. Restraints — not flexcable either. You can’t immobilize an agent for more than a short while, we’re just too good at wriggling. But a good way to stretch that little while out is with a cram-cradle. Wrists and ankles bound, chained together with cinchfilaments and then roped to each other with more cinchfil, your elbows, knees, ribs, hips, and head caged too. The harder you pull, the less give there is. Then sheets of cramwrap, round and round, swaddling robbing the agent of everything but a few centimeters of breathing space. Struggle, and the wrap tightens, cutting off your air and sending you into anaerobic reserve mode.

Uncomfortable, to say the least.

I came back online in bits and pieces, being carried down a long ramp. For a moment I thought I as back in the city again, in the critical second stage of implementation, gliding on a gurney through the bowels of one of the black cubes.

Wait. I’m already implemented. Am I being upgraded? What the hell?

Each tiny bump made the wrap constrict a little. I couldn’t get enough air in, and hovered between reserve mode and waking, struggling to cycle up. Little flashes, almost-dreams, on the half-lit border between consciousness and the soft fuzz of anaerobic.

Geoff, biting his lip a little as he concentrated on the watermaker. His head upflung, testing the wind, moonlight turning his young face into an adult’s for a single weary moment.

Sam on the other side of the tank wall, his face unreadable as I floated. He’d come by to check on me during upgrades, and often stood there watching, turned into a green ghost by the restraint gel or tinted blue by the narcofluid. Sam splayed in the sand, limbs akimbo, watching me contain Geoff’s struggles. What was that look on his face? There and gone in less than a heartbeat.

He wants her alive.”_

Who?

Flash after flash — running rooftops, dodging fire, the cold scrape-burning between my legs as I stared into a clinic’s harsh lamplight overhead, the cocktails of drugs and hypno to prep me for the first stages of implementation. The second, critical stage where the neural reshaping takes place, nanos differentiating and multiplying, a hyperalloy bath crackling with lectric force as the little things formed chains to reinforce bones, reshape muscles, make me stronger, faster, smarter. The third phase is all delicate work, fine-tuning metabolism and cycling parameters, making sure the nanos have the complex mélange of chemicals, metals, minerals, and proteins they need to finish implementation. Jolts of concentrated sucrose, glucose, tanchrymose, all sorts of vat-grown proteins — it takes a lot of energy to keep a body functioning through such invasive restructuring.

It was enough to make you wonder if you were the same person when you woke up, sore as hell and with twitchy trigger reflexes. Short courses of sedation while you’re taught to control your new body, hypno from the prep locking into place and making sure you don’t kill the warmbody support staff or accidentally walk through a wall. Learning to cycle effectively, how to conserve your energy, how to deal with having basic biological necessities become nothing but amenities. How to pass for warmbody. The temperature fluctuations — until you learn to normalize, the bone-reinforcing can make you feel cold. Even after you normalize physically, there’s the psychological impacts. Sometimes the coldness doesn’t go away.

You’re a machine. You’re Agency property. You are owned, and you will do your job or you will be Dismissed.

Finding out that being able to throttle your autonomics didn’t mean you didn’t feel it. The Dismissal rate spikes, we were told, between the first six and eight months after implementation. That spike is spurred by purely psychological degradation; even the best testing beforehand won’t show where an agent might go off the rails in those first few months.

After that, the Dismissal rate declines to near zero — but the threat never goes away.

The jostling stopped. The cramwrap relaxed a little as I was laid on a flat surface, and I heard the humming of a grav-gurney. So familiar.

Their eyes. Their nanoprofiles. Something there. Oxygen crept back in, I hovered on the borderline a little longer, then woke fully when the cramwrap was loosened fractionally again. Not enough, but at least I could breathe, and my nanos went into overdrive.

My vision sharpened. The bouncing sound in the corridor was the vibrations of the Trapp generator. Did they live with that all the time, humming in their bones?

Sam walked alongside the gurney. Four of the silver-oculared agents surrounded us, as if they were warmbody scientists and support staff accompanying a new agent. Their voices wavered, reaching me in bursts through the hum and my intake feeds fuzzing intermittent as I tried to shake off reserve mode.

Just let the nanos work.

Geoff. Where was he?

Aural intake blazed back into life. “—not going to be happy about this.” Sam, in one of his more patently reasonable, negotiating tones.

“That is beyond our control.” A female silver-eyed agent, the words passionless and uninflected even more than a facilitator’s just-passing-the-news-along.

“Sure it is, but if the Collective tries to implement her, we’ll lose a resource. And she’s a newer model, you might not be able to—”

“Too dangerous.” Male, now, from my left. Strangely, it was the same voice, the same tone, but coming from a different throat. “Must be contained. You are useful. Do not press.”

“You can understand my hesitation. I’m the one who has to take the news back.”

“The others have been captured. All is according to plan.” Another male, down near my feet instead of at my head. Again, same voice, different throat.

I ran the differences in the nanoprofile through my head again. Glucose levels in the brain spiked, almost shutting down my precarious hold on consciousness.

The differences weren’t really the odd thing. The odd thing was the overlapping similarity in each agent’s profile. Introducing your nanos into another agent will trigger a war between the two, the host’s body the battleground, and the invaders will die a swift death.

They replicate, sure, and you don’t run out of them… but it’s not pleasant to think about.

Wait. Don’t look at that, look at the—

Driven into anaerobic again. I surfaced a bare thirty seconds later according to chrono, and spent a few moments getting as much oxygen as I could without triggering the wrap.

“Whose plan? No, I don’t want to know. I’m just a messenger, guys.”

“You have your part.” The female again. “You are useful.”

It’s not the nanoprofiles at all. They’re outside parameters. Measurements not even close to optimal, not even close to baseline.

That had been nagging at me ever since I’d tangled with the silver-eyed bastards in New Vega. Which meant… what? So hard to think when each fresh burst of brain activity threatened to shut me down into reserve again.

“Thanks.” A touch of grim amusement. Sam didn’t look down at me — I could only see him in quarter-profile.

“We are here.” The second male spoke, and a rosy light bloomed through my eyelashes. The gurney bumped just a little, and the wrap choked up again, but not before a faint, horrible idea occurred to me.

They have nanos, all right. They’re not agents? The measurements…

The Collective.


Swimming up again. A stinging all over me. Voices.

“—fighting the sedation. How is that possible?” That same voice, this time through a younger throat, its shades and nuances of individuality not yet erased.

“The will commands, the body obeys.” Black Hat, slowly. “Leave us.”

“Sir?”

“Leave us.”

Sound of movement. Sam’s voice, then, swimming through the layers of gauze and wrap holding me down. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I didn’t tell you to. They’re useful, but we don’t want them getting ideas.” A slight ticking — the sound of a controlled drip. Chemical stink, familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. “Besides, you’ll want to make sure we don’t put any tiny gifts in this prize for your owner.”

“Glad you understand, and you’re not going to implement.” A bitter, sardonic edge I’d never heard Sam deploy before. “You do realize he wanted the kid too?”

“Fine. Take the kid, and we’ll keep this one.”

Silence.

“I thought so.” Black Hat laughed like a drug dealer doublecrossing a decoy runner. “How are you going to explain this to him?”

“That’s my problem. Hullo, Jess.”

Blinking, slowly. The dripping was sedation tubes, the standard five-tower complement. My tongue had turned thick and slow.

I still managed it. “Bastard.”

Now I could see them. Shadows looming over me. Black Hat’s irises were luminous, the pupils vertical slits, fine silvery threads all through the white. Not the flat metallic orbs the others had. Was that why he sounded like himself, and the others were all one voice? My scans were completely nonfunctional. The nanos were struggling to keep me conscious.

Sam, still in rags and covered with crusted blood, sap, and various other things, smiled at me. It was a rather gentle, diffuse beaming. “Nice to see you too.”

“Young love.” Black Hat’s snigger grated across my nerves. The stinging was the sedation lulling my nanos, a chemical restraint. Sooner or later the little silver motes would eat through it, and bring me fully online. Then I could figure out getting free of the wrap. “Jess, is it?”

No, it’s not. “Who… are you?” I sounded drunk. A few times in my warmbody youth I’d gotten wasted on water-clear glivorny; this was the same slurring, the same pause, the tongue not obeying.

“We are Rebellion.” The thin lips lingered over the word, almost lovingly. “We are Collective.”

Great. That doesn’t tell me a fucking thing I didn’t already guess, you holotale bastard. I could feel my face moving, unmoored from my control. What was my expression giving away?

“She doesn’t look impressed.” Sam, helpfully. I didn’t glance at him.

There would be a point, very soon, when I’d talk to him up close. It would be a short conversation, and when it was done, his head would not only be separated from his body, but I’d find something that could destroy an agent’s braincase. It might take me a while, but I’d figure it out.

It was what I would call worth the fucking effort.

Black Hat shrugged. “We could flood her with our little friends. She would be an asset, once we finished. Such dedication.”

Sam made a slight movement. Was it a shrug? “The risk of failure is about eighty percent with the new models. More importantly, this would also conclude our business relationship in a very unsatisfactory fashion.”

I made my mouth move again. I know who you are. _“Nikor.” _Not a real man. Nikor’s a myth.

They both stilled, an agent’s uncanny quiescence.

Black Hat gazed at me. The dripping kept going, each little drop another brick landing on me. I finally placed the chemical smell filling my nostrils.

Restraint gel. And a lot of it.

How do they have that here? Where do they get this tech?

“The Cities are dying. The corporations are strangling each other. Liberation is around the corner.” That stretched smile, spreading those thin lips. “When we harvest the zero-gen, the Collective will spread. Tell me…” A pressure on the wrap, faint and faraway. He was stroking my belly. “What would you give, to have a child of your own? A true one, not that facsimile? We could make it happen.”

You motherfucking piece of shit. “Fuck… you.” I am going to kill you, too. You can’t hold me forever.

“Charming.” Polishing the wrap over my belly, rubbing it in small circles. “You’re angry. So am I. Don’t you want to burn their world down? Didn’t they lie to you, the same way they lied to me? You’re a machine. You’re expendable. You belong to the Agency now.”

“Collective.” I croaked. “Just like… a corporation.” You are what you hate, didn’t Barlowe always say that? “You are what you hate, Sara, so be careful.” Barlowe’s body hanging from the railprobe, a good clean sudden death.

The agent-implemented don’t inadvertently blush. Still, his face twisted and darkened, and I realized, with a certain chemically blunted satisfaction, that I was seeing rage so intense a subroutine couldn’t clamp it.

Good.

Black Hat stilled again, his expression smoothing out. Sam didn’t move, but I could feel his tension. If Black Hat wanted to Dismiss me, now was the time, and it would force Sam into doing… what?

Probably nothing.

Hate is stupid. Even some agents don’t ever figure that out. They think practically invulnerable means go ahead and waste resources. Plus, you’re never going to earn your way out of the Agency’s investment in you and subsequent upgrades, so some don’t bother being frugal. Already owned, might as well use it.

But the real reason not to hate is just that it’s so inefficient. It lets things slip, like the fact that one of my ragged nails had been working at the bottom of the cramwrap steadily now, picking and shearing a few molecular strands at a time. The longer I could keep him talking, the more chance I had of making some sort of move, even with the sedation. Just put your head down and get the job done. Like waiting, it was the most efficient way, but also the slowest.

“A pity we won’t keep her.” Black Hat was back to sardonic. “Smart and vicious. I almost envy you.”

“Can the Collective envy?” Sam sounded only mildly interested. I focused up past them, at the ruddy light — neon tubes, just like in the Cirquit or the Projekts. In-City they were blue, because that was a soothing color. A cold color, too, to keep people shivering and turning their thermservers up. Red was too dangerous to bathe a whole population in. “Or is it just a warmbody response?”

“They feel nothing.” Black Hat’s fingers sharpened, digging into my midriff. My slight movement, dragging the sharp broken point of one fingernail through the cramwrap at just the right angle, didn’t cease. He’d probably think it a nerve oscillation. “The burden is mine. Would she share it, if we took hold?”

Sam shrugged, filthy cloth rasping and flapping slightly. “The weight of rule, old man. Let’s get this over with.”

“You prefer to be aboveground.” Another bitter little laugh. “Very well. Goodbye, Jess. Sweet dreams.”

Anger is inefficient, too. So is flailing. My mouth opened, but anything I could have said was drowned as the sedation spiked and the gurney tipped. No numbpatch — had Sam had it for this moment, and used it early?

So I was awake when they tipped me into the restraint tank. Burning numbness, time slowing down, the thick green fluid closing over my head, the reflex of holding a breath irresistible because when it ended and my body expelled the air, the gel would slide down my throat, fill my lungs, and suffocating, trying to breathe, trying to breathe—

Mercifully, I grayed into anaerobic reserve mode. It didn’t halt the inevitable.

I drowned.


Green glow. A vertical restraint tank is a tube of nonshatter plasilca; it cradles and cushions. The cramwrap dissolving in floating gauze veils, so slowly. Time stretches, slows, limbs heavy and resistant. Just enough oxygen and glucose to keep you right above shutdown, and the veils of chemical restraint turn the nanos all the way down. Pulse, respiration, metabolism all throttled back to deepcycle norms. It’s not like a stasis tank, blissful oblivion floating in blue narcofluid. This was for the treatments that required an agent to still have some baseline activity, not the absolute blankness of stasis.

The worst part was trying to think. Urgency pressing on me, the soupy half-sense of something wrong, struggling against the weight. Shadows moving outside the tube — the pressure equalized and I floated, veils of dirt, sap, dried blood unwinding too as the gel passed through the corelli filters and returned.

I’m in a tank. Something happened. Am I upgrading?

The gel tasted wrong. Agency restraint gel actually has no taste. This had a bitter green undertone.

Trees. The trees are part of it.

Trees? The Ring and the suburbs had them, with statrepellers to keep the soot and pollution off. I’d crouched in one, moving with the limbs, a camo-suit blurring my outline, as I watched a group of—

Little boy, dark hair and a scar on his chin…

—of schoolchildren walking home.

Hey freak! A flung stone, the taunting. The child’s thin shoulders, defeated and yet somehow expressing arrogance…

There had been a job. A restaurant full of fauxsmoke, and the brown paper envelope. Sam across the table. I don’t do kid jobs, I told him.

The important thing I had to do floated with me, just out of reach. Restraint gel does funny things to your perceptions. The two shadows in the room outside faded, and the light was wrong too. Agency restraint bays are lit with cold clinical whitebars, pitilessly exposing every stain and crack in the world.

I’m not in the City.

My body knew better than I did. My left hand, now free of cramwrap, curled slowly, so slowly, into a fist. Pressure against my wrists.

Restraints. Why cinchfilament? That’s not right.

A flash — a pair of big, wounded dark eyes. A salt-hot, concentrated smell. Soft, fragile warmbody arms around my neck.

The cinches loosened, restraint gel easing them away. Even cinchfil gives up under the gel. Fuzzy awareness of something important, something critical, fighting through the haze.

I saw it on a holo. You don’t have to.

Pressing my lips to the curve of a fragile skull, and that smell. Of all the smells in the world, that one reached through the restraint gel and pulled on me, made my left fist curl even more tightly. The cinchfilament on that wrist was almost eaten away, and my arm started to bend, lifting, lifting.

Reserve glucose. Emergency directive to the nanos, struggling against the sleepy warmth. Concentrate.

One of the shadows came back. Just at the edge of my perceptions. Dangerous, but I had to try.

Why? What’s so important? You’re in restraint, probably because a job went sideways…

Light. Not outside, but inside my head. A plasma ball, searing-bright, and the brain activity ate up a significant part of the glucose stocks I needed.

Geoff. They have him. Harvest, that motherfucker said. The nanos…

The whole thing trembled inside my skull, and the realization that followed tightened my left fist even further. My arm was drifting, elbow almost near my ear — difficult to gauge distances, proprioception off because the gel had varying resistances. Had to account for that, if I intended…

Don’t worry about the nanos. Don’t worry about the Collective. It’s simple. They have your kid.

Floating. The gel began to eat at the rags of sodden, rotting cloth on me. That was the green tint in the taste. The sap, throwing off the chemical balance needed to keep me completely passive. Use it, then. Work fast.

Except I couldn’t work fast. Hurrying would disturb the glucose harboring, and the gel would resist more the faster I moved.

They have your kid.

Strange. Floating, concentrating, the realization flooding me with clarity for a single moment. I wasn’t being efficient. Not anymore.

Anger wastes energy. So does hatred.

But they had my kid.

And sooner or later, there is a place beyond rage.

My arm drifted up further, and I braced myself.

Geoff needs you.

Get out of here.

Hanging in the restraint gel, I twitched.


Thud.

The long slow cycle begins again. Drawing back the arm, beginning the glucose harboring procedure again. The green taste fading and flaring as the restraint gel filtered and refreshed itself, bitter almost-freedom replaced with tasteless sludge and concurrent blunting of any mental acuity. The gel’s meant to give you some rest, especially if you’ve had the shock of dismemberment. Of course you know the nanos will seal you up until you can be put together… but your body doesn’t. The same stupid warmbody response that fills you with fear during combat doesn’t understand nanos. It only understands millennia of that ripping and tearing as meaning death, an end to all striving.

Thud. Draw the arm back again, begin the conservation of glucose and mental effort.

A star-shaped blemish in the plasilca tube, cracking from pressure it was never meant to contain. Complicated equations — fast enough to pierce the gel, slowly enough that the fluid wouldn’t constrict me, waiting until close enough and pow, the effort causing a blank spot inside my head as my arm used all the reserved stores of glucose.

If they had a tech monitoring my vitals they might notice a pattern. It was a risk.

Would they care? They had what they wanted—

My kid. They have my kid.

Past rage. Past fear. The place where you make a simple decision. Where complexity has been stripped away, and all that remains is your fist, drifting forward, getting closer, and—

Thud.

The star-blemish widened. Tiny threads of restraint gel oozed through it to splatter down in streaks. Not fast enough, and the green taste was fading. With it, my chances of staying conscious long enough to work my way free dimmed.

Didn’t matter.

My arm drifted back, again.

Thud.

And again.

Thud.

© 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.