The original colonists named the planet Mahatma in the somewhat overly optimistic expectation of how conflicts would be resolved there. Over the following century, citizens of the more mainstream systems came to call it Roanoke in the hopes that it would somehow disappear. But it didn’t. The dusty little planet at the end of the Hominid Road continued to revolve around its smoldering M dwarf, barely skirting tidal lock, developing one gleaming rash of a super-city after another, incubating dissidents and spewing discontent out into the cosmos.
Julius Rose pretended to live on Roanoke. Yes, in his real life he still lived on Roanoke (what other world would be safe for someone like him?) but not in the beta-credit part of Porky Town and not in a tasteful townhouse cluttered with the expressions of an artistic talent he didn’t really have. Abe Qadir, visiting his friend’s new digs for the first time, almost dropped his carton of eggs.
“You’re involved in something really, really bad, aren’t you?” Abe set the carton on the table, did a double take, and gingerly fingered the silk tablecloth in disbelief. He looked around skeptically at the various paintings awaiting completion. “This can’t be for real.”
“Of course not,” Rose nodded. “I’m being very well paid to pose as a decadent, frequently drunk genius while I sit here and babysit a certain item.”
His smile was much more evident in his eyes than anywhere else. He was a striking, verging on elegant, figure: thin, angular, deathly pale, with sandy blond hair pulled into a topknot. He dressed in simple, dark clothes that never looked out of place and he was rarely less than polite. But the way he moved unnerved people; still as stone one moment, sudden as a snake the next.
Abe unsnapped and removed his gelmet and ran a hand over the black bristles of his hair expecting, against experience, them to be wet. “Who’s paying you? And did they really specify that you be frequently drunk?”
Rose pointed a lecturing finger. “To craft a convincing cover, I must disappear into the character.” He jumped up from his seat and tore the tablecloth away with a theatrical flourish, ignoring the soft patter of breaking eggs.
Abe sighed and watched the yokes bleed slowly from the wreckage. He was used to impulsive behavior from Rose but wondered if it was getting worse. The cerebral implants that made Enhanced Ops squads so effective were supposed to be removed before a soldier’s discharge. But Rose had never been discharged and could never go back. The neuromorphic microchips and silicon glial net were still in there, years longer than they were supposed to be.
Rose cleared his throat loudly, calling Abe back from the tragedy of the eggs and drawing his attention to the metal cylinder that had been under the tablecloth.
“A cryobed. A Cold Comfort cryobed judging from that logo. These are supposed to be the best kind, loaded with fail-safes.” Abe bent to peer through the glass cover. “Ugh. Who’s the old man and why can’t he be wearing pants?”
“This is Skippy Brechs of the Brechs Excess family. You know, the company behind all those gel-form products, like your helmet there. Very wealthy.” Of course, Skippy wasn’t the man’s real name. Another side effect Rose’s friends had to get used to was his aphasic inability to say any other first name.
Rose sat back down, put his feet up on the cryobed, right over the old man’s face, and continued, “He got stung by some new poisonous beast while on safari. His people froze him while they break the animal down and engineer some treatment for him. I have to check in with his counselor three times a day and read his glucose levels to her. You should stick around for that call, it’s a hoot.”
Abe’s stomach started churning. “So they hired someone like you to guard him while under a false identity? Well, that’s a perfectly normal and not at all shady thing to do.”
“Oh, it gets worse,” Rose answered cheerfully. “I gather there’s some kind of decoy over in his Swirl Town place.”
Abe peered down at the cragged, still face beneath the glass. Brechs managed to look crotchety even in temporary death. “Why? What are you involved with here?”
“Who cares?” Rose shrugged. “Want some lunch?”
Abe blinked, processed the sudden change of subject, and answered, “I brought lunch but now we’d have to lick it up off the floor!”
Rose grimaced. “The eggs? You brought a carton of eggs for lunch?”
“They were Healthy Shells from Sizuki’s stall. Those aren’t cheap.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter what you paid, curb transgenics are always a waste of money.”
“Not while this new splotch virus is going around! I’m eating nothing but medfoods. I saw on the news that another little kid died last night. I know guys our age are surviving it but-”
Rose stopped him with a raised hand and cocked his head in the silence. “Someone’s in the foyer,” he murmured. “When you closed the door, did you trip the security mesh?”
The figure that stepped into the living room wore an any-environment suit, its face-screen set to reflective. It lifted a silver cylindrical device in its right hand and a large photo of a gunshot victim in its left. Rose saw the gristly picture and understood in an instant what was about to happen. He lunged over the cryobed but the figure was already activating the device.
On some level, Rose knew that focused magnetic waves were triggering the anterior insula of his brain and pushing it to hyper-active levels. But that didn’t stop him from crashing to the floor alongside Abe, both men absolutely convinced they were gushing blood from jagged bullet-holes in their torsos.
Their attacker dropped the photo between them and groped around under the cryobed’s carriage, releasing the steering handle and unlocking its small wheels. With a soft whisper, the intruder steered the cryobed into the foyer and out the front door.
Seconds passed while Rose’s mindware sent self-correcting hormones sloshing around his braincase and then he was up on his haunches, leaning over Abe. “Lie still, Scotty. The effects should wear off in a few minutes.”
“W-wear off?” Abe gasped and winced in imaginary pain. “I’ve been shot.”
“Only with a dose of concentrated empathy,” Rose assured him. Then, just for laughs, he placed both of Abe’s hands on his chest. “Here. Keep pressure on the wound. Or you’ll bleed out and die.” Then he jumped up and bolted out the front door.
“Man down,” Abe called out, weakly. “Man down.”
The streets of Porky Town, even the beta-credit ones, were never empty. On every corner, kids grouped and gamed on smart-tarps draped over mailboxes, water hydrants and old people. Holographic transmitters embedded in the sidewalk projected sexy Commercial Sapiens on fixed yet casual strolls. The other, terribly unsexy pedestrians were real humans marching and sometimes running to and from places of fleeting opportunity. And of course there were the addicts and the lovelorn, wandering around in a damaged daze looking exactly like each other. The city was the usual passionate mess.
But a fully environment-armored person loading a cryobed into the back of a clean, obviously new truck? Picking that out from half a block away wasn’t hard and Rose had almost reached the truck before it spun on its three gyroscopic wheels and escaped into traffic with fishlike grace. Rose stole a bike from one of the kids too busy gaming to pay attention and took off in hot pursuit.
Most of the kids hopped on their own bikes and took off in hot pursuit of him. One in particular, a boy who always kept his hood up to hide the stubby little antenna sticking out of a festering hole in his skull, was bad news. He was a member of the Sin Send Circle and what he saw, every frequency mate in the area saw too.
Almost an hour later, Abe was amusing himself by making some additions and alterations to Rose’s paintings when Rose returned, accompanied by the figure in the suit. There were minor tears in Rose’s clothes and a small cut over one eye. The figure’s face-screen was clear, revealing pixie-ish, feminine features.
“Sit,” Rose told her, curtly. He turned to Abe and made introductions. “Skippy Qadir, this is Skippy Brechs. Skippy Brechs, Skippy Qadir.”
“I thought the fossil in the freezer was Skippy Brechs,” Abe murmured, putting the last touches on a Venus that now had elephant ears.
“Neither one of is!” Even through the helmet speaker, the woman instantly identified herself as a master of the princess pitch, that perfect blend of anger and whininess that simultaneously attacks and wheedles. “I’m Helen Brechs. My brother is Bernard Brechs. Please, we have to get him back!”
Rose dabbed at his head with a clean corner of canvas. “I just about had her down on Mercer Street when we both got jacked by a half dozen Circle jerks.”
“Yes. You know how coordinated they are. They had us both flat on our backs in no time. I crippled the two who were on me easily enough but they got away with the truck.”
Helen rapped her gloved fingers against her face-screen. “I can’t stay in this suit forever. I can’t do it. I’m going crazy. We have to get him back.”
Rose caught the confused look on Abe’s face. “She thinks her brother released a virus engineered to target their family.”
“He did! My father is on life support up on Soclean Station. He doesn’t have much longer. Bernard wants to cut down on how many kids he has to share the fortune with. Five have died already. I received an anonymous message that warned-”
“Wait a minute. The geezer’s dad is still alive? How old-”
“He’s 131. He was an active man. I have eighteen brothers and sisters. On Roanoke. That I know about. While Daddy’s been sick, the company’s gotten into trouble.”
Rose went to the minibar and poured himself a scotch. “It’s funny how broke rich people can sometimes get. But it’s still not my problem.”
“You have to believe me!”
“No, I don’t. And I certainly don’t have to care. I have a job to do. I’m going to go get my client back. My friend here is going to watch you until your brother’s counselor calls in and then you can talk to her. I’ll let that sort itself out.” He looked at Abe. “If she gives you any trouble, pull her helmet off.”
“Right.” Abe matched the frosty indifference in Rose’s voice pretty well, considering he was just a bike courier who had seen plenty of weirdness and violence on Roanoke but had never actually killed anyone.
Rose drained his glass and headed for the door. Helen called after him, “Sir, I know my brother. He must have an antivirus or some other kind of failsafe with him in the cryobed. He wouldn’t just hope-”
But Rose had left.
Law enforcement was more than a little spotty on Roanoke but that was in keeping with the spirit of the colony’s founding. Consenting adults came to the planet to live free of mores the rest of the Hominid Road tended to enforce with baton-twirling zealousness. The only kind of public surveillance allowed were the magnetic sensors in the traffic lights that recorded any bits of metal moving faster than a hundred meters per second, in the projectile-weapon speed range, and notified authorities. It was a charter fact that guns were verboten on Roanoke and getting caught with one was an excellent way of getting immediately exiled.
None of which meant the streets were really safe. The three demographics of the colony were the creative, the violent, and the creative violent. The Savannah was the part of Porky Town where they went to talk to each other.
Julius Rose made his way through streets lined with the giant quill-like trees that gave Porky Town its name and stabbed angrily into the sky at an equally furious crimson sun. He swung his gyrojeep into the alley next to Chunk’s Bar, suction-deflated the seat bench and locked the collapsible steering panel.
He paused for a moment outside the bar, and centered himself on the memory of his fight with the Circle boys, heightening the activity of his temporal lobe until the memory eclipsed his current surroundings, then eliminating the data streams one by one until only his olfactory sense was left. There had been a strange smell to the carjackers, not of them but on them, a salad-like smell, almost bacterial. He let the memory sink back down into his mind and entered the bar.
Unfortunately, the only scent he recognized was howler monkey. Nearly a dozen of them where leaping all over a booth in the corner, shrieking and clapping and shrieking and stinking and shrieking. He hated them. There were only a few human patrons this early in the day and none of them looked likely. That was okay because he was really here to see Chunk Johnson except Chunk wasn’t behind the bar. Instead, he found himself staring at a dusky, raven-haired woman who was staring back with electric-blue eyes. She was leaning languidly on the bar, one breast nearly ready to slip out of her scoop-neck top. He sighed because he knew immediately that she wasn’t real.
“Give me a scotch and tell Mr. Johnson I think he’s a sell-out for installing one of you,” he said brusquely.
She gave a slight lip twitch and a widening of the eyes to indicate hurt, as if she had been hoping he was a nice guy, but not so much as to seem excessively vulnerable, which could be annoying. Teams of behavioral psychologists worked with AI programmers to ensure each Commercial Sapien’s maximal attractiveness.
“Chunk went on a much deserved vacation and asked me to watch the bar for him,” she answered, patiently. Segmented mechanical arms uncurled noiselessly from the counter behind her and started to assemble his drink. She slid a little closer. “Have you ever been to the Sunshine Islands?”
Rose wasn’t interested in a ton of brochures being mailed to his house. “Yes, I have and I accidentally disturbed a wasps’ nest and was stung repeatedly on the ass. Just the ass too. Seven times on each buttock. Damnedest thing.” This was an absurd fabrication but he just wanted to see what she’d say.
Her brow furrowed sympathetically but she didn’t miss a beat. “Ouch. You’ve gotta take care of that tush of yours; it’s too nice. There’s a cream for that kind of thing, though. Feathersoft makes a different healing lotion for every part of the body, targeted for the different pH levels-”
“Okay, okay.” He snatched his glass up from the counter and dropped some cash in its place. He turned to go but then had a thought. “What can you tell me about Brechs Excess?”
The holographic woman looked confused. “Um, nothing really. I know one of their competitors is really-”
He walked away. Easing up on the rabid advertising wasn’t necessarily a sign that the company was in trouble but it was still interesting that Brechs Excess wasn’t on her sponsor list.
Without Chunk, there was only one thing left to do: he’d talk to the proxies. He approached the monkeys warily and all at once they went silent, staring at him with their runny simian eyes.
Rose cleared his throat. “I’m looking for something the SSC stole earlier today. It was in the back of a truck they jacked. Now they can keep the truck but I need the other item back. They’re not going to have any use for it, so I assume they’ll want to offload it quickly.”
This was either dangerous or useless. A different person was receiving from the optic nerve and sending to the motor cortex of each of these animals; they could be anything from delusion psychopaths looking for victims to bored adolescents playing a game. But this was how information was had in the Savannah.
One of the howlers leaped up and scampered across tables until it was three booths away and motioned for Rose to follow it. Rose drained his glass and slid in across from the little abomination. It opened a pouch strapped around its waist, pulled out a piece of blue chalk and scribbled on the tabletop: WHAT WAS THE ITEM?
“A man in a cryobed.”
The monkey cocked its shaven, surgically scarred head, as if thinking. Then it screeched and wrote: MEAT MARKET
Rose was skeptical. “The man was pretty old. Mean Cuisine types aren’t going to want to eat him and how good could his organs be?”
The howler squatted and dropped a load right on the table.
“Uh, was that your response or an ad-lib by the monkey?”
GENETIC MATERIAL STILL GOOD. CRYO PARTS STILL GOOD.
Rose wasn’t sold but if this was the only lead… “Is there a meat market tonight?”
Rose took out a hundred and offered it. The monkey didn’t move. Rose snatched the thing by the throat, aborting a shriek with a press of his thumb, and held its panicked little face up to his. “I own a rottweiler. Are you going to take what I’m offering or am I bringing a special snack home for Skippy?*” A grimy paw reached for the hundred. “Good. Now tell me when and where.”
Abe felt his cuff link vibrate, pressed it and watched a low-resolution image of Rose’s face appear on his sleeve.
“It’s Rose.” His voice sounded from the link’s micro-speaker. “How are you guys doing?”
“I’m sooooooo sorry,” Abe began.
“I lost her. Helen. I lost her.”
“You lost her? But… I left you at the house. You were both stationary. How do you lose someone when neither of you is moving?”
“Yeah. That’s a good point,” Abe admitted sheepishly. “But the patterns on the front of her suit started moving.”
“So? Her suit had an outer layer of electronic smart fabric. We’re talking on the same thing right now. So what?”
“Yeah, but the display on hers had all these patterns. It was so cool. I started watching and then I just… zoned out. When I snapped out of it, she was gone.”
“Clever,” Rose muttered.
“Well, it’s not the first time your brain shut down while you were staring at a woman. Hop on your bike and pick me up at Mr. Johnson’s Bar.”
“What’s wrong with your car?”
“Apparently, some vandals thought it would be fun to spray it with foam cement. All the foldable components are under a nice thick coat. Damn kids.”
“I’ll have to rent a sonic hammer to liquefy that garbage and there’s no time for that now. We need to be at a meat market by seven tonight.”
Abe groaned. “There’s something you should know.”
“After Helen ditched me, I hooked up my pocket tarp and searched for any deaths in her family. I found three and the obits listed them as splotch victims.”
“Do you not understand, Julius? Bernard made the splotch. He made it to wipe out his family but viral weapons aren’t as precise as bullets; it’s infecting others. What if it mutates and-”
“Skippy,” Rose interrupted, “the woman has literally messed with your head twice now and you’re letting her do it a third time. We can talk more about this when you pick me up.”
Julius Rose learned a number of things that evening:
Abe’s bike had a swing-out second seat, resilin shock absorbers, smart rubber friction-adjustable wheels, and four double-jointed legs guided by a very rudimentary AI. It was a dream to ride on any terrain. But two men riding a bicycle still look like two men riding a bicycle and they get about as much respect as you’d think.
The basement of a monastery is a surprisingly good place to sell black market organs, especially when the cloisters are a virtual environment and the paid-off rector is the only monk not sealed in a hermetic pod.
Hands are a seller’s market. People are always needing a new set of fingerprints or a replacement for the limb that got eaten by the disposal. (Not enough people heeded the recall on the homicidal Yes Dear kitchen AI)
And the Sin Send Circle had not contributed any wares to tonight’s meat market. The only cryo-equipment present were organ cabinets.
They had milled around the market for almost two hours, long enough to annoy the businessmen and traumatize Abe, and Rose was ready to call it a night when a familiar smell came barreling into his nostrils. It was the same scent he had caught from the Circle boys but this was the source.
Rose wasn’t the only one who noticed the smell; all eyes, watering, were trained on a rough-looking newcomer with a frizzy mass of brown hair and an unshaven, glowering face. The area around his lips was speckled a strange yellow and he wore a frayed military-issue jacket with Enhanced Ops insignia on the shoulder. The reeking stranger scratched his chin, opened his mouth and released the most thunderous belch Rose had ever heard. It reverberated through the dim passageways of the monastery like a mournful howl.
The stranger motioned to a man working a sprawling display of oily intestines and the two of them retired to a side passage. Rose followed them. Abe protested and followed him.
Rose didn’t hesitate to interrupt the two men’s whispered conversation. “Pardon me, but were you in Enhanced Ops? Because I would take great offense if that wasn’t your jacket.” The truth was he wouldn’t give a damn, but he figured forming a slightly hostile rapport with the man would be his best shot at getting what he wanted.
The stranger glared at him, then barked out a brief, bitter laugh. “What? You can’t tell?” This was followed by three rapid bursts of flatulence that seemed to almost echo the laugh. The stranger crossed his arms as if he had made some kind of point.
Rose realized who he was talking to. It had taken him a moment because he had only heard rumors and never actually met any of them. “You were in St- uh, Sustained Squad, right? The experimental team.”
The stranger’s jaw clenched as he growled, “You were going to say Stink Squad, weren’t you?” His hand unconsciously brushed a bulge in one of his pants pockets and it didn’t take mindware to figure there was a weapon in there.
“What? No, of course not.” Rose was usually a much better liar than this but the overpowering smell of rotting jungle was wreaking more havoc on his brain than the magnetic resonator had.
“What’s Stink Squad?” Abe asked and, as if the question itself wasn’t tactless enough, he was actually pinching his nose shut while he asked it.
The stranger was starting to seethe so Rose altered his voice slightly with his soothing-tone subroutine as he answered, “Sustained Squad was an attempt at making soldiers who could go without food indefinitely. Their stomachs were replaced with stabilized bacterial mini-ecosystems supported by a hydrogel frame. They only made one batch and then discontinued the project.”
Abe was amazed. “Well, duh. How could they not foresee the side-effects?”
The stranger, who had seemed almost mollified, exploded, “That’s what I said! That’s what I said!” The second “said” turned into another belch, drawing the word out over several agonizing seconds, but it was still fairly intelligible.
“We’ll talk later,” the intestine man mumbled nervously and slinked back to his display.
The stranger watched him go, positively gripping the bulging pocket now, and snarled, “I’m trying to do some business here, fellas.”
“This is business,” Rose assured him smoothly. “I believe you associate with the Sin Send Circle, yes? They stole something from me earlier today and I would like it back.”
The stranger shook his head. “Yes, I know those idiots but I’m not responsible for what they do. They’re getting stupider every day. Literally. Somebody they pissed off retaliated by poisoning their transmission loop with some weird hypnosis-based virus. It makes them temporarily schizo and they just keep re-infecting each other over and over again.”
“I’m not interested in holding anyone responsible or retaliating. But it’s imperative I get the object back. How do I find them?”
Now the stranger smiled and his teeth were a ghastly, almost luminescent mess. “Well, now. Like you said, I do business with them. Wouldn’t be smart to sell them out. Not smart on any level.” A high-pitched whispery fart played in accompaniment.
Rose isolated the synapses around his olfactory bulb and suppressed them. Blessed relief. “Understandable. But what would you suggest I do?” He had a feeling.
The man put his hands together, deep in thought. “This is about the Cold Comfort tube they nabbed, isn’t it?”
Rose was perfectly pokerfaced but knew from the way the stranger’s eyes flicked over at Abe that his friend’s expression had given it away. He repeated, “What would you suggest?”
“I can get it back for you. Those morons told me they only stole it because they saw some folks fighting over it and figured it had to be something good. They were a bit disappointed. They’ve probably already forgotten about it.”
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.”
“Well, yeah. You better, considering the favor I’m going to need from you first.” Quiet belch. Pause. Louder belch.
“You’re one of the mindware boys, aren’t you? And you’ve still got it in you. Your eyes are too shiny and your voice is too perfect, too precise. You guys used to give the rest of us the creeps.” Of course, this confession was followed by a cheek-shuddering expulsion because really, how could it not be?
“What do you want?”
Abe and Julius were still arguing about it as they pushed out through the heavy doors of St. Michael’s into the muggy night air.
“Please just call Brech’s counselor,” Abe begged. “She’s got to have enough money to pay this guy off.”
Rose was still looking at the card the man had given them. It had a name, Corbin, and a number on it, but no occupation. “She’ll never believe I’m not trying to shake them down. And even if she did, she’ll try to screw me over for screwing up. She’s already left a dozen messages on my link and they’re a tad hostile. Can I crash on your couch?”
Abe pulled his gelmet on with a rubbery squelch. “Sure. You think she’s sent someone to your place?”
But Rose didn’t answer; he was too preoccupied with the disheveled man sitting on the curb, nursing what looked like a broken nose, a few feet from where Abe had wired his bike. “Sir, are you alright? Did you get mugged?”
The dazed man looked up and Abe saw the pink marks on his cheeks and forehead. “Don’t touch him, Julius, he’s got the splotch!”
“No, I’m okay.” The man’s voice was muddy, thick. “I think I’m past the contagious stage. I’m getting better.”
“Well you should stay home until you’re completely better!”
“Relax!” Rose snapped. “Sorry. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac.”
“I just wanted to look at lungs,” the man said. “My daughter’s lungs are filling up with gunk and… I just wanted to look and see if I could afford anything but they said I could infect their stuff. I refused to leave and they did this.”
“I’m very sorry,” Rose said, suddenly brusque. He joined Abe at the bike and climbed on the second seat.
“I can’t wait until I’m well enough to go in; she’s getting worse,” the man mumbled. He wasn’t really talking to Julius Rose anymore but Rose heard him all the same.
He was feeling a bit surly by eight the next morning. Abe had let him sleep on his couch and borrow his old bike but Rose was still annoyed with his friend for arguing with him. Abe had started harping about going to the police but he couldn’t know how dangerous it would be. If the whole fiasco made the news further up the Hominid Road, Rose could find himself in the Ministry’s hands. Add to that the indignity of riding a bike all the way out to the Babylon Blocks while being trailed by a chimp on a motorized tricycle and you had a man not in the mood for trifles.
Unfortunately, no area of Porky Town was more trifling than the Babylon Blocks, where virulent anti-post-human folks stewed in their pure gene-pool. No altered citizens, genetic or cybernetic, could live there and gangs that styled themselves the River Watchmen patrolled the streets and doled out savage beatings to those who trespassed. To be sure, there were some brilliant minds living there; the area had the best natural greenhouses on the planet and made efficient use of particle-accelerator fueled robotics. But most viewed the Blocks as a violent slum where paranoid zealots gnashed their teeth at a siege against them that didn’t really exist.
It was the ideal place for a girl who didn’t want to be reached by someone as obviously altered as Corbin and his associates. Rose figured he’d be okay as long as he avoided anyone with a portable MRI; even then, it would take six or more Watchmen before he had a problem.
He glanced back over his shoulder in time to see the chimp bring its tricycle to a sudden halt at the Blocks’ border. Whoever was piloting the animal’s brain, Helen or the counselor or even Corbin, it didn’t really matter; just as long as they were shaken.
The girl returned home to her squalid little apartment around noon. As soon as she stepped through the door, Rose clamped a hand over her mouth and twisted one arm behind her in a hammerlock.
“You are going to make no noise, do you understand?” Rose layered his voice with menace. “I’m not armed but I can break your neck in an instant. All I want is to talk with you a moment.” He gripped her jaw and twisted her head painfully to make his point and not one piece of gear in his head could suppress the guilt.
He released her roughly and the two of them sized each other up. Cece Kidder was tan and muscular, her blond hair shaved in lightning patterns. She was a vital-looking young woman, just as Corbin described, but her pregnancy wasn’t showing yet, which was strange. Rose wondered if he had made a mistake. The woman he had spoken to in the opium den had seemed so sure.
“Who are you? How did you get past my mesh?” Her voice was a little shaky but forceful. Fear didn’t freeze her. Good.
“I didn’t. You left your window open and I climbed down from the roof.”
“Are you crazy? We’re twelve stories up. Did Corbin send you? It sounds like something someone who works with Corbin would do.”
This was getting more distasteful by the second. “They might try but they’d fall. Listen, miss, I’m here to take you to see him.”
“Oh, no. Oh, no.” She shook her head emphatically.
“Just listen. I made a deal. He just wants to talk to you. I’m going to be there the entire time and I won’t let him hurt you.” He modulated his delivery from menace to reassurance.
But it didn’t work. “It’s over. Why can’t he understand that? We’re not getting back together.”
“Why-” The word was out of his mouth before he even realized it, so he just decided to go with it. It was, after all, a burning question. “Why did you get together with him in the first place? My god, the man…just, why?”
The girl looked momentarily nonplussed, then she falteringly answered, “Well, He was…so betrayed by the people he was trying to protect, by the Ministry he was trying to serve. I felt sorry for him. And he was just so far outside the boundaries of the world I knew. He-”
“Ah, I understand.” Rose’s subliminal smile made a nonappearance. “He was completely inappropriate. In fact, he was the epitome of inappropriateness in every way, a nuclear warhead fired at your parents and all the square boys who couldn’t have you. That’s dedication.”
His dark mood lifted slightly and he savored the return of the genial contempt he usually felt while socializing. His eyes swept over the ugly and boring wire sculptures that littered the apartment, poorly proportioned figures in ridiculous states of union. As a fake artist himself he recognized a kindred talent. “Sk- Your man says you’re a somnartist.”
The girl nodded. “Yeah, I watch a somnambulist flash program, then my subconscious expresses itself while I sleep.”
Rose suspected a subconscious with a relentless interest in fornicating wasn’t the most unique voice in the world but refrained from saying so.
“I used it to sleep with him with him too,” she added with a strained little smile, “it was the only way I could get it done.”
She was trying to establish a rapport with him, Rose realized, trying to capitalize on his apparent disgust with Corbin. It was a buzz-killing reminder that she was in fear of her life and he was the cause. “Let’s just get this over with. You don’t have to get back together with him but he’s determined to be a part of the baby’s life. This is probably the only chance at fatherhood this guy is going to get unless he can find someone who’s literally lost her senses.”
“I already gave the fetus to the Cattle Drive,” she answered, cringing a little as if she expected to be struck.
Rose groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. The latest of the Hominid Road’s spasms of reproductive queasiness had mated with its dream of empire and given birth to the Cattle Drive, a program in which unwanted fetuses were implanted and carried to term in the wombs of engineered cows. Every colony, even Roanoke, now had herds of bovine surrogates that would produce the first generation of Owned Ops.
“Corbin would have been a terrible father!”
“Worse than growing up an indentured servant and then being used as military fodder?” Rose paused to consider his own question. “Well, maybe.”
“So there’s no point in me talking to him.”
Rose was silent, thinking furiously. Finally, he said, “You’re right. But I can’t go back empty-handed. What clinic did you go to? They must have records of where they sent the fetus or something.”
“Are you insane?” Cece’s eyes went wide with alarm. “They’re not going to tell you that. They wouldn’t even tell me if I asked.”
“But I’m more convincing.”
“No.” The girl suddenly sounded like she had some steel in her. “I’m not going to do it. You’ll hurt people.”
“I’ll hurt you if you don’t.”
Her voice quavered a little but she stayed angry. “Is this what you do? You do bad things for bad people?” She clasped her hands together imploringly. “Please, there’s nothing to be gained from this. Do the right thing. It’ll feel so much better. You don’t seem like a bad guy.”
Rose processed this bit of naivete and nodded, mockingly. “Right. Let me help you understand something. Just four years ago, I was part of an Enhanced Ops squad sent to Beatrice III to wipe out a nest of Chimneys.
“They were the Road’s favorite villains at the time, violent monsters who wiped out every contact team they met. Except it wasn’t their fault. It turns out that the cells of their immune system communicate with each other like synapses, just as they do in humans but to a much greater degree; their cytokines are capable of much more complex behavior and can even interface directly with their actual synapses.”
He noticed the completely uncomprehending look on Cece’s face but pressed on. “These cells are in the mist, the supposed biotoxin, they constantly exude. See, they communicate through a form of aerosol telepathy. But it interacts with the human immune system in some unfortunate ways.
“By the time my squad arrived, the Ministry knew the truth of their mistake, knew quite a bit about the Chimneys, in fact. But the campaign was already underway and they didn’t want to give any ammunition to the folks who said we shouldn’t stray from the Road.
“So we were supposed to wipe them out. I tried to do my part but I just… It was killing me. I was standing there in my any-environment suit with a flechette gun pointed at a family, and that’s what they were, and I just snapped. I turned the gun on three of my squad-mates.
“The family got away but I never will, not for too long.
“There are two facts to be taken from this story: One, I did the right thing once and screwed myself forever in the process, so don’t go looking for any more of that from me. And two, I’m willing to kill men who put their trust in me, so I’m probably capable of doing terrible things to a girl I don’t even know.”
With only a slight hesitation, Cece added, “And three, you’re willing to do right by aliens you can’t even talk to but not by other human beings.”
“Just about any creature deserves it more,” Rose snapped, truly annoyed.
“So you’re one of those people who treat people like crap because people treat people like crap?” she asked. “That’s just crap, man.”
Rose took a few moments to parse the question and then didn’t want to answer it anyway. It was unusual for him to become frustrated but the little bourgeoisie poser not only refused to be cowed by a killer’s story, she was fumbling around in his head like some idiot psychologist.
It was time to push his bluff to its limit. With a snarl he tore a wire from one of her sculptures and pulled it taught between his fists. “Tell me now or I’ll garrote you.”
He backed her into a corner until she blurted, “The Keener Clinic down on Benton Street.”
He turned to leave. “Tell anyone of this and I’ll be back.”
“Wait,” she called after him and disappeared into her bedroom. She returned a moment later and shoved a box into his arms. “This is Corbin’s stuff and I don’t want to be caught holding it. Tell him we’re totally over.”
On the elevator ride down, Rose peaked into the box. The narcotics and contraband spore canisters didn’t bother him as much as the gun did. If this was the kind of merchandise Corbin moved, then he was both more dangerous and more stupid than Rose had guessed.
“I’m very sorry, sir, but we can’t give out that information,” Lauren Hilltop, director of the Keener Clinic’s parenthood program, informed him with every appearance of sincere regret.
Rose glanced around her spare office, then gazed at the droopy little woman behind her black desk. He gave his amygdala a slight nudge so that his eyes were glassy and his voice was thick with real anguish when he said, “I wanted this child so much, Ms Hilltop. Kidder didn’t even tell me she was making this decision.”
Hilltop’s eyes swam with their own tears. “I’m so sorry but the fetus is the property of the Ministry now.”
Rose bowed his head as if in prayer. “I know. I know I can’t have it back. But I need to know it’s been implanted safely.” His foot nudged the duffel bag he had brought with him. Helen’s magnetic emoter hummed only very faintly inside. He made eye contact again and let a tear slide down his face. “I need to know where it is.”
Hilltop’s lower lip started visibly quivering. “I can’t. It’s against the rules.”
His voice was barely a whisper. “Please. It’s the only way I’ll ever be able to love my child, to know this only thing I can know.” It occurred to Julius Rose right then that he had never actually loved anyone in his life, not in a parental way, not in a passionate way, not in any kind of way. It occurred to him then that he never would. He gave his amygdala a slight nudge in the other direction.
He almost didn’t hear Hilltop say, “Alright.” She touch-triggered the desk’s surface and began scrolling through files. Within a minute, she had called up a record and rotated the display so he could read it.
Rose quickly memorized the information. It would have to do; he certainly wasn’t going to go steal a cow for Corbin.
He kissed Hilltop’s surprised, soggy face, slung his bag over his shoulder and left her office. Whatever small flush of victory he felt died as he entered the clinic’s packed lobby. Sick kids covered in splotches slumped feverishly against pale parents. With the emoter still running in his bag, Rose almost fell when a wave of dizziness crashed into him even as his forehead burned in an instant fever. Worse still, everyone else in the room started to reel, imaginary symptoms compounding real ones. Rose tore open the bag’s zipper, fumbled around inside and deactivated the device as he lurched towards the exit.
But the feeling that their illness was somehow inside him never left.
The Graveyard began its strange existence as Porky Town’s first spaceport and gradually became where old hulks were left to rust after being gutted and cleaned out. But a few years after it got its morbid name, the mood of the place began to change. The squatters who claimed the ships as their own were ignored by the rest of the city until it became apparent that a real community was forming there. City Hall’s halfhearted attempt to oust them only made them popular and it soon became a playground for defiant misfits, activists and sculptors of the communal form.
These days, the old hulls gleam in a sea of smart-tarp shantytowns swirling with information and art; nowhere else in Porky Town do people feel as alive as they do in the Graveyard.
Rose stood at its outskirts, at the entrance of a maze of tarp hung from improvised frames and fastened together with fiber-optic clips. He touched the nearest sheet and a keyboard display presented itself. He typed his last name and a bright orange butterfly icon appeared and began to flit across the surface of one sheet to the next. He followed it through the maze.
At one point, a man wearing a plastic-muscle suit leapt out from around a corner in a clumsy mugging attempt. Swiftly breaking the man’s arm was the only acknowledgement Rose gave him. He was oblivious to the torrent of images and words rushing to their destinations on either side of him. His mind churned and he followed the butterfly.
It led him to an exit that opened on a large clearing populated by foam cement effigies of famous figures about town. Corbin was waiting at the center, sitting on the cryobed, picking at the layer of yellow crud that encased his teeth.
He jumped up and scowled when he saw Rose. “You’re early, man! I said seven exactly. And where’s Cece?”
Rose cocked his head and considered this odd reception. “I didn’t bring her. She donated the fetus to the Cattle Drive. I do, however, have the herd’s location and the serial number branded right in the cow’s hide. That’s as good as it gets.”
Corbin mulled this over for several gas-embroidered moments, then scanned the sky nervously. It was a quiet night on the neighboring landing field. “I need some time to think about it.”
Tension began to creep into Rose’s back and shoulders. He sincerely didn’t want to have to kill this man. “What’s there to think about? You give me the bed and I give you the location.”
Corbin held up a finger. “Hang on, I’m getting a call.” He slipped a private receiver into his ear and turned his back on Rose, belching hello to his caller.
Rose tapped on his sleeve, bringing up the keypad display. He typed Corbin’s number. It rang in, unimpeded. Corbin jumped a little in surprise and spun to find himself at gunpoint.
Rose’s smile was a bit more visible than usual and far more chilling. “Your ex wanted me to return this to you. Now why, oh why, would you fake a call like that?”
“If I think you’re lying, I’ll just kill you and take the bed. You set up another trade, didn’t you? You put your ear to the street and came up with someone else who wanted the old man.”
“I found out who he was,” Corbin gasped between nervous croaks, “and contacted his people. They said you work for them anyway. I just decided to get some cash from them while you got my girl.”
“And I’m sure you would’ve used it for baby clothes but-” Rose caught the flicker in Corbin’s eyes and turned to see Brechs’s counselor and two chillingly nondescript men exit the maze.
Corbin drew on him while he was distracted. Except he wasn’t really distracted and Corbin’s gun made a tiny, fatal whispering noise against the fabric of his pocket as he pulled it out; if he had been farting or burping right then, even Rose would’ve missed it, but the moment aligned with a rare oasis of silence for the unluckiest man on Roanoke.
Rose shot him twice in the chest. The bullets, designed to penetrate the carbon-weave armor of peace officers, punched two small holes through Corbin’s front and two huge holes out his back. Corbin dropped to his knees, a foul flute duet playing from both ends of him, and crumpled to the ground, dead.
Rose sighed and fired over the heads of the counselor and her cronies, sending them fleeing back into the maze. He listened to the distant, wailing siren of the bullet sensors and wondered idly when he had made this decision or even if he had. Perhaps the devices in his brain had driven him mad; that might make for a good defense.
Peering through the cryobed’s window, he spotted a canister under Brechs’s gnarled feet. That would be it.
“My apologies, but I don’t see your counselor giving me the combination to this thing any time soon,” he told Brechs while fiddling pointlessly with the bed’s keypad. He took a step back and aimed the gun at the cover. “If it’s any consolation, we both get to bring a dangerous criminal to justice today.”
This was followed by the sound of shattering glass and the dull thud of bullets hitting frozen flesh. By the time Rose had fished the canister out of the bed, a police aircraft was already making its way across the city skyline. It turned sharply and was soon bearing down on him.
He brushed bits of broken glass from his sleeve and waited.
* dog’s actual name