A small tick in his clean-cut jaw was the only sign Amos Levich, chief of security for the Special Projects division of BioCore Pharmaceuticals, felt anything at all about the news two of his network systems security analysts had just brought him. He scrolled through the collected data on his PUDI, willing it to make sense but mostly just getting a headache.
“Let me see if I have this correct,” he said in careful, measured tones, “That power hub break-in caused a leak in our server security?”
“Yes, sir.” The older of the two analysts, Michael, swallowed audibly. Though average in height and build with a gruff, sparse appearance, Amos had a reputation for being a man no one wanted to piss off. His job was his life, and he took security for the company very seriously.
“Humor me, kid. I’m an old man and slow sometimes. How does the power going out, in a district our building isn’t in, leave an opening in our wires?” Amos leaned back against his stark grey plastiform desk.
The break-in had been underneath the Kajipe central station, while the main center for BioCore’s Special Projects was located in West Morrow near the Central district edge. BioCore’s main building was also located in West Morrow. Their systems should be closed, accessible only from within the system itself. That was how Amos understood things from his spec manuals. Technology of it wasn’t exactly his strong point and he was smart enough to leave the details up to the network administrators. The two administrators in front of him were the leads of that team and supposedly the best of the best in their field. Amos grew more skeptical by the moment as they shuffled nervously in front of him.
“Well, sir, our system is closed, but we still have servers that have to have a hard, I mean, physical, location. We rent a server room in the Totsi Electronics building, due to its proximity to a. . . well. . .” The grey-haired admin swallowed again and glanced at his companion.
“We were piggy-backing onto a government black box. A super server, if you will, for the use of its array and private Wires. You can only access these directly at the site of the server, so we’d hardwired our way in.” The freckled, paunchy middle aged admin, Seth, picked up the explanation.
“So I take it that if we can hack into this ‘black box’, someone else could also?” Amos waved a gloved hand impatiently.
“It shouldn’t have been possible, but with the right mix of a hard hack onsite and then a power failure causing a system reboot, yes,” Michael confirmed. “The servers are protected in electronically locked boxes that are nearly impossible to destroy, but you can get in at the actual physical location if for example, the power fails. The locks would then fail. The only way to kill that power though is from the central station or a main power hub.”
“Wouldn’t the server also shutdown? I recall something on the newswires about interruption in certain Wires and feeds last night,” Amos said.
“Yes, sir.” The freckled admin nodded. “But that doesn’t mean the information just goes away. If you shut down your PUDI or one of those monitors,” he motioned to the bank of security cam screens that lined the wall behind Amos, “the information in the hard drives doesn’t cease to exist.”
“Cut to the part where there was a breach.” Amos sighed.
“Someone managed to hack into our partition on the server. When we went in this morning to repair it once everything was back online, we noticed the lockpad broken and the security system had been tripped but nothing seemed to be missing. Then we found tracers, data moved around a little. Sometimes that happens when the servers are cleaning up after a reboot. But it can also be a sign that data-mining programs have been rifling through. Very sophisticated ones,” Seth said.
“You are sure it was hacked? And that they got information off of it? Information about Special Projects?” Amos asked. He tried to remember this satellite office in his records but he didn’t think he’d taken care of security for anything like that. Might have been his unfortunate predecessor, if it was set up years ago. It was still his problem now, however and that didn’t help the growing headache one iota.
“Yes, sir.” Michael nodded. “We checked everything multiple times. Someone was in there pulling encrypted information from our partition.”
“These files are what they got?” Amos cued his PUDI to scroll through the files Michael and Seth had sent him earlier before he called the meeting. The files were test results from the first stages of the project. Obviously someone had stored the data onto the remote server as a standard backup procedure.
Amos cursed under his breath. Both administrators intelligently stayed silent. After a few minutes that stretched on and filled the quiet room with breathing and tension, the chief of security refocused his eyes on the two men.
“Can you trace who did this? There were Hunter-killer drones on site, right?” He glanced at another screen where he’d quickly pulled up the security manifests for all the offices. “Why didn’t those get these people?” A small relief there, since the purchase order confirmed it had been done years ago, before his tenure here.
Another nervous swallow. “I don’t know, sir. It was done right there at the site and the reboot from the power failure wiped the tracks. Someone retrieved their programs and the data. I don’t know if there was anything we could have done differently, sir. They should have a hell of a time breaking the encryption though, if they even can.” He looked as though he couldn’t decide whether or not to be proud of himself for that.
“Who else knows about this?” Amos folded his arms. He certainly wasn’t thrilled. These two might be the best of the best, but clearly they were just good enough to cause trouble and not skilled enough to fix it. His headache intensified and he resisted the urge to press his fingers to his temples.
“Just the three of us. Seth discovered the program traces and came to me to confirm his suspicions. We thought we should go straight to you, sir.” Michael said.
“Good.” Amos nodded, mostly to himself. “Thank you both. You may go. If you discover anything else about this, you are to come straight to me.” They both nodded and turned to leave.
“And gentlemen, if anyone else finds out about this, you will be terminated.” Amos’s voice was calm and threaded with steel. The two administrators looked back at him with pale faces and nodded again. It was clear to them that ‘terminated’ didn’t mean fired.
Amos waited until the door had sealed itself behind the two men before he walked slowly around his desk and sat heavily in the greenish-grey plastiform chair behind it. He swiveled around to face the wall of monitors. His brown eyes focused on the upper left hand screens whose cams observed the small labs. A handful of men and women in light green lab coats moved carefully around the sterile manufactured steel tables with vials and handheld dictation devices.
Head pounding like a drunk on a locked door, Amos cued up Dr. Tylour Blanc’s call sign in his PUDI but didn’t instruct it to place the call. He reviewed the pitifully small amount of information his network security admins had been able to collect for him.
“There’s been a breach.” Amos muttered to himself. “Someone got the first testing data files, so they’ll have the basic gist that BioCore is up to more than just making pharmaceuticals, sir. Oh, and by the way, we have no idea who got into the server, how much they might be able to extrapolate from these files, and absolutely no way to find out the answer to any relevant questions you might have, boss.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “Oh yes. That would go over so well.”
Dr. Blanc was the head of the BioCore and more importantly for Amos, the brains behind the Special Project division. Amos didn’t ask questions, but he knew that what was going on in those labs wasn’t legal or likely very nice. Dr. Blanc had high ambitions and he was a ruthless man who’d made it clear to his head of security that getting in the way of those ambitions would be the last thing anyone ever did. It was equally clear that what was good for Dr. Blanc would be good for Amos.
“A rising tide floats all shit,” he murmured and shook his head.
Amos leaned back in his chair. If he was going to keep this quiet from his boss, he’d have to eliminate the two administrators and any data that could trace the breach or lead back to him. It was a hard choice to make, either way. Telling Dr. Blanc would almost certainly get him fired and likely killed. Not telling him would cost two lives.
Either way the two network administrators would die. It wasn’t so hard a choice, after all.
Amos sighed again. He’d have to get his own hands dirty since he couldn’t trust anyone else to remove the two in a way that wouldn’t trace back to the Chief of Security. He’d take it slow though. They weren’t likely to cause him much trouble yet. It would be best to see how things played out in the next week or two.
After a few more minutes of processing his options, Amos rose slowly. He deleted the unmade call to BioCore’s President from his PUDI. Running a gloved hand through his close-cut, graying hair, he walked out of his office. There were two accidents to plan and a security breach to cover-up. It was going to be a long month.
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.
Dr. Lucien Graeme had just come home from a mandatory ten hour shift at the Ijipe Morninglight Clinic and all he wanted to do was take a long, scalding shower and curl up in his bed and surf the Wires until he fell asleep. He walked up the last flight of steps to his door, noticing the blood trail that slowly grew from droplets on the hallway floor to a ragged smear along one dingy blue wall outside his door.
It seemed there truly was no rest for the wicked.
Lucien’s day job was as a surgeon for the city clinics, beholden to the Council and its dictates for his livelihood. And while the pay was enough to survive on, it certainly didn’t allow for Lucien’s own expensive and often less than legal tastes. The easiest way to afford his toys and the extra rations was to run his own clinic and go on being a doctor long after official hours were over. Casimir had a seething underbelly of not quite legal people doing not quite legal things, and sometimes those things led to injuries that would be inconvenient to explain.
So he stitched up and patched up and medicated all sorts of criminals and in return got paid, sometimes in credits, sometimes in favors, most often in goods or services. Lucien thought of himself as a very reasonable man. He always found ways for his extracurricular clients to settle their debts.
The boy curled up in a ragged ball outside his door this time wasn’t someone Lucien had seen before. He stared up at Lucien with bruised-looking eyes too big for his thin face. Not a boy, a man, but a skinny, unkempt one, clutching a satchel and a badly broken arm.
“You the doc?” the man said through chattering teeth. Lucien recognized the signs of shock and wondered how far this idiot had come with that arm.
“Sure,” he answered, unlocking his door. The hallway was clear, his PUDI was linked into his private wires and monitoring the security system installed. Lucien owned the entire floor of this section. He liked his privacy and needed the space to hold all his specially acquired equipment.
He helped the man up, noting his dilated pupils and unsteady breathing as well as the thin film of sweat coating the guy’s face. Definitely in shock.
“I’m Dr. Graeme. How’d you find me?” Lucien asked as he half carried his patient through the foyer and into his after hours examination room. It was highly unlikely this sucker was working for the Grey Guard or anything. Even they wouldn’t go so far as to give someone a compound fracture just to uncover an illegal medical practice.
“I’m Tom. A friend said, I mean,” the man said, shivering. “I can pay. Friend said you fixed up people who aren’t on the official forms.”
“Let’s get an IV in you and set this arm, then we’ll worry about payment,” Lucien said in his best bedside doctor voice.
Tom seemed to relax at that, though he didn’t want to let go of the satchel until he was assured it would just sit on the floor until the procedure was finished. Lucien got him comfortable and pulled on gloves. Everything was laid out in a neat, orderly fashion, but sometimes he missed having a competent nurse. Too much risk, however, and a nurse would have to live in the flat to be any real use since his after hours clientele were erratic at best.
What he didn’t tell Tom was that what he was adding into the IV would knock him out. The man’s thin face smoothed out and his jaw went slack as Lucien counted back slowly from fifty as he got his implements ready and assembled what he thought he’d need on a tray.
With his patient blissfully unaware, Lucien was free to examine the arm. A hand-held x-ray imaging machine slowly scanned and loaded a picture of the broken arm. The radius was the bone sticking out of the skin, and it was fractured into three pieces. The ulna looked better, but had a nasty fracture as well with hairline spidering of the break all through the bone. He’d lost a lot of blood as well but at least his tendons looked mostly undamaged.
A quick slide and check revealed blood type and Lucien started a bag going. Tom’s heartbeat was steadier now that he was on painkillers and unconscious. Lucien took a deep breath and tucked his mask up over his nose, pinching the bridge.
It would be easiest to amputate the arm at the elbow. Otherwise this would take a pin or two, a lot of stitches, and using one of the special breathable casts he’d acquired from the clinic. Far, far simpler to just remove the damaged arm at the elbow.
Underneath the mask, Lucien smiled. Simple was for hacks and quacks. This arm was a challenge, and as tired as he was, he still couldn’t resist the lure of putting something so broken back together again.
Besides, the man had said he could pay. Amputation was so much cheaper than surgery. Tom would pay, Tom would be grateful. A little consideration now might yield unknown dividends in the future. Small-minded men where the ones who didn’t plan ahead, didn’t seek longer term advantages.
Lucien’s foot tapped the satchel as he pulled up his chair next to the examining table. He made a mental note to go through the bag this man had clung to through all his pain and trouble, a bag that might have something to do with how his arm was crushed in the first place. Later. Now, now was the time to begin his latest masterpiece, now he would deal with this ruined arm and make it whole again.
* * *
Sif figured whoever had come up with the design for these stupid Hunter-killer drones must have been the god of con artists. The little drones were quick, but their hovering depended on magnetic forces, so their movements were simple to predict. They also hummed a little, the kinetic motors creating an almost aural static that a normal human ear might have been able to track, but her ears did just fine.
The Hunter-killers also broke easily, not being designed at all for slamming into walls and floors at high speed. Against a slow, stupid thief with no night vision, she could see the darts working. Maybe. These drones were never going to have the chance to find out.
Using her PUDI as a mini-map for the building, Sif led the drones away from the stairs she’d sent Hex up. There was another way to the roof from here if she went out a fire escape access point and she wasn’t averse to a little climbing. The hallways dumped into each other, one winding corridor after another, and she knew this was taking too long. Hex would be well away by now, however, and the drones seemed to have given up pursuit.
She was nearly to the door when the whir warned her. Sif dove to the side, dropping down. A sharp prick stung her shoulder but she ignored it, twisting and rolling down the hallway in a half-tumble. The murmur of the drone’s motor located it for her and she was up again, kicking off one wall to gain height as she leapt and smashed the annoying thing into the concrete and plaster wall. It lodged there, humming angrily.
Sif’s arm started to go numb and she could almost feel her cells curdling and dying as the poison tried to invade her system. With one hand she plucked the dart out of her shoulder. It was thick and short with the dark gleam of the poison coving half its length, seeping out from the hollow center through invisible holes. So tiny a thing. She tucked in gingerly into a pocket in her belt.
It wouldn’t kill her. Probably. But it meant a detour on the way home. She felt the familiar hunger in her blood. She needed more Drift, she was burning through her body’s resources too quickly doing everything she’d done tonight and, now, fighting off the poison. There was nothing else for it. She’d have to go see Lucien and barter something other than credits for his services and her drugs.
With a grimace, Sif slipped out onto the fire ladder and into the neon-lit night.
“You wanna cup of soup or anything?” Dan Garner asked his coworkers in the Kajipe power hub. He was already pulling on his coat over his broad shoulders and bored to tears facing another twelve hour shift. He sure in hells wasn’t planning on doing it while hungry.
“We aren’t supposed to leave, numbnuts.” Bennett Combs was his fellow guard, a middle-aged, slightly overweight man with a weak chin and reedy voice. In Dan’s opinion, the chin matched Combs’s personality.
“Sure, I’ll have soup if they got any.” Alim, the stocky, snub-nosed tech, didn’t even glance up from his datapad. He was watching something, though the Wires were restricted in here. But he was an egg-head, so Dan figured he’d found a work-around.
“I’m hungry,” Dan said to Combs, “My lunch is meager as shit since Kira’s mad again, and I’m gonna grab something before curfew closes everything down.” He glared at Combs, though it was mostly for show. The guy didn’t have enough spine to report him and Dan had seniority anyway.
“Fine, get me something crunchy and maybe some fresh tea? Stuff they got in the back is crap. Should be enough on that.” Combs dug out a plastic WIC card, handed it over to Dan, and then slumped in his chair. The position did unflattering things to his already puffy gut.
Dan hid his grin and punched the open button for the door. It slid back and he looked down at a slender woman with crazy black and white face paint who was kneeling on the floor. She had an electro pistol in one gloved hand, pointed right at him, ready to spit paralyzing current.
For the space of a shaky breath he just stood there, staring at her. Her eyes were brown, flecked with purple and strangely hypnotic. He tried to cue up the PUDI, get a call out, but it felt like static in his head. Jammer. There had to be a jammer nearby. He felt as though the world had slowed down, as though this was something happening to someone else and he were stuck watching.
“Yo, Danny, that door’ll close on you.” Combs couldn’t see around him, Dan realized, but his voice broke the freeze and time sped back up again. Dan started to reach for his gun, fumbling with the safety snaps.
A shadow to the side of the door resolved itself into man, who stepped up behind the kneeling woman. His hair was short and silvered with age, but the man’s body was still thick with muscle and his dark face was painted in the same terrifying black and white patterns.
“Don’t be a hero,” the man said in a gravelly voice.
“The hell? What’s going. . .” Combs squawked from behind Dan but was cut off by Dan’s sharp gesture.
He backed up slowly and the man and woman followed him, letting the door slide shut behind them. “What do you want?” Dan managed to croak out.
“For us all to sit tight here,” the man replied. “You,” he said to Alim, who was half-rising from his seat and reaching for the console controls, “sit back down.”
The woman didn’t speak. She pulled out a handful of plastic twine from a cloth bag at her waist and started tying Alim to his chair while the man motioned Combs and Dan back against the wall.
“What’re your names?” he asked them.
“Daniel, uh, Dan Garner,” Dan said.
“Shut up, man,” Combs hissed at him.
“They don’t want to hurt us,” Dan said, putting emphasis on it. He prayed it was true. Names helped, right? Personalized you to the attacker. He couldn’t remember what they’d told him in training. All he could think about was Kira’s puffy face and how dying on the job would just make her angrier. She’d probably yell at his corpse and then go shopping with her lazy daughter. Dan quickly shoved those thoughts away.
“That’s right, Dan. We don’t want to hurt anyone.” The man smiled and his teeth looked like fine polished bone.
The woman, who still hadn’t spoken, removed their guns and turned first Combs, then Dan gently around, tying their hands behind them and then easing them into sitting positions and tying their feet. Combs grumbled and started to resist her, but she jammed her thumb into his throat.
Dan didn’t resist at all, he couldn’t give Kira and his step-daughter the satisfaction. Her gloved hands were strong on his shoulders as she helped him sit and he caught the scent of something sweet and almost flowery underneath the stronger smell of the paint on her face. When she turned away he had to stifle a little gasp.
She didn’t have the x-shaped scar or small interface jack in her neck. A woman without a PUDI? Everyone got them when they were five. People turning criminal, sure, he knew about that. Living below the grid and all. But to start that young? Dan shuddered, more worried now about who these people could be.
Dan still couldn’t figure what they wanted, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it but memorize every detail of these people and hope to get out alive to report later. With him and the other two secure, the invaders seemed to relax and do nothing. The woman fiddled with the control console a little, but seemed satisfied to mostly stare off into space. Like they were waiting for something. Or some appointed time. Dan shivered, testing the bindings. Tight. He forced himself to take deep breaths and wait. They couldn’t remain here forever.
The worst part of it was, he was still damn hungry. Dan swallowed hard and prepared for a miserable night.
* * *
Hex and Sif found the door they wanted. It was a reinforced steel door, built to nominally fit in with the rest of the doors in the hallway, but any close inspection revealed it had been replaced long after this building was constructed. There was a keypad inside a plexi box with a slider for a magnetic keycard on the side.
“We need a keycard,” Hex told Ryg over his PUDI.
“Sif has it,” Ryg responded.
Sif was already stepping up to the door, a thin piece of plastic in her hand. She swiped it and waited. Nothing happened. In Hex’s head he heard the muttered string of curses from Ryg, who’d left the communication channel open.
“Give me a moment to think,” Ryg added.
Sif shrugged and pulled out a knife, looking at Hex with a raised eyebrow.
“Alarms?” he asked her over sub-vocals.
In answer she jammed the tip of the blade under the edge of the plexi box and used her superior strength to jimmy it open. The plexi cracked and then broke open.
“Sif! Damnit.” Ryg started another string of curses. “We’re trying to leave minimal trace.”
Hex shook his head and kept an eye on the hallway. No audible alarms were going off yet and no security drones came buzzing out.
“Fine. Here, use this code,” Ryg again.
Sif punched in the code as he fed it to her PUDI. This one worked and the door slid open. Quickly the two of them ducked inside.
“I thought this was supposed to be an auxiliary office. Administrative and such?” Hex said, looking around.
There wasn’t any furniture in the room. It was a large space, as though walls had been removed to combine offices and Hex found where a second door had been cemented over. Against the far wall was a bank of servers, humming away in the near darkness. They stretched from floor to ceiling and had a thick rope of wires patching them into a gaping hole in the far wall.
“This is, different, than I expected,” Ryg muttered, seeing the room through Sif’s forehead camera. “When I found the leak, I thought. . .” he stopped himself, as if realizing what he was saying.
“What leak?” Sif’s voice was deceptively soft over the PUDI. Hex read suspicion in her face that was reflected in his own.
“What are we doing here, Ryg?” he added.
“I’ll tell you later,” Ryg said, sounding resigned. “Just stick the chip in and get the programs running. We’re on a timer here with those patrol drones.”
“Later,” Sif said, making the word a promise.
Hex pulled the chip with the programs on it out of his jacket pocket and found a port on one of the servers. He slotted it in.
“Good?” he asked Ryg.
“Yes, I’m in, just. . .” Static cut Ryg off.
“Ryg? Hey?” Hex tried to re-establish the connection and met the hard silence of a jammed signal. Not good.
Sif met his eye and they melted into the shadows of the room, taking cover behind the server banks as red lights came on and the air filled with the whirring noise of Hunter-killer drones. Nasty little things, Hunter-killers were fist-sized and carried three lethal darts each. Whoever had set up the security here wasn’t messing around.
Hex slid his gun out of its holster as quietly as he could and took a deep breath. No job ever went perfect. If he got out of this alive, he and Ryg were going to have a very, very interesting chat.
Nico disliked the heavy feel of the gun in her hand almost as much as she disliked skulking around in a service tunnel before curfew. Too many people around above, too many chances for someone to notice something, to hear something. She was only an outlaw by necessity of her birth, not by choice and definitely not by inclination.
She halted a moment, listening. Kadin, her companion on this particular venture, stood close enough that she could feel him breathing against her back in the tight tunnel. Her tall, almost androgynous body hovered like a stick inside a bottle. After a moment, she resumed creeping forward.
Definitely too many people up there, somewhere in the world above her. The power hub lay beneath the central Subway station in the Kajipe district. They were three grids down from the Totsi Electronics tower where the rest of the team would be falling into place soon. If Nico and Kadin could do this part right.
“Left,” murmured Kadin, his voice a buzz in her ear. She was the only one in the group without a Personal Uplink implant thingy. Ryg had outfitted her with an ear piece and a patch for her throat, but electronics had a tendency not to last long when in contact with her skin. She couldn’t hear Ryg’s directions at all and depended on Kadin for that.
She acknowledged him in a quick nod and went left. A ladder took them up to a locked hatch. Nico hung on, one arm curled awkwardly around the ladder so she could keep hold of the damn gun. She pressed her other gloved hand against the hatch. Electronic lock, perfect. Power uncoiled within her and buzzed along her skin, stretching through the thin shield of the cloth glove and into the lock.
The hatch popped up with a hiss, as though keyed open. Nico hung there for a moment longer, listening. They had the patrol timings for the power hub and the corridors should be clear, but she trusted her ears far more than a stolen schedule.
“Clear,” she whispered down to Kadin. His face was outlined in red shadows, his strong features a blur to her night vision, but she saw him nod as the shadows shifted. She couldn’t make out the face paint even with her special vision, but she knew the patterns were there, same as her own. The paint clung to her skin, smelling metallic and thick. Her nose itched but she didn’t dare disturb the markings. They needed them to confuse facial recognition.
The corridor led from the entrance, which was now behind them as they emerged and replaced the hatch, down to an office which overlooked the power control room. The whole thing was computerized and automated, but two human guards and a technician were on duty at all times.
Three against two. Not odds that Nico favored, but Kadin was scrappy enough and hopefully no one would try to be a hero. She’d already warned Kadin that he’d have to do any killing, if killing needed doing. But no one wanted it to come to that. The Grey Guard looked for murderers with a lot more gusto than thieves. If they pulled this off right, no one would die and nothing would look like it’d been stolen.
“Too many ifs,” she muttered.
Kadin shushed her and they slid along the wall to the office. The door was thick, the kind that slid back on electronic tracks, and required a key code to open as well. Kadin slipped the jammer from his pocket and set the small device against the wall in the corner near the door. He flicked the switch on it and nodded to Nico. She bent, gun ready, and laid her hand against the electronic keypad. She was just about to short it out when the pad buzzed and the door started to slide open.
* * *
Tommy, AKA the Mouth, had nothing to do but wait. He’d been in position for well over an hour now, though the power field around the secret server room was jamming up his PUDI and he had no way to tell the exact time. He lay on his back in the dry, slightly sweet smelling defunct sewer tunnel, and did long division in his head for kicks.
He had his nickname for talking too much, not for his mouth being anything particularly impressive. His lips were a pinkish line, almost bruised looking, across his narrow brown face. Above them his eyes looked tired and bruised as well. He’d gone for a basic mask instead of the face paint. It worked better with the thermal equalizing suit he wore to keep him comfortable while laying on cement and the gods knew what else.
His part of the job was pretty easy which is why he’d volunteered for this section. The door was state of the art, the walls super thick, and no one was getting into this hidden server room without retinal scan, finger-print, and voice ID. As long as the power worked, anyway. And it was hooked right into the main power hub for Kajipe. And if the power blew, the servers would be offline anyway.
Stupidity was Tommy’s favorite vice in other people. His plan was perfect and they were going to do what no one else would think to, what no one would dare. Hack right into a government black box and walk off with the back-ups of all the data from all the Casimir government systems. Without anyone guessing what they were up to. It was so beautiful he felt his eyes stinging with tears inside the stuffy black cloth mask.
The wall was still humming with power though, so it wasn’t time yet. He just had to lay here, waiting for that buzzing power to go silent. Then he’d walk in, swap the memory stick, retrieve the progs that Ryg would have dosed into the system, and walk right back out again. He could gain the street at the jimmied access point a few hundred meters away, pull off his mask, pull on his overcoat, and catch the subway home before curfew.
Tommy licked his thin lips and smiled. Yeah. He was sure brilliant.
* * *
Clad in black from head to toe with their faces painted, Sif and Hex flattened themselves against the plexi window and let the drone patrol go by. It was before curfew but after business hours, so the security presence wasn’t high yet. But there did seem to be slightly tighter security on this section of buildings than Ryg had led them to expect. Still, it wasn’t yet anything they couldn’t handle.
The drone gone, Sif pulled out her small lazer-cutter and went to work on the window. There was no way to get in here without leaving a trace, but they could minimize the damage. The plexi slowly melted away in a circle as Hex pressed the suction cup to the center, holding the cut-out in place as Sif finished. The oily smoke smelled like cancer happening as it melted away and Hex grit his teeth.
Sif turned off the tool and capped the hot tip, then nodded at Hex. There was enough ambient light from the small running lights inside the hallway that he didn’t need his night vision to see her, but he wished she’d add a little verbal communication to her repertoire.
The cut-out disk came free as he pulled gently and Sif wiggled into the hole, dropping down onto the hallway floor. She crooked a finger at him. His turn.
“Couldn’t have made that opening a little wider?” he muttered over the sub-vocals.
“Eat less,” Sif mouthed and her grin was downright scary with the black markings on her rice-paper skin.
Hex glared, though he knew it was wasted on her, and handed the plexi disk through. His shoulders jammed in the opening for a minute and he entertained a vision of being truly stuck, left for the drones and the Grey Guard to retrieve with cutters and jests in the morning. Spurred by that image, he wiggled his shoulders, stretching his arms above his head.
Sif grabbed onto his hips and yanked. Hex’s head cracked back as he popped loose and slammed into the window, the dull ringing echoing down the hallway and out into the ventilation shaft they’d rappelled down.
“You okay?” Ryg’s voice asked through the PUDI connection. What he meant was “have you been spotted?”
Both thieves froze, waiting for the hum of the drones. Nothing.
Head still stinging and with a dull burr of noise echoing on in his ears below the sound of his racing heart, Hex let out a slow breath.
“Yeah, I think we’re good,” he told Ryg. “Where now?”
Ryg’s response was to pull up the overlay of the building and ping the little map he’d put together for their PUDIs. Sif made sense of it right away and motioned to Hex to follow. He unhooked his harness and left it in the shadows with the cut-out from the window. According to the most likely patrol schedule, they had a good three quarters of an hour before this hallway would be occupied again. Enough time to run the progs and get out.
Hopefully. Ryg wasn’t communicating as much as he usually did on a job. He seemed almost distracted by something. Hex prayed it was just jitters and imagination on his part. No way to bring it up to Sif and get her thoughts without Ryg listening in.
Get in, get out , then worry. With multiple glances behind him, Hex slipped down the corridor after his lover, a growing sense of unease he couldn’t explain tickling the back of his brain.
Sif muttered a garbled protest as Hex rose with the daylight. He’d only had a few hours of sleep and his body ached as though he’d taken a beating. He smiled down at his sleeping lover. She had one slim arm thrown over her head, with the other pale hand tucked under her chin. Her hair, like fine gold thread, had escaped its braid and blanketed her narrow shoulders. Relaxed with sleep; her normally defined muscles hid beneath unblemished skin.
Hex thought she looked at her most inhuman when she slept, less like a child than a doll. Every feature symmetrical, the coloring of her mouth, cheeks, and even her lashes were more like painted details than living flesh.
Hex carried his clothing into the main room and dressed quickly. He selected seven of the condensed food bars they’d appropriated the night before and tucked them into the pockets of his long brown coat. More grateful for stairs then he’d been in a long time; Hex navigated the twisting corridors of the building and descended slowly to street level. It was still raining, a slow lazy drizzle.
Though curfew ended with dawn, there were very few people moving along Casimir’s winding Main Street. Later, the streets would fill with bicycle traffic and throngs of bodies moving between underground stations. Ijipe’s lower levels held many small home shops and markets. It was possible to find almost anything one needed in the little registered or illegal shops tucked between the alleyways and building entries. A warren of commerce slept as Hex moved up the glowing road towards the edge of Ijipe housing district.
Sore as he was, he still opted to walk. The light rain cleared his head even as it matted his curls to his face and neck. Hex left his hood down. The food was safe enough inside his waterproof coat and the plastic packaging.
The solid walls of building shadowed his walk, the ubiquitous crowns, bells, and wings of traditional Casimir decoration casting odd shadows down on the rain-dark concrete. Here and there in the morning mist lights within windows glinted. The fiber-optics embedded into the streets lit the morning purple, green, and red.
A few hundred steps down the road, just as the buildings started to twist again in another curve of the giant spiral that was Casimir, Hex found the alley he was looking for. The alley was dimly lit by pale strands of fiber-optic light tucked into the edges. Debris and a dark plastic bench blocked some of the light rising up from the ground. Hex moved carefully down the alley until he came to a narrow stair leading upward into the buildings.
Hex climbed until his legs hurt. He bypassed one hallway entrance after another. Finally worn green paint in twisting designs greeted his eyes. He turned from the stair and stepped down the hallway. At the fifth door he hesitated. With a deep breath, Hex knocked.
A small, dark and wrinkled woman opened the door just enough to see him. He heard a chain being withdrawn and then the door opened fully.
“What do you want, Hex?” Jaline said.
“I’ve brought food for the kids,” Hex said, pulling the food bricks out of his pockets.
“They’re asleep. Come put it over here.” She moved aside, allowing him into the small room. This apartment was laid out much like Hex’s own. He walked to the kitchen, noticing the large crayons aligned neatly on the low table. He stacked the food on the counter and turned back to Jaline.
“Thank you. Is that all?” She said the last more as expectation than question.
“Daddy?” A soft voice asked from behind one of the curtains leading to the sleeping rooms.
“Nadia, hi.” Hex bent and held his arms out to his youngest child. She emerged from behind the cloth and ran the few steps to him. Her body was so thin and her heart beat so fast, more like a bird’s than a girl’s.
He carefully clutched the fragile four-year old in a hug and looked up at her grandmother. Jaline is nothing like her daughter was. Her daughter, the mother of Hex’s two children, had been so carefree and full of life. Her mother was a bitter creature that the world had long since sucked dry of all joy.
“Nadia, you should be in bed.” Jaline stepped forward as if to take the child.
Hex shook his head. “Nadia, I brought food for you all and Granma is going to make you a huge breakfast.” He let his face go hard as he stared Jaline down.
Nadia looked up at him with large purple eyes and her mother’s narrow chin. Her mother had been a Drift addict when she was pregnant and the drug’s mark was forever imprinted on his child.
“I don’t get breakfast, Daddy.”
“Don’t be silly, child,” Jaline said, her voice high with a panicked note. “Of course you get breakfast. Granma is going to do just as your daddy says.” She tore the child from his hands and set her down on the counter. “Hex,” she said, “it’s just that she isn’t registered, so of course it’s harder to get her rations. We have to pay attention to those things in this house. You see.”
“Of course,” Hex murmured. He wished suddenly that he hadn’t come. “Say hello to Eddy for me when he gets up. I’ve got to go.”
“Have a good day,” Jaline said stiffly, though her eyes still showed a trace of fear.
Hex paused in the doorway and watched the domestic scene of Nadia waving a mixing spoon in the air while her grandmother peeled open a package of Sunrise! Delicious! He shut the door quickly and did not look back.
* * *
Sif, Ryg, and Hex gathered around the low table. On it Ryg had spread a print-out of building schematics.
“Here,” Ryg said, indicating a large room on the inside edge of the seventy-fifth floor.
“Just in and out, eh? The files won’t be hard to copy?” Hex asked.
“Shouldn’t be. I’ll send along one of my little standard chips. You might have to try running a couple different programs.”
“Sounds easy enough. Guards?”
“Drones. Totsi Electronics provides their security. They’ve got the regular issue. Non-lethal only. Patrols on a random generated pattern.”
Hex sighed. “Looks like roof entry through that central shaft is our best plan.”
Sif smiled at him and squeezed his hand. Hex hated the roofs, though he couldn’t deny that they were the best way to travel unnoticed in the city.
“Tomorrow night then, if you think that’s not too soon?” Ryg said. He sat very straight, body rigid. There was an air of anticipation about him.
Sif’s eyes narrowed.
“Not too soon at all, kid. Sooner we work, sooner we get paid,” Hex said and rose to clear their cups.
Sif followed Ryg into his room, yanking the curtain closed behind her.
“What’s going on?” she asked him, using sub-vocals.
Ryg turned his back to her and began fiddling with Fisheye. “Nothing.”
There was yellowish crust around his neck implant. It wasn’t like him to tolerate any bodily fluid leaking, much less drying on his skin.
“I know you better than that, brother.” Sif stepped forward and gently touched the wires protruding from his shirt.
Turning, he brushed her off. “I’m going to need to replace my knees soon. The joints are going. I need this job as much as you. That’s all.”
Sif considered him. He looked tired, yet focused. “Night then.” She turned away. We’re all falling apart.
* * *
Ryg waited until the curtain dropped closed behind Sif. He sighed and settled down in front of his computer screens. He loaded a program and made a call. Kadin’s face appeared. He was passing middle age, with short silvered hair and darker skin than Hex’s.
“They in?” Kadin asked.
“Yes. Though Sif’s suspicious,” Ryg said.
“Everything will be fine. They’ll never know.” Kadin’s image smiled wide and reassuring. “The real work will be going on far below them.”
“Except they won’t get paid. That’s going to ruffle things,” Ryg said. He hadn’t lied to Sif, he also needed the credit.
“Would they do it if they were getting paid?”
“No, not a job like this,” Ryg said with a sigh. He couldn’t tell his friends the truth. Sif would kill him for even thinking about it. Her rule was to stay as far away from anything having to do with the Council and government as possible. “But it’ll still look bad when we fail.”
“I’ll see what I can do for you at least,” Kadin said, reading into what Ryg wasn’t saying. “And we’ll see what we can do with what we get. There might be a larger payday later, if all goes as it should.”
“Thanks, friend,” Ryg said. He resisted the urge to scratch at wires in his neck, forcing his hands to stay quiet in his lap. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow night. Make sure everyone else is ready.”
“They will be,” Kadin said and then he ended the call.
“This better be worth it.” Ryg shivered. It would be. It had to be.
* * *
Sif fixed the tiny camera to her forehead, smack between her eyes. The apoxy stuck immediately and she inwardly winced at the idea of ripping it off. That part was never fun. The benefits of a live feed of what was going on, however, would always outweigh the bit of skin she’d lose later.
“Great,” Ryg said. “Now, try not to move your head around too much. I’m not the biggest fan of motion sickness.”
“Really?” Hex asked. “I figured you would have replaced your stomach with a spare bucket and some plumbing tape by now.”
Sif tensed. Ryg could be touchy when it came to making light of his body’s failings. She needn’t have worried. Ryg chuckled and then shrugged.
“I would, but you see, who knows where those spare buckets have been? So very unsanitary. So I’m unfortunately stuck with the acidic bacteria infestation that comes as standard option.”
“In that case I’ll try to resist all urges to pick Sif up and shake her like a rat,” Hex said solemnly.
“Aw, but then I’d get to witness, first person view and all, what she’d do to you afterwards.”
“Now that would be unsanitary.”
“If you two are done,” Sif muttered, “We have a building to rob.”
Mist, pervasive and cloying, settled in between the tall buildings and along Casimir’s spiraling street. The fog dimmed the bright advertisements pasted on screens, blurred the shining lamps and ever searching eyes of the security drones. On the far outskirts of the shell, beneath the conical towers of the aeroponic gardens, two shadows were up to no good.
Long warehouses stacked like steps lined the way between the wide alleys. The readout panels on the doors at ground level shone dimly red, all except one. The two shadows, revealing themselves to be thieves as they soundlessly shifted weapons and empty sacks in the darkness, honed in on the building with the panel. One was a slim woman covered all in black from eyes to toes. Her companion stood a head taller than she and was also covered in black but for his dark curling hair which escaped the hood of his jacket to stick to his swarthy brow.
It became immediately apparent to the thieves that someone else had gotten to the warehouse before them.
The woman, Sif, moved in on the guard watching from the doorway, dropping him to the ground before the hapless man could do more than open his mouth. Her companion, Hex, slipped inside the door and along one wall, listening to the two men haggle. He raised a hand, motioning the woman to move around and flank the men doing business, and their guards. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but Hex and Sif had learned to work with what they had.
Privately, Hex vowed to pay a nasty visit on the whisperman who’d sold him the info about this warehouse and teach the little bastard the real cost of double-selling.
A balding man with stick arms and a cheap suit leaned onto the large table dividing the back of the warehouse. On it were stacked bright red, blue, and yellow bricks of food stuffs with names like “Sunrise! Delicious!” stamped into the plastic. There were no batch numbers yet, nor dates.
In the eyes of the two men haggling, these were bricks of credit. For Sif and Hex, they were food. As much as he’d have liked to, Hex knew he and Sif couldn’t get enough out of the warehouse to afford to sell any on the black market.
“One hundred work income credits each, Mr. Cimbon.” Baldy stared up at the taller, younger man. “Seems fair, yes?”
“Fair? Seems like robbery, present situation not included, Mr. Armode.” Mr. Cimbon glanced at his goons and they both chuckled on queue. “Look, we’ll agree on sixty wic each, and be on our way home before curfew. Which,” his eyes unfocused as he queried his Personal Uplink Data Implant, “is in less than a half hour.”
“You’ll starve my family at that rate, Mr. Cimbon. Eighty-five at least.” Mr. Armode dropped his eyes to the man’s chest, seeming to sneer at the puff of chest hair spilling over Mr. Cimbon’s partially unbuttoned shirt.
“Seventy, and we’ll throw in a voucher for Sorjipe pond-grown fish. The real thing. Free and clear. Totally legit.”
“Seventy-five, and the voucher.” Mr. Armode licked his lips.
So did Hex. Pond-grown fish was a delicacy of the very privileged and though he’d never tasted any, it was reported to be night and day away from the vat grown imitation flesh standard vouchers could acquire. Hex knew instantly that Mr. Armode had made a mistake and bargained too low when Mr. Cimbon looked mockingly hurt as he accepted the deal.
“You’ll put us all out of business with those prices, friend. I suppose I must accept however. Man has to eat.”
Hex figured he’d given Sif enough time. As Mr. Cimbon had just said, a man had to eat.
The crackle of an electro pistol interrupted whatever either man might have said next. One of the muscle men dropped. The other went for his own gun, but another blast of energy dropped him with a blue hissing jolt. Hex emerged from near the warehouse entrance, pistol gleaming in his hand.
“Sit down, baldy. Put your hands on the table, flat.” His voice was silk over gravel. Mr. Armode did as directed.
Mr. Cimbon smirked at Hex. “You robbing robbers, fellow?”
“Indeed. Now, since you’re sneaking a hand toward the pistol in your jacket, you might as well remove it and set it down.” His gun hand didn’t waver.
The smile slid off Mr. Cimbon’s face as he removed the pistol. Hex watched him evaluate his options as he sluggishly complied with the order. The tables covered in bricks of food could supply some cover. There was plenty of darkness to hide in as well since the only illumination was a small battery powered glow disk resting near the terrified Mr. Armode. Planning his next action, Mr. Cimbon kicked his gun aside, letting it slide under a table.
“Not thinking of diving after it, are you?” Hex chuckled. Mr. Cimbon’s thoughts were painted on his face with broad strokes.
“I have friends, mister. Connections. I could be useful to a man like you. If you can accomplish this alone, think of the possibilities of a partner.” Mr. Cimbon molded his face into an open, friendly look that was about as convincing as pink dye on a sewer rat and not nearly as pretty.
“Thanks,” Hex said, “but see, I’ve got a partner. And she’s a hell of a lot better looking than you, I’m afraid.”
Mr. Cimbon heard a scrape near him and turned his head. Sif emerged from the shadows holding his gun as though it were a festering rodent.
“I can certainly see your partner’s ‘perks’,” Mr. Cimbon muttered, looking at the woman’s chest filling out her hooded coat. “She going to shoot me?”
“Her? Loria no!” Hex said. “She hates guns.”
As if to demonstrate that her partner had the right of things, Sif dismantled the pistol into component parts in seconds.
“Hex,” she said to her partner in subvocals through their linked PUDI, “stop preening. Stun them and let’s pack up.”
Hex sighed. He’d been enjoying the feeling of turning the tables on these assholes.
He shot first Mr. Cimbon and then Mr. Armode, the crackling electro-pistol sounding loud inside the large warehouse. They filled two large black packs with the various food packages. Seconds ticked past. Sif raised her head and put up a hand. Hex froze.
“What is it?” he asked through the link. She shook her head. Then he heard the drones. “Damn,” Hex said, “Baldy must have called security before I got him. I guess it’s time for plan B.”
Sif crossed her green eyes and scrunched down her pale brows at him, which he barely made out in the dim interior.
Hex chuckled. “Plan B is always run like hell.”
Sif snorted and scanned the darkness. She ducked under a bank of tables and growled, “Hex, back door,” into her sub-vocal mic.
The two slipped out the back, keeping their bodies in shadow against the long row of warehouses. They moved through the mist toward the towering buildings that loomed like walls lining the main street of Outer Morrow. The hum of drones and the sound of booted feet echoed in the damp air. Hex wished they had a little heat mapping support from Ryg right now, but he’d been busy with something else tonight so they hadn’t included him in this little mission. A shout rang out and the boot steps grew louder, closer.
“I think they’ve spotted us, probably our heat signatures,” Hex muttered into the sub-vocal mic.
He and Sif broke for the wall of buildings a hundred meters distant. Options were meager for escape. Curfew was in a few minutes, so the subways had stopped running and soon the city lights would be shutting down. The district gates would close. Hex resigned himself to either a slog through the subway tunnels or a cold long climb and a mad run along the slick roofs and walkways of Outer Morrow.
Sif dashed ahead of him, a dim blur in the wet. Running, Hex pulled his goggles out of a jacket pocket. He shoved them on one-handed and slid the wire into his PUDI jack just below his hairline at the temple. Once again he envied Sif her ability to see at night without artificial aid. The world turned to shades of gray and green, shapes forming out of the darkness. He nearly slammed into the first towering building that formed the barrier between Outland and Outer Morrow.
Sif’s gloved hand gripped his shoulder painfully hard and shoved him back against the wall. He glanced at her. Her beautiful face was hidden by the shadow of her black hood, her head cocked ever so slightly to the left. Hex turned very carefully and looked out into the darkness. He could hear the hum of drones; see their infrared lights through his goggles. None were too close, but the net was slowly closing in.
“Not much chance of getting to a subway access from here,” Hex said into the subvocals. Sif didn’t answer, but he’d hardly expected her to.
He felt his partner move and looked back at her. She was crouching, staring upwards, her face pale and damp. Hex followed her gaze and saw a large crenellation in the building above them. Most of the buildings in the city had carvings and outcroppings such as this. The concrete bell above them was quite large for the area, sticking out and forming a convenient ledge. Convenient if you want to jump three meters.
“I can’t make that leap straight up, love.” He looked back down at her.
Sif smiled up at him and interlaced her long fingers to form a step.
Hex sighed. He holstered his gun, checked the strap of the bag with their stolen food in it, and put a gritty, wet boot into her hand.
“Couldn’t we just shoot our way out of this in a blaze of glory like civilized people?” he muttered aloud.
Sif flung him upward into the air. He nearly missed the ledge of the ostentatious bell. His gloved hands scrabbled on it, and he winced at the noise he was making. Infrared light flared around him as a drone pinpointed their location. Hex hauled himself up, clinging precariously to the concrete. Sif joined him, leaping cleanly from the ground. She made anything physical look effortless.
Above and to the right was another bit of decoration. Slowly they made their way upward. Below they heard shouts but ignored them. One persistent drone kept up, climbing with them through the air. It was one of the egg-shaped spotter drones, at least, and not a full security model, which meant no gun.
No gun was good. Hex hated to be in a fair fight.
Hex drew his own gun and hung from the point of a concrete crown carved to look half-submerged in the building. The head-sized metallic construct drew near, the mist, now turning into a steady drizzle, forcing it closer in order to retain line of sight on the pair. Hex aimed and then closed his eyes against the bright flash of the electro pistol as he shot down the drone. It spiraled away into the darkness, echoing as it hit the pavement below.
“I just bought us a couple minutes ‘til they pinpoint us again, so let’s move.”
Sif climbed ahead of him, moving up the wall easily. They climbed higher until Hex felt as though his arms would never empty of blood again. No other drones had climbed this high and he wondered if they’d given up the hunt or if they’d just wait for the two to fall. So far they’d found no windows, no access points to the building they were climbing. He mused that their escape plan lacked some vital details in its construction.
There was a muffled curse and scrabbling off to the right and slightly above their position. Hex felt more than saw Sif shifting and moving towards the noise. He edged sideways, heading for the corner of the building. Sif had disappeared when he finally found enough purchase to risk looking up. Thankful for the roughened palms of his gloves, Hex gripped the edge of the building and cautiously swung his head around the side for a look.
Boots scrabbling on metal drew his gaze upwards. A couple meters above Sif leaned over the rail of a fire escape landing, staring down at him. She winked and beckoned to him. Hex couldn’t see a good way to get to the fire escape ladder without either leaping and hoping to catch the side of the ladder or sidling back along the wall and climbing higher. Sif would just jump.
He carefully counterbalanced his weight with his right arm against the corner and inched up the building. When he’d judged that he was on level with Sif he slid carefully around the wall again. She helpfully extended her hands towards him.
“This will be embarrassing if I fall,” he muttered.
“Only for about ten seconds,” said Sif.
Hex clenched his teeth and pushed away from the wall. For a split moment he was loose in the air, flying. Then his left hand gripped the rail while his right was caught expertly by Sif’s outstretched arms. He hauled himself over onto the landing.
Two of the Grey Guard, Casimir’s security force, lay piled against the far rail. To gain the ladder upwards, the two had to step over the bodies. Hex bent, partially to catch his breath, partially to check vital signs. They lived.
“Thanks for not killing anyone.” He looked up at Sif.
She shrugged and pushed him into the wall of the building. Her mouth, warm and soft, pressed against his as she grabbed a handful of curls to drag his head down to hers. He kissed her back, shivering as her body rubbed against his. Then he gently put a hand under her chin and lifted her face away from his own.
“Interesting timing, love,” Hex said. “Home first, perhaps.” He looked pointedly down at the unconscious guards they were practically standing on top of. Sif grinned at him and cupped his crotch suggestively. Then she stepped onto the ladder and began to climb.
Hex took a deep breath and started after her. It looked like it would be another cold, wet run across the roofs of the city.