Lucien toweled off his body, evaluating his abs in the fogged mirror. He’d been working lots of shifts lately and letting the morning crunches slide. Sloppy of him. An alarm chimed suddenly inside his PUDI, the warning signal that someone was coming down his hallway. He left off his vain musings and pulled on a pair of pants as he headed through the bedroom leaving damp tracks across the plush cream carpeting.
It was Sif. Lucien had been expecting her sometime that week, knowing she’d run out of her Drift vials soon. Her pale skin was painted with black markings, the kind used to confuse the facial recognition programs in the drones and various surveillance cameras. She was also stumbling gracelessly to his door, making more noise then he’d ever heard her make in the years he’d been her Drift supplier.
He had the door open before she’d reached it. Her green eyes were glassy as they stared up at him and she just shook her head, pulling out a small metal spike from a pocket in her black pleather belt.
“Poisoned. Hunter-killer drone,” she said, stumbling past him toward the main examination room.
Lucien caught her elbow and gently guided her to the secondary room. His patient was still recovering in there, out cold on the table.
“All right, I can analyze the chemicals, come on, sit down here.” The secondary room was set up much like the first, only far smaller and without the moveable lights and adjustable tables of the main.
He noted her slight recoil from the space. Sif had an intense dislike of examination rooms, probably from her youth as a science experiment. He’d asked her once what really bothered her, wanting to know more in a clinical way than a personal one, and she’d only shrugged and said “it smells like blood someone tried to wash away, over and over.”
Now she said nothing, just sank into the chair and ripped open her sleeve for him to see the tiny wound. It was puffed up and the skin, so delicate, so inhumanely pale, was an angry bruise now with deep red lines shooting through it. Her superior immune system was fighting as hard as it could, but losing slowly.
He pressed two fingers to her wrist. Her pulse was sluggish and he guessed the poison had a paralytic in it. Cheap, lazy chemists. Lucky for Sif, however. There were far deadlier substances available, for the right price.
“I’ll give you a shot of Drift, it’ll help until I can make an antidote.” Lucien talked as he worked, swabbing the dart for a sample. The hollow tube had a sack inside that ruptured when it struck and many tiny holes along its length to let the poison seep out into the wound. It hadn’t gotten deep in Sif and plenty of the stuff remained on the dart turning almost sticky as it evaporated and dried.
Sif bit her lip and some of the light came back into her gem-like eyes as he loaded a syringe with Drift for her. Her perfect mouth curled into a half smile as the drug settled into her damaged veins. The relief was instantly apparent. Her face smoothed out into the doll-like perfection that Lucien could never get enough of looking at. Some would find her uncanny. Not he. He appreciated the level of skill and decades of research and experimentation that had gone into creating the genies.
Her friend, Ryg, now. There was an unfortunate accident of nature and science. A necessary byproduct of experimentation, but sadly still living on. Ryg was as disgusting to Lucien as Sif was beautiful. He still repaired and did what he could for the abomination. He was a doctor and keeping something like Ryg alive was a point of personal conflict. Mercy killing it would be preferable, but Lucien knew the day he did that would be the end for him. Sif would end him.
Sif was almost perfect and perfectly deadly. The need for the chemicals in Drift was her only weakness and it bound her to him more firmly than if he’d tied her down with all the chains in Casimir.
“Shh, easy,” Lucien told her as he laid her back on the table. She didn’t want to relax under his hand but he kept firm pressure on her uninjured shoulder and she relented, letting him feel her over in a mostly clinical manner. “I have more supply for you, though not as much as I’d like. Things have been tight with the worry over the Council nomination.” This was, of course, a giant lie. He had people in his proverbial pocket all the way from street dealers to administrative staff for the Council families themselves. Drift, pure, clean, untainted Drift, wasn’t any harder to come by now than before the suspected assassination.
“I’ll take it,” Sif said, closing her eyes.
“Paying with credits, or. . .?” Lucien left his ungloved hand on her thigh, watching that lovely doll face.
“Or,” she said so softly he might have mistaken it for a sigh if he hadn’t been watching her lips. She didn’t open her eyes as he smiled and his hands started to rove again, this time gently removing her clothing.
His heart started beating a familiar rhythm and his loose, drawstring pants suddenly felt too tight as arousal hit him in a hot wave. Her body relaxed completely and Lucien knew she was taking herself away, deep into the quiet, crazy mind of Sif, deep where no one could reach her. She was soft, pliable flesh beneath his dark hands, so warm and paper pale.
This body could kill him in an instant and it thrilled him. This was the real joy, real power. He bent low and drew her thick gold hair from its braid, burying his face in it. She smelled of paint and sweat and something underneath so sweet and tangy, like fresh cut goya fruit. Lucien stood up and soaked a cloth in water. Gently he washed the paint from her face and then stroked the cooling damp rag down her naked body.
“Sif,” he murmured and she turned her face away, bringing another smile to his face. Not so deeply gone, then. Still here, still feeling his presence, awake and aware of her submission to him. Good. Still smiling, Lucien reached for the ties on his own pants. Tonight hadn’t turned out so poorly after all.
* * *
Ryg wasn’t alone when Hex finally got back to the apartment. Kadin’s presence wasn’t that surprising because Ryg had said the job that had just gone completely sideways was one he’d contracted through Kadin. Hex didn’t recognize the tall woman with skin as smooth and dark as finely lacquered wood. Her eyes were a rich brown, flecked with violet in a way that reminded him of his daughter’s eyes and caused an instant dislike the roiled like a tangible thing in the air between them.
Ignoring the confused look on the woman’s face, Hex focused in on Ryg. He looked smaller somehow, curled in his chair in front of the screens with even more of a kicked in expression than normal.
“The whole thing went to the roaches,” Hex said. He knew he should establish who this woman was before he blurted out about the damn job, but screw it. Her being here, Kadin being here, Sif not being here. It was too much. “Non-lethal patrol drones? Really?”
“What happened? Where’s Sif?” Ryg craned his head around, looking for her in the room beyond.
“Don’t know.” Hex shoved the image of her sprawled in a concrete hallway, convulsing with poison as Grey Guard burst in, shooting her on sight just because of what she was. Or not shooting her. There were worse things and a genie wasn’t a person at all to the Guard. Hex knew what they might do to her; how they might take her if she wasn’t dead. He’d been one of the Guard once, half a life ago. Before the law said his illegal second child had to die. Before his wife had died instead with a Drift needle still in her veins.
“Shit,” Ryg muttered. “She’s got her PUDI set to bounce.”
“And Tommy isn’t responding either,” said Kadin.
“Who is Tommy?” Hex started to ask and then glanced at Kadin. “Wait, “the Mouth”? That Tommy?” Tommy “the Mouth” was a scrappy little code junky. Hex felt he was unreliable, but had nothing solid to complain about. Tommy mostly dealt with Ryg when they had to deal with him at all. Eggheads speaking the same language and all that.
“Yeah,” Kadin said with a heavy sigh.
“And who the hell is she?” Hex jerked a thumb at the woman standing around like she’d rather be anywhere else. Not that he blamed her.
“I’m Nico,” she said with a shrug of her slender shoulders as if to acknowledge that her name would mean less than worms to him.
“Great,” Hex said. “So what were we really doing up there in Kajipe? Something that took a code junkie and a drift junkie apparently, yeah?”
“I’m not a Drift junkie,” Nico said when Ryg just pressed his lips together and looked like he was going to take a year or two to compute a reply.
“Sure, sweetheart,” Hex muttered, giving her a disgusted look, “and I’m not a man.”
Her eyes narrowed but she half-smiled, saying “well, I’ll just take your word on that one,” and suddenly Hex started to like her a little more.
Not enough to thaw out fully. Junkies were unreliable, even the smart ones. Maybe especially the smart ones.
“It’s my fault,” Kadin said, holding up placating hands.
Hex got the impression from the quick look Ryg and Kadin shared that they’d been talking over their PUDIs about what to tell him, so he glared really hard at Ryg, imagining how his scrawny white neck would feel if he gripped it and shook until all the metal bits and pieces and maybe some truth fell out. Shaking wouldn’t make Sif get back any quicker, or make her any safer. He took a very deep breath and waited for whatever story they were about to spin him.
“You can’t tell it all to Sif,” Ryg said softly, surprising Hex. Ryg and Sif shared everything, like twins almost. He’d learned quickly, years ago, that he couldn’t get between them and didn’t want to be there even if he could.
“Tell what?” He felt very tired, the long night and the adrenaline dump coming up on him like a thick bat to the head. He backed up a couple steps and leaned into the wall, crossing his arms.
“We hacked into a government black box. At least, we might have. Tommy has the drive and he’s missing,” Kadin said.
“That office you and Sif were in was patched into the government hard wires and it created a leak. I used that chip I sent you with to load in programs to get me into the servers below. My programs collected data using keywords and dumped it onto a drive, which is what we’re now missing,” Ryg said, anticipating Hex’s questions. “But I’m not sure it worked. The power got cut sooner than I expected I guess, because the security and stuff in that office wasn’t what I expected either. That’s listed as an administrative filing office, not a sophisticated server room. And definitely no records of Hunter-killer drones.”
“And we don’t know if Tommy was successful. He went offline and now isn’t responding on his PUDI.” Kadin shook his head, worry creasing his dark brow.
“Sif, too. Not a good sign.” Ryg hunched over further, looking translucent and hollow, as though his clothes hung on an empty frame instead of bone and flesh.
“Nothing on the Wires about anyone being picked up?” There was always a chance, Hex knew, that this would leak quickly. It’d been well over a couple hours now and the illegal Wires would still be running even though it was past curfew.
“Nothing,” Ryg said. “A little chatter about the Guard being called out to the Totsi Electronics building and then nothing further. The power grid is up again, so they’ve got the Guards from the hub. But they won’t be able to tell them much. That part went off fine.”
“If they had Tommy or Sif, we might not know until morning.” Nico shook her head.
“If they have Sif, she’s dead.” Hex didn’t mean to say it so flat and hard like that, but he couldn’t help himself.
“No, they won’t get Sif. Not Sif,” Ryg said it more like a prayer than a statement.
“Why hack the box? Is there credit in this?” Hex remembered the promised six hundred. Didn’t seem likely now. But they could have had a buyer for this information, whatever it was.
“The appointment,” Kadin said. “We wanted to collect any data on the nomination for the new Councilor. That could be worth a lot of credit to the right people, maybe even saleable to more than one group depending.”
Hex chewed the inside of his cheek and thought about it. It was a gamble, but he understood what they’d been thinking now. That six hundred was gone for sure and that made him a little sick inside and angry again.
“You conned us,” he said to Ryg, not caring that it made the hollow man flinch as though physically threatened. “You’re right, Sif will be pissed. You know how she feels about anything to do with the Council. That’s your problem. You don’t tell her if you want, but you’ll be explaining the missing credits. Six hundred. Each. You pull that number out of your mechanical ass?”
“Hex, please,” Ryg said, shivering now. He looked as though he might cry and Hex wondered if he still could with all the implants. He felt mean and small and exhausted.
“No. Explain the rest later. I don’t care. I’m going to bed. Wake me up if I need to shoot someone. Otherwise, fuck off.” He slammed his way out of the room and across the common space, kicking a pillow as he went. It hit the far wall with a very unsatisfying fuft noise. Hex flopped down on his mattress and closed his eyes.
Come back to me, Sif, he mouthed in the dark. Eventually he fell asleep waiting for the sound of a door that didn’t open and he dreamt restless dreams where a violet-eyed girl asked him if she could have breakfast yet.