Who Owns You Now?

Edited by Brian J. White

September 2015

Fading bitterness coating the tongue. Concentration guttering, a candleflame under monsoon assault. Chrono useless, no attention to spare for it anyway. Reserve the glucose, drift the arm up, drift it forward so slowly, then, the punch. The breakage-star widened, and a steady stream of restraint gel oozed out, steaming as it hit the air outside.

A shadow moved outside the tank. Doubled, tripled, or maybe it was just perceptions blurring. The sap contamination had all but leached out of the tank now, caught in the corelli filters, and the gel level wasn’t dropping quickly enough and the times between punches were stretching.

Running out of time. The shadow loomed closer, warped outside the column. Was someone standing there watching me—

WHAM.

The world turned over, a wet gushing, tearing sound. Sudden pressure-release, my body a thrown toy, a doll with heavy limbs. Blackness swallowed me, and the sense of falling, shrieking inwardly — had they figured out what I was doing? Sealed the tank and flooded me with near-toxic sedation again? Was I even now in a transport hold, carried further and further from Geoff, rocking in a narcofluid bath, conscious and screaming but unable to breathe?

Time is a subjective thing, even when you have built-in chrono. It felt like forever, but it was probably only ninety seconds of thrashing, the freezing metal grating scraping weals on my gel-slick skin, before my body brought up all the fluid in my lungs and stomach, expelling it from every orifice with a massive cramping.

Normally they keep you sedated while they drain restraint gel, and administer a slow system flush so you come online just like cycling up out of deep gamma into theta and above slowly and naturally. It means you don’t flop around like a clonetank fish pulled out for scan-testing.

Restraints. Only they weren’t cinchfilament or cramwrap. Just two of them, hyperalloy bars with a softer covering. Noise, shrieking through every aural intake channel, red light and a welter of sensation.

“It’s all right,” he kept repeating. “It’s okay, Je— ah, Abby. It’s okay. Shhhh.”

Retching. More cramping. Nanos shocked back into life, the whole colony scattering like a herd of frightened fourpads—

Not in the City. Restraint gel. Had me in a tube. I coughed up a last gout of gel, nanos swarming my lungs and heart, checking for damage, eating waste and toxins, normalizing metabolism but so slowly. Autonomics crazy but no energy for subroutines, I finally went limp, dragging in knife-sharp air and moaning.

“It’s all right,” he repeated. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

Bastard. Oh you bastard. Just wait. I didn’t waste any breath saying it. Gel dried, crackling all over me. No clothes. No weapons.

I’d make do.

I heaved myself away from Sam, or I tried to. Until the nanos could finish, I was only warmbody-strong. Ridiculous to think I could hurt an agent, but I thrashed around and got a good solid punch to his cheek. His head tipped back slightly, but he just looked down his nose at me.

So I hit him again. And again.

Muscle movement makes the toxins float around. I needed a system flush and a half-standard hour to let the nanos work. Suspected I wasn’t going to get either.

“Calm down.” And fuck if Sam didn’t sound calm. And a little amused, too.

I’m going to wipe that right off your face. I am going to Dismiss you, motherfucker.

Patience. He could wait. Geoff. Where is he?

A flood of restraint gel washed across the metal grating serving as a floor. It was an agent’s medbay, the tech old but reliable — restraint tubes, gel mixers, piles of familiar bio-canisters. Baremetal stripchairs with high-arched spider-arms holding sharp edges and long capped syringes, now those belonged in a museum.

I went absolutely still. Dragged in a deep breath, coughed again. Scouring the inside of my lungs. I spat a wad of partially processed gel, it splatted dully against the flooring and I immediately felt much better.

Which meant I heaved away from Sam and actually managed to untangle myself this time. Or he let me go. I made it to hands and knees, surged upright, and fell against the restraint console, scraping my hip and almost opening my scalp up as I slid on numb-tingling gel. The shit was everywhere, and sending up a nosewatering stench as it decayed.

“You need a system flush, Abby. Then we can get you out of here.”

“Don’t. Call. Me. That.” I tried again, fell again. Body just wouldn’t obey. The nanos were working, but they needed time.

Time I didn’t have.

“At first I wondered why you picked that name. Most agents never go back to their original identity.” He rocked up into a loose easy crouch, barely wrinkling his nose at the smell. Loose-fitting dark navy shocktrooper gear, strange to see on my handler, usually clad in a rumpled suit or more recently in faded, frayed odds and ends to blend with the desert. If I could incapacitate him, I could take at least some of the clothes. The boots wouldn’t fit me, but I’d make it work.

I had to.

“Then I figured it out. My girl, my little stone-cold killer, my favorite flex liquidator, just had to have somewhere to hang all her frustrated feelings. You play it so close. You always have.”

Keep talking. I grabbed onto the console. Fingers slipping in gel, nanos fighting the numbing as well as the toxins. See if I care. I hauled, a short sound of effort escaping me.

A warmbody grunt. Weak, and stupid, and useless. Right now, though, it was all I had.

Scans started to come online, patchy and rough, handicapped by no available energy and also by the thunderous fuzz of the Trapp core. Now I was hoping that all the rest and relaxation I’d been in the habit of giving my nanos was going to pay off. That they would be fresh and ready to fight, so to speak.

“I’ve got a system flush for you, Abby. And while they’re occupied, we’ll slip out. I don’t trust that motherfucker as far as I can—”

I spat another wad of processed gel. It hit him square in the face, and I concentrated on pulling myself up. If I could just get vertical, maybe I could balance. From there, the rest would be easy. I would find wherever they had Geoff, and if he was hurt, if they had…

Well. I could crawl, and I could kill. It would have to be enough.

Sam wiped his cheek, solemn. A long pause.

I made it to my feet. Hooked my fingers around a transvital lever, ground my implemented teeth together as I focused on standing upright.

The world turned over again.

“So fucking stubborn.” A heavy sigh. “I can carry you out of here.”

I looked up at the console. There had to be something I could use to keep myself upright.

Fuck it. I spasmed onto hands and knees. Drying gel peeled off me in sheets. I closed my eyes, hair hanging down, dripping fat plopping pieces of almost-liquid. First step, getting out of this hole. Then scanning for Geoff. Or getting one of those silver-eyed bastards and making it tell me where he is.

I began to crawl.

“Shit.” The shocktrooper gear creaked slightly as Sam rose. “Why won’t you let me help you?”

You bastard. “Geoff.” It was all I said. My kid.

“He’ll serve a purpose taking down the Collective. And seriously, sweets, did you really think I’d let them have you too? You give me more trouble, Abby.”

“Fuck… you.” Don’t waste your time talking.

“Since we’re both implemented, we’ll probably have to express our affection in other ways.” He was close, but I ignored him.

I’d seen stairs. Going up.

“But for you, I’d certainly try my best.” He sighed again, and his foot flicked out, taking my arm out from under me. Before I could fall he was on me, and I struggled as a spear of ice buried itself in my right glute.

A familiar warmth spread from it, though, and I froze.

System flush? What?

“Listen to me,” he whispered, hot breath in my ear. His arms were hyperalloy bars again, but as soon as the flush spread and consumed the toxins, I’d be strong again as well. “I am about to fuck up my entire existence for you, Jess-Abby-sweetheart, whatever you want me to call you. So listen.”

I kept still. The warmth spread, down my right leg. The most useless place to stick a system flush in, of course. He wanted me incapacitated for just a little longer.

“There’s more players in the game than you realize. Corporations, Agency, Nikor and his alliance, some of the bigger townships. All of them want this crazy motherfucker dusted, but not before they get specs on what he’s done. Those silver-eyed bastards are warmbodies infected with all-purpose nanos. He made the Collective real.”

I couldn’t help myself. “Another fairytale.” But it made sense. Their specs weren’t even close to implementation norms. And those voices — all one voice, from several throats.

Collective… we will spread. We will burn the world down.

“Whatever. In any case, he was a warmbody genius too, and the Agency’s salivating to get their hands on his process. I have the specs, I could walk out of here while you’re keeping them busy. Secondary directive was erasing the Collective, and that’s what your little friend is for. He’s poison bait, only that bastard Paxton had to go above and beyond. Couldn’t help himself, we don’t even know what he did or where he found whatever he spliced in to make the kid. You were the best bet to get our bait out of town. And then you had to go get attached.”

It finally made sense. “I’m going to kill you,” I whispered.

He let go of me. The warmth was crawling up my naked back, spreading rapidly now as the nanos recognized the chemprofile and began utilizing it.

“We can sell the specs, Abby.” Quiet and reasonable. “You and me, anywhere in the world. There’s so many things you don’t even know about.”

You know, that might have sounded halfway appetizing before you turned out to be an absolute fuckwad. “Where. Is. Geoff?”

Another long pause. Soon, very soon, the flush would be complete. Tendrils of heat creeping up my back, a fire lit in my belly, masses of nanos swarming.

“They’re going to try to add him to the Collective, they don’t know his gene matrix will eat theirs alive and kill the nanos as well. He’s prepped for harvest. They’ve already administered an eliminex round to get the sap and the narco-mist out of his—ulp!”

Even if it’s just your legs that can work, you can do what you need to. I swept his feet from under him, losing skin all up my right side, and knotted my fingers in his hair. The flush, propelled by muscles firing, exploded through my torso. We were nose-to-nose again, Sam and I. I had time to study every fine thread of pigment in his irises up close, time to breathe in his breath.

Where?” A harsh, guttural syllable, right at the lowest range I could produce audibly. It tore out of my raw throat, but he didn’t blink. He just stared into my eyes as well. Was he memorizing my irises? Did he see anything behind my pupils, some spark even implementation couldn’t capture?

He told me. I let go of him, closed my eyes, shook my weakened arms. My side burned, skin swiftly healing. Nothing excreting through any pore or orifice, though, the nanos eating toxins and leftover sedation to fuel me.

Up the stairs, agent. Get moving.

I got to work.


This, then, was the true Zion. Or whatever they called this place — had “Zion” been Sam’s little joke? I’d probably never know. But every township or city has an underside, and it’s there I usually end up.

Underground, the thumping of the Trapp core working its way into every muscle and bone, grimy dark tunnels lit with red, no litter or waste in sight. The tech in the warren was old but serviceable, again, and it made me wonder how Black Hat had pulled off the trick of making nanos that didn’t need implementation parameters.

Of course, an agent retains higher brain function, and had functional immortality. The parameters are there to ensure both. Without, you get… them. Many eyes, many hands, but one voice. The first experiments with nanos, in the dim last days of the Gene Wars, had produced brain-melted, creeping automatons that eventually succumbed under the weight of fast-growing tumors — cell division run amok, personalities shredding, no shutoff protocols or balance equations. They taught you as much in primary school, explaining why implementation wouldn’t work for everyone, and that’s why it took me so long to remember. Everything before I woke up implemented is… darker, less easy to access.

I’d only had warmbody senses then.

Black Hat had been an agent, maybe, and his own nanos kept the other crop of little bastards in check? Who knew? I didn’t care to figure it out just now.

I was too occupied staying out of sight. Clinging to pipes on the roof of the tunnels, feet on either side and thighs burning as the splits stressed knees and hip joints in novel ways. Underneath me, a group of almost-agents moved in lockstep, without even scanning their environs. My own scans were minimal, to keep from alerting them. The system flush was doing its work, but impatience beat behind my reinforced breastbone. Eliminex round meant they were ready to start cutting.

Maybe he could heal like the second-gens. But alone and afraid, strapped to a table and dissected… no.

No.

Muscling through the tops of corridors, clinging to pipes to dodge discovery, hoping Sam hadn’t lied one final time just to twist the knife. Hoping I hadn’t lost too much time before he used whatever he’d picked up to break me out of the the restraint tube. He could have just started the cooldown process and administered the system flush — but he’d wanted me vulnerable.

Weak. Why?

Don’t care. Don’t want to care. Move.

Creeping naked through the red neon glow, the flakes of gel rubbed free of my skin, I ghosted through Zion’s eerily clean tubes. Comchatter and short-e bounced around, only one or two streams encrypted now, the rest a tangle of feedback and information. I could, possibly, tune a couple streams and drop into them, just like hacking an uplink or a corporate system. As it was, there was too much raw data bouncing around. No voices, though. They must have spoken just to lure me in.

The tunnels sloped further down. A black heart beating in the center of the Collective, the Trapp core close enough to start fuzzing the edges of scanrange with its sheer presence.

Except the heart wasn’t black. The closer I got to that diseased cardiac chamber, the more the red tubes were bleached by proper lighting. A soft forgiving rosy pink bathed each metal surface instead, and the tech was sleeker. There were a few countermeasures that wouldn’t be out of place in-City, but they were at least a year old.

Child’s play. Except I was child-weak, and the system flush couldn’t give me extra calories to burn. It was warmer than usual, the therms were free energy, but I couldn’t afford to gobble them and alert everyone with a huge cold spot over their heads.

What exactly are you going to do, agent? Look at you. No gear, no clothes, working off possibly bad intel and weak as a fluorox sniffer after a three-day bender. Pathetic.

Finally, the mess of pipes and cables overhead ended. I had to drop a few meters down, hit a catwalk, skirt a bulge of sheeting that, from the heat it threw off, was a geothermal feed, and get through a scanlocked door of blank metal.

I hung for a long moment, arms shaking as the flush finished burning through me and my nanos came fully online. Relief to feel the constellations inside me again, to scan for damage and decide I was operating at about forty percent capacity.

It has to be enough. Drop, and — wait.

I jackknifed, wrapped my legs around a handy pipe, ignoring the burning. Another exhaust, but a cheap source of power, I squeezed my knees together and the nanos crowded, turning the skin inside my thighs to a heatsink, drinking in the excitement thrown off by dancing molecules.

My head hung back, my gel-filthy hair dried stiff. I heard a familiar silence in the space between ear and brain.

Commchatter began to burst around me, the data-streams tangling. A disharmony in the Collective’s endless singing.

Screaming. Static. Feedback.

The second-gens had found a way through the Trapp field. Maybe they were after Geoff, or Sam. Either way, they were a welcome diversion. I hesitated, eyes closed, trying to track their progress with quiet, careful scanning.

Fuck it.

I dropped, my seared thighs giving a brief crackling flash as some of the heat bled off, and landed catfoot on the narrow strip of metal over an abyss. A hot draft rose from below — probably the Trapp core, or the geothermals that fueled its endless reactions.

Two ways to open a scanlocked door. You can kick it down, but that’s often inefficient. Much easier if it just opens, because it thinks you’re one of the hallowed few to pass it.

I didn’t think this one would. I couldn’t be that lucky.

You know you’re just going to split yourself open on that thing. If you can get through you’re going to be critically weakened. It’s not worth it. Walk away.

I skipped back, eating up the distance to the end of the catwalk. Stairs spiraled up into bloody light.

Come on, agent. Walk away.

The door got bigger and bigger as I blurred through space. Maximum speed, efficient strides, skin erased from my bare feet on the grill of the walkway, the pain bright spikes through me as the nanos hummed, throwing endorphins into my bloodstream, thickening the tissue on my feet, bracing for impact, flashing adrenaline and cortisol to jack me into maximum combat readiness — or at least the maximum I could hope for in my current state.

I hit the door at full speed, and bounced off. Picked myself back up again, shaking the stunning noise out of my head, and was about to do it again, when it folded aside, lenticular layers blooming like a flower.

Oh. Well. That was simple. I limped forward and nipped through before it finished yawning.


Searing white light. Clean surfaces. For a moment the past looped over to eat the present and I was in an Agency lab, sleek white enamel and quiet humming statfields, brushers and sweepers to keep dust away from delicate implementation tools. The two spiderchairs here were much newer, arms tipped with up-to-the-minute edgers, punctures, stipplers, and other tools to sculpt tissue and inject chemical — and other — cocktails.

Most of the space was taken up with a massive fan-shaped control deck and an operating bay with a very modern, ultra-equipped medtable. The control deck’s screens were alive with floating code and video streams, their flickers lost in the bright lighting.

A table that held a horizontal column of warmbody restraint gel, orange instead of green. Floating in it, naked, was a boy of about twelve, his dark hair moving gently on gel currents.

I let out an involuntary sound, scanned the room again. Empty. Streams of data moved over the control deck screens. I spent a moment studying them all, and the layout of the entire complex bloomed inside my head.

Bigger than I thought. This can’t be the only implementation bay, there’s too many of them for that. Ah, there, there, and there. Shit, there’s a lot of them. Probably bare-bones ones, like where they had me. This is where the tech’s concentrated.

Possible escape routes flashing through my braincase, I studied the controls on the medtable. Punched a few buttons and was rewarded with a soft gurgling and lights changing from green to red, a row of them marching from right to left. The gel began to drain. No reason to break the tube and make him sick — he could go into seizure like I did, and had no nanos to shield him from the shock.

The fuzzy thumping of the Trapp core blurred all my scans. It was annoying. I glanced at the screens again, straining to hear the datastreams and commchatter through the whitenoise.

Shrieks. Moans. The Collective agents could probably drag the second-gens down through sheer weight of numbers, but the complex terrain favored the attackers if they could move fast enough.

No sound, not even a whisper. The air pressure didn’t change, but I was already throwing myself aside, so he blinked through the space where I’d been standing and crashed into the control deck. His hat flew off, his limbs contracting and the top of his head a silvery dome etched with strange whorls, lank hair in a fringe around the edges whipping as he blinked aside.

Fuck.

Forty percent combat capability and a pissed-off agent jacked up on who knew what mods? And Geoff in the tube, slowly waking up.

I was airborne, body reacting with the instinct of a thousand fights. Slammed into one of the spiderchairs, fingers curling around a trembling leg, pulling it free with a screech. Black Hat snarled, and I snarled back, not caring if it wasted energy. Subaudible growled as datastreams tangled — his followers were busy with the second-gens, he couldn’t get them in here to overwhelm me. Good news.

Not for long. Come on, agent. Move.

The restraint tube was draining, but too slowly. Black Hat leapt for me, I jabbed with the spiderleg and sprang for the control deck. Sparks flew, plasilca screens breaking, shrapnel piercing my thickening skin. The nanos could only do so much.

I kicked one of the control deck’s processing towers. More sparks fountained, and Black Hat howled. He was fast even for an agent, stuttering through space to backhand me, sending me flying across the bay again.

Got his attention. Good. Does hitting the processing towers hurt him? Let’s hope.

No time for hope. Balance gained, and he’d knocked me towards racks of biocanisters. Sleek silver City-stamped bullets, chemical codes lase-labeled on sides and ends.

All right, agent. Be smart.

I hit hard enough to knock two of the frames over, lashing out with the torn-free spiderchair arm. The Trapp core below pulsed, sending out a shrieking wail — what the hell?

Black Hat leapt, and everything slowed down. Time stretched, twisting and turning like the cheap tachmose candy runner kids chew. Get a mouthful of that good and soft, you can stick your fingers in and pull out a wad, stretch it into all sorts of shapes, loop it over your fingers, flick tiny bits of it into another kid’s hair — if you thought that kid wouldn’t try to shiv you over the prank, because once it hit hair it didn’t come out unless you could wash it in akketone.

Crack. Hit a sealed canister just right, and you can split it along a minute seam. Pierce another one with a lightning-quick jab, and you can have all sorts of fun.

Especially with warmbody restraint gel and unbuffered solachic acid.

I rolled aside, straining. Body failing, nanos in overdrive scraping the last dregs of muscle reserves to get me away. Not so much from him, but from the flood of solachic splashing into the gel glugging out of its shattered container.

Even nanos have a limit. Arms failing, fingers slipping, Black Hat smashing into the widening orange stain behind me. It splashed and I let out a miserable cry of fear and agony mixed — burning droplets on my skin, a burst of foul smoke.

Yeah. You mix any kind of class B gel and solachic without a buffer, and you get big, ugly pool of nasty.

I fetched up against the second spiderchair, another stunning ringing inside my skull. Move! Move, you stupid bitch! Move now!

Couldn’t. Grayed out, nanos swarming to protect vital organs. He was coming for me, the mad head of the Collective beast, and I couldn’t move.

I swam in and out of consciousness for a short while, bursts of screaming static and a horrid wet bubbling filling my intake feeds in sporadic bursts. Slowly came online again, a soft familiar padding drawing closer.

“Abbymom?” A strangled sob. “Mommy?”

I’m here, I wanted to say. Couldn’t make my mouth work. Breathing rapidly, ambient temperature dropping as I grabbed every scrap of energy available around me — therms, whatever — and forced myself towards waking.

The bubbling intensified. Something at my wrist — a tugging. Hot, frail fingers. “Don’t be dead,” he sobbed. “Don’t be dead Mommy. Don’t be dead.”

Come on. He needs you. Wake the fuck up.

I jolted up to a sitting position, letting out a short sharp cry that swallowed Geoff’s own scream. Visual intake switched to low panoptics, the world a play of color and shadow. I wasn’t passed-out, it was just dark.

Thumping and thundering underneath us. The Trapp core shuddering. All the lights were out, except a few emergency bars drenching us in red again. My head snapped to the side, and I scanned the bubbling mess that was the remains of Black Hat.

Stupid, getting caught in chemicals even a primary-school baby knows never to mix. It would start exhaling toxic fumes as it ate the hyperalloy in his bones, and his nanos — if any were left undamaged — might be able to patch him up. But not for a long, long while. Bits of reinforced skeleton showed through the soupy mess flesh had turned into. His braincase flashed as the entire wreck shivered, and a tipping rack full of other biochem tubes hovered drunkenly over him.

Those silvery, catslit eyes were still fixed on me, though. There was no mistaking the hate in them, even with eyelids burned away and his thin-lipped face a skeletal ruin.

My scream shuddered to a halt. Geoff tumbled into my arms, and I held him in the dark for a few moments. Sobbing, he shook against me. He kept repeating the same thing.

“I knew you’d come. I knew you’d come. I knew it.”

I decided not to tell him how close it had been. Ever.

“I will always…” I had to cough. My nanos moved sluggishly. I needed fuel. “I will always come for you.”


I shoved at the hatch cover. So did Geoff, muscles straining and eyes bulging. It rose, bit by bit, and fresh air filtered through the crescent of free space.

Something was very wrong, below. The whole complex shuddered; several times we’d almost been thrown off a long ladder leading up a semi-choked pipe. Geoff’s arms and legs clenched around me each time, almost cutting off my oxygen, and I hung on grimly. Now, wedged on a narrow platform, I’d found the control pad for this hatch, but there was no emergency power.

It’s not going to budge. My flayed feet slipped, a red veil closing over my vision as I strained. Geoff whimpered a little.

Amazingly, the hatch suddenly became lighter. I almost fell off the platform, caught Geoff’s wrist to steady him, and pushed it up easily.

That’s not quite precise. It was lifted from the other side. I peered up, and for a moment I saw pale irises and every bit of adrenaline and cortisol my tired nano-patched glands could scrape together dumped into my bloodstream at once.

Sam leaned over the hatch opening, stretching. His hand cupped empty air. “I’ll pull you up.”

The familiar steam and sharp green pungency of the Vines poured past us. Below, a large creature growled uneasily.

I bent, Geoff scrambled onto my back again. I reached up, both hands locking around Sam’s wrist. His hand turned, caught my left wrist, he braced himself and pulled.

My feet hit rough bark-vines. My knees threatened to collapse, I swayed drunkenly, but managed to back up, Geoff clinging to me with his face buried under my hair, his breath a humid spot below my nape.

It wasn’t just my exhaustion. The ground itself buckled, heaving.

Sam dropped the hatch back with a hollow clang. I backed up even further. Vines swayed, tree-things whispering as their feet were jostled.

“Genny’s gonna blow,” Sam informed us. “We should get out of here.”

Oh, now it’s we? Fat fucking chance. I cleared my throat. “Bastard.”

He shrugged. The shocktrooper gear no longer creaked, he’d probably broken it in with some combat, if the splatters of blood and other fluids on him were any indication. He hadn’t been topside for very long — there were only a few drops of sap dewing his dirty hair and broad shoulders.

He’s bulked out. Facilitators tend to be lean, but he was looking like a liquidator. Where had he found the calories to power that sort of change?

It was a relief to find out I didn’t care. Sort of.

He measured me. “Did you kill him?”

I stared at my handler. “You should have told me that was my job.”

“It wasn’t yours, Abby.”

“Do not call me that.” My throat was a desert. No spare therms here for me to draw on. I’d have to find something to eat, and soon. Even the leaves of the canopy sounded good at this point. My chrono took in the surroundings, decided it didn’t need recalibration, and told me it was just a couple hours until dawn.

Thinking of a flood of solar might have made my mouth water. Just a bit.

“All his altered warmbodies collapsed at once. It was pretty amazing.”

“And the second-gens?”

He nodded, as if I’d said something profound. “Regrouping. They’ll be attended to.”

“They were your support staff. They heard us in that slagshack, came in to rescue you from me, and thought you were double-crossing when I kicked the shit out of them. You’re playing the corps against the Agency, and both of them against Nikor — if he even exists.”

Another shrug, but a very faint smile. Where was the impenetrable handler I’d had? I might have missed him, except he’d turned into this.

Do we ever really know our handlers, though? Sam had been the voice of the Agency to me for years. Who knew what happened when he left a meet with me, or with another one of his agents? How many of them did he have?

It wasn’t likely that I’d get an answer, but I asked anyway. “Who really owns you?”

The earth shuddered again. It was pretty likely he’d found enough time to sneak around and flip a few switches near the Trapp core. If anything of Black Hat was still moving around inside that sludge, it would be caught in megatons of fused-together rubble. A fossil of technological hatred.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” His shoulders dropped. “Go on, Abby. I’ll be in touch.”

I hesitated. Why?

Geoff trembled against my back. He needed rest. Tired as I was, I could still probably catch a bit of wildlife for him to drain. We were both naked, and had no supplies. No transport. No watermaker.

We’ll make do.

“We’re finished,” I told Sam, quietly. I didn’t bother to add the threat. Next time, your head’s mine. “Stay away from us.”

“Take care of that kid,” he called, just as softly, as I turned and began to jog away.

Oh, I intend to.


Warmbody-slow, I stumbled through the Vines. By the time the Trapp core finally blew, we were safely away, and dawn was beginning to tint the falling drops of sap with gold. The Vines shuddered afresh, and Geoff let out a small sound, wiping his mouth as he backed away from the porcine I held by its back legs. I was considering tearing off mouthfuls of raw flesh, and blinked a bit as the force of the reaction groaned in the depths.

“Finish up.” I sounded deathly tired even to myself. “Then I’ll kiss you goodnight, and you can sleep for a bit.”

He nodded, like a good little boy. That haunted look was back in his wide dark eyes.

What would he become?

When he finished, sleepy, he nestled in my arms. “I dreamed about them. The silver eyes, and the bad man. They sang until they all fell down.”

“I’ll just bet they did.” I eyed the hulk of the dead porcine, checked the sky. Rapidly lightening. “Find a safe spot, kiddo. We’re far enough away that you shouldn’t get more than a slight rocking. I’m going to cycle in the sun.”

“He’ll come back, you know.”

No energy to put a subroutine over my autonomics. I didn’t bother, although it made my breath catch. “Who?”

“Sam.”

“Did you dream that?”

“Mh-hm.” A sleepy nod. He pointed at a huge tree, still shivering as the faraway explosion rumbled. There would be a hell of a crater there, but all we’d get here would be aftershocks. “Not for a while, though. When I’m grown.”

“Then let’s not worry about it now.” Fire was the bigger problem, but not for him underground. At least, I hoped not. I pressed my chapped lips to his filthy forehead. “Okay, kiddo. Go to sleep.”

When the earth had sealed itself over my impossible child, I climbed the trunk, too exhausted to even worry about aftershocks. The very last of my energy was spent anchoring on a branch high above, one that would catch several hours of misty but strong sunlight. My cheek against rough bark, my naked back a solarcatch panel alive with anticipation as the light strengthened, something occurred to me.

Don’t you ever want to burn it down? Black Hat asked again, and I thought it over.

Sure I did.

But I could wait until my kid was grown. By then, I might even have some sort of plan.

With a grateful sigh, I cycled down.

© 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.