Fat raindrops twanged on the prefab, corrugated steel office. The walls shuddered in tune with the grumble of thunder. Inside the fluorescent lights flickered nervously at the slight disturbance. Jack tilted his display glasses down the front of his nose in anticipation of a power loss. Satisfied that the grid would hold out, he sighed and went back to monitoring the collection of drones patrolling the perimeter of the shipyard. A fifty-million nuyen fleet of armed remotes on an outdated electrical system. The decision makers sure knew how to kneecap the most expensive of purchases. He scrolled through the transmitted video, keeping a close watch for any threat codes from the Zaubers. The Zees had their own analysis software; they were more likely to notice something suspicious than Jack’s unaugmented eyes. Scrolling text and haptic feedback were all he really had to monitor. Late-shift security required little training, no nano or installs, and minimum effort. The datawork was the worst part. Logging and inspecting hundreds of ships and manifests per day. It’s why they paid him the “big creds.”
He chuckled and popped a Rush – prescription of course. It was fast acting, supposed to keep him alert and energized; mostly it just kept him awake and nervous. A foghorn went off, just as another nearby rumble of thunder crashed through the thin walls. The door to the office opened, then slammed fully ajar as the wind pushed it out of control. A figure in a poly-rainslicker scuttled in and closed the door against the gale. Water pooled at his feet, as Chester caught his breath. His eyes had a faint blue haze in the shadow of his hood, a side-effect of the display contacts he wore.
“You scared the piss out of me,” Jack said, watching the other worker shake the wet from his person. Chester put his hood down and grimaced. He was older, worked on the docks for years. Technology had passed him by for a promotion. Didn’t even have a ‘Link installed – face-to-face was how he liked to talk. Even with drones, the human touch was still important for security and inspection.
“Pretty bad out there,” Jack tried.
“Yeah, bad,” Chester said. “We got a problem; the Vetruvius that just came in. Think we have some immigrants.”
Smuggling people was always big business. God-damned annoyance, too. The paperwork that went into that kind of drek… Jack redirected a few of the Zaubers to the Vetruvius and set them to standby. It was one of the massive container ships, out of the Seoul metroplex. Seemed more trouble came from that way, those ships. The divide between the rich and poor was a problem wherever there were corporations running things, but in Seoul the owners were practically a different species. A lot of people thought there might be something better in Seattle or maybe an arcology somewhere. Jack figured not. Work with what you got. Right now he had a container ship full of suspected illegals. Going outside was the last thing he wanted to do.
“Ahright, let’s zip, Chester.”
The wind and water gripped him in his poly-rainslicker, pressing the material tight against his body. The walk to the containership was long, on the furthest berth from the office. The few, scattered lamp posts did less to light the way than the whiteout lightning-bursts that webbed the clouds. On the horizon, the city was a gray mountain. At the center, the Baekho Corporate Tower lanced into the sky like a rope thrown from the heavens. The storm seemed furious with the intruder. It flicked impotent fire at the top of the building every few moments, like one of those cheap Van Degraff generators. The swarm of flyers and fog-thick nanos that watched its upper reaches had retired against the storm, leaving the exterior smooth and naked.
The Vetruvius’ top decks were empty, but when they approached a message pinged Jack’s Personal Area Network. The ship’s captain wanted a word. Jack told him to stand down for an inspection and set an automated response for any further requests. In Jack’s mind that pretty much confirmed things. When they were anxious to talk, they had something to hide. Most ships had something to hide, but only some of it was his business. He and Chester carefully ascended the ramp. One of the Zaubers followed, it’s wheels sluicing water behind its boxy frame. A .308 autogun looked for someone to greet in the only universal language.
Chester led the way through the labyrinthine cargo, before stopping at a set of orange, metal containers. They were made of the same metal as his harbor office, probably designed with similar comfort in mind, he mused. Chester held a sniffer up to the box, reading something in his contact-displays with a distant gaze.
“Says its furniture and home supplies, but there are organics. Must have a ruptured filter.” Chester had to yell against the rain to be heard.
“Open it up,” Jack said. Chester nodded and punched a code into the container’s lock. It blinked its refusal. He tried again, with the same result. He jammed an overrider into the access port and the lock clanged free.
They pulled the doors open. Lightning flashed, drowning out their small lights. A heavy, rancid scent floated out, warm and cloying in the cool rain. The silver wrappings of dried meals were scattered about the floor of the alcove. Amidst the detritus were people, lying still on the metal ground. Some of their eyes were open, others half-shut. When Jack’s light settled upon a man’s face he had to look away. It was rigored in pain, a trail of blood leaking from one eye.
“They’re all dead,” Jack said, too quiet to be heard. It wasn’t uncommon, but Jack hadn’t seen one so packed, or so peculiar. Chester’s light fell upon the slightest movement. A girl, standing near the back, amidst the mess and death. Her mouth moved, speaking words lost in the deluge. She looked resigned, perhaps in shock. But her eyes drew Jack in; aged well beyond their years. He walked towards her – it was against protocol, there could be disease or violence – but he wasn’t going to just leave her in there.
Jack stepped over the bodies and leaned in, speaking loudly over the metallic echoing.
“Are you ok? I’m here to help.” He said.
Her mouth moved again, and he put his ear near to hear.
“I waited. I waited as long as I could,” she repeated. Over and over and over.
The Renton branch of Crusader Private City Security was busier than any metro stop, and just as dangerous. Overcrowded, violent. Renton wasn’t an A-zone; that meant it was underfunded, overstaffed, and rewarded for harsh policy. Brent pushed his way through the booking room, barely ducking a sharp elbow that a perp swung his way.
“Razor install!” was the call. Three officers piled on the elbow throwing punk, careful to avoid the four-inch blade that had sprung from his elbow. Brent joined the scrum, pinning the offending appendage with his right arm. The electronics of his own installs whined at maximum output. The gutterrunner’s elbow crumpled like concrete under a jackhammer. He became much more pliant after that.
“Thanks, lieutenant,” the booking officer was apologizing as Brent headed for his desk. It was a stupid mistake; should have been a scan for hidden weapons, then a shot of Docile just to be safe. But it was late night, there was a gang-war going on, and not every protocol could be followed. He sat down, scanning the reports that had been filed. He could see the booking officer already had a demerit on the night. The cameras and oversight smart-program that judged everything that occurred in the precinct didn’t care about extenuating circumstances. It decided a situation had gotten out of hand, and someone had to be to blame. The poor sap could file a challenge for all the good it would do.
“Hey, Granger,” Brent looked up from his screen – god it must be twenty years old! – and saw his Captain approaching. Anderson looked tired, dark bags hanging over a nose broken flat long ago. He was chewing a toothpick, with his slight Kentucky drawl spilling out the side of his mouth.
“You got kids, don’t ya?” Anderson said.
“Just one,” he answered, brow knitting, “A son. Why?”
“Immigration and Interdiction brought one of their problems in earlier,”
“So, it’s a little fuckin’ girl, and she seems god damn strung out.” It seemed to Brent that Anderson was trying not to seem like he cared. It was entirely out of character. The job could be a nightmare, and the Captain was a prick, but maybe he had a feeling or two. Brent couldn’t suppress a grin.
“Alright, smartass,” Anderson growled, lolling the toothpick across his mouth, “It ain’t a vacation. Just make sure she’s gonna be ok, I don’t wanna have to file any expiration papers before Eye-Eye takes her back. 60292. Ten minutes, tops, just check on her.”
“Yessir,” Brent clipped, heading off to detention, chased by a loud-whispered ‘shithead’.
Detention was on the basement floor, little more than long halls of concrete rooms. It had an antiseptic, sterile appearance, more akin to a hospital than a Private Sec firm. Everything was painted in matte, off white, the cell doors made of semi-transparent poly-steel. Banks of old-style rail lights cast an irritating, fake glow on everything. It was the cleanest part of the precinct – no one was brought here until they were poked, prodded, deconned, Dociled, and logged. He made a few motions with his wearables, scanned the prisoner list with his retinal installs, and brought up 60292. A ghost trail only he could see directed him down one of the corridors.
She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, probably younger. She had been given a plain blue tunic and pants and she sat perfectly still on the concrete bunk, but her eyes were frantic, frightened. He scanned her file. Seoul, cargo ship – there it was. No Docile for her – Christ, she probably could have used it. He’d seen scared kids. Domestic abuse. Gang-bangers grown up too fast; cornered by Crusader, or shot and that dawning realization, staring at the sky, that they were going to die. That was life out in Renton. But this girl had a coldness and surety to her fear that seemed ready to snap like a rubber band. Old eyes.
“Hey, kiddo,” he started, trying to add some levity. She watched him but stayed silent, and he found it harder to smile over unanticipated nerves. “I’m Lieutenant Brent, with Crusader Security.” He showed her his badge. “Is there anything you need? Are you ok? You seem upset…”
“Please, don’t be nice to me,” she said. There was an edge of desperation in her voice. He wasn’t sure how to answer.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
She propped herself standing with a quick push. “You have to let me out of here, or I’m going to die,” she said.
“You’re safe here,” Brent told her. He wasn’t sure it was true. She didn’t look like she believed it. “What’s your name?”
“Yuh-” she stopped herself, looking askance, “It doesn’t matter.”
“I’m just trying to help you, Yuh-it-doesn’t-matter,” He almost chuckled at his joke, but stopped short. She was crying, a single tear staining her cheek and falling as a dark blot on her shirt. “Look, what’s wrong? You aren’t in any trouble.”
The girl looked him in the eyes, locking his in place with the severity. “You seem like a good person, Brent. Do you think I could hold your hand? I’m scared.” She came near to the barred door. Her hand was outstretched, but something in her expression seemed to hope he would refuse.
“Sure,” he said, extending his install-free arm. She cupped it in her small grip, even placing it against her cheek. Then she bit his hand until the blood came.
Tessa Wendelin Kim watched the dawn spill through the Cascades. From three kilometers above, in her sanctuary at the pinnacle of the Baekho Tower, the sepia light that crawled along the ground was like a rising tide. Her grandfather had insisted the corporate tower match the height of Rainier. The cost of construction, buying the downtown property for a base wide enough to accommodate such a monolith, had been astronomical. Even the Sulaiman Arcologies, spread across the globe, chose less developed areas in an effort to suppress costs. But Dae-Ho had been a visionary – or so Tessa was told. Appearance meant so much back home in Korea. Her grandfather had died before she was born. Her father’s life had been claimed in the Black Easter attacks that had sparked the shattering of the European Union. A stupid, random chance. The wrong boardroom when the first separatist bombs went off. Now she was a twenty-five year old woman, at the head of a corporate empire that rivaled any nation. She was surprised just how boring that position was.
“You seem preoccupied,” a voice said through the speakers of the penthouse. Tessa lacked a Persolink, had none of the aural or ocular installs that even the modestly wealthy demanded. It had been Baekho, forty years ago that had developed the technology. And yet her body rejected anything from the simplest mechanical augments to the newest nanotech. A family curse. Without cognition enhancements, ThoughtSifters, or the basic ability to bridge a direct-neural link with computers it put her at a grave disadvantage. The voice, Dul, was Father’s answer to their genetic error. Well, his second answer after Hana. Hana had had…difficulties.
“Just thinking,” she answered Dul. The dawn had extended to the break walls that kept the high sea from devouring the Metroplex. The color of the day would remain gray and dull red for much of the morning, the thick smog altering the refraction. “Have the Chakrabarti made a decision yet?”
“Not yet, but based on their corporate accounts and private ‘Link entries, I believe they’ll close soon.” There was a brief pause as Dul ran complex predictive computations. “A personal reminder and gift might speed things up based on their previous behavior. Should I prepare something?”
“Please do,” Tessa said. Dul was data. He offered glimpses of the future, like a digital oracle. Other systems – the data haven in Singapore, the Belgrade Singularity – could offer similar capabilities, but Dul possessed an intuition, a human factor that those lacked. He was a companion, everywhere there was electronic communication.
“Is that all?” Tessa asked, “I don’t think you’d bother me with something so minor.”
“I believe Yuna is in Seattle.”
Tessa’s exhaled through her teeth and gestured for a display. One of the floor-to-ceiling windows became opaque and a three-dimensional display took its place. “Show me.”
The grimy interior of a building resolved itself in insect multitude; the viewpoints a voyeuristic menagerie of odd angles where cameras kept watch. It was a madhouse. Security personnel bickered and fought with their captives. To Tessa it was hard to tell the difference between the different actors. Everyone looked so unkempt, so dirty. It was rare she saw the crowded ripeness of the city. Her mouth turned down in an uneven sneer.
The display expanded to a young girl, flanked by a pair of government officials. The display noted her preoccupation with their badges, and they were highlighted with info-graphics, identifying the men as Immigration and Interdiction. Dul brought up a file on the girl.
“You think that’s her?” Tessa asked. A gentleman in a black suit entered the Baekho penthouse carrying a delicate porcelain cup with light green contents. He handed the plate to her and bowed, backing out of the room without making eye-contact.
“I thought you would appreciate a drink,” Dul said.
“Mm,” she sipped.
“The girl has no Resident Number, nor an entry in the GeneBank. Immigrant from Seoul. The container ship on which she arrived was denied port entry for weeks. She was discovered surrounded by the bodies of other illegals.”
“No diseases found; a full autopsy is pending, but based on witness statements it could be cerebral hemorrhage,” Dul said. “Four hours later an officer was injured interrogating the girl. She died twelve hours after that; the officer hasn’t reported for his next shift.”
“Good job,” she placed the green tea latte on the sideboard and nodded her approval.
“Crusader ‘net security has always been lacking,” Dul acknowledged. “Right now it’s a 57% identification,” He continued, changing the subject back. “What would you like done?”
Her father had often told her, before he was murdered, that a family’s pride was the most important and dangerous thing it possessed. He had not explained at the time why, but, he said, that was the reason Yuna was a grave threat. Bring her close, he had told her – make amends. Father had made a mistake. However, now she was Tessa’s problem. One that shouldn’t escape the fold. The intelligence agencies might already be piecing things together, Sulaiman perhaps. There was a trail of bodies all the way to Baekho’s doorstep. It was a shame, but it was the easiest solution.
“It’s close enough. Find her,” Tessa ordered, “And kill her if you can.”
Yuna knew she was alive because the symphony of voices returned. When she woke up they were always loudest, demanding attention, demanding answers. Whispers in the dark. But in the end they were only remnants, ghosts. They had no say. All they could do was balance the unnatural hunger to live she now felt, with a revulsion at what she had become. Right now, other things required her attention.
There was a pain in her chest. A number of sharp, tearing agonies that caused her to gasp in shock. Yuna’s eyes opened. She tried to sit up. The pain roared its displeasure and she relaxed, falling back onto the scratchy pillows of the sofa. Where was she? Damn, who was she? “She.” Ha! What an outmoded title. Yuna clamped down on her teeth and silently sighed. No soreness – then there was no hurry. A gentle touch on her shoulder, her eyes opened again. A man stood next to the sofa looking concerned. He was handsome, probably south-east asian, with a shaved head and a tattoo under one eye that changed shape between a number of pre-set configurations.
“You one-point?” he said. Yuna grunted, holding her hands in front of her eyes. Large; worked but relatively young. Decidedly male.
“The fuck a Crusader doin’ in a nug, alone?” the man asked. Nug. No-go zone. Areas of the city where security rarely extended, except in the form of riot police and para-military vehicles. Crusader. She could see the badge on her lapel. A sword orbited by three stars. Yuna closed her eyes; the last thing she remembered was the Seattle docks. The pressure that built near her gums, warning her it was almost time to transfer – and also the point at which any further experiences would be muddled, incomplete, or lost. “They cut you up cho’; surprised you made it. Not my problem.” He said it like he expected an apology more than a thanks – or payment. Yuna went traditional.
“I owe you one,” things could have gone bad if her savior had tried to call for help. Even the city rent-a-cops might have figured her out. “Why didn’t you get a hold of C-Sec?” She knew the answer as she asked it.
“They punt your head? Someone like me show up with a carved ‘Sader? I got a job, have to show up every day. At-will employment, right? Fuck, shoulda let you go static.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t have any trouble. I’m…not with Crusader anymore,” Yuna said. “Hey, you got a mirror?” She interrupted when his eyes got suspicious.
“You aren’t gonna look right for a while,” he said.
“I don’t really worry about my appearance,” Yuna replied with too much truth.
He handed her the display from an old Krishna L-series. The dead screen had enough reflection to show her Brent’s face. Her face now, at least for a time. The appearance was drawn and worn, with a bruise seeping across one side. So they had punted her head. Great.
Yuna checked the bandages next. Her wounds were well tended. SureSkin had filled in the worst of the knife cuts, self-sealing bandages applied the pressure.
“This is good work,” she said, tracing the wrappings.
“Field medic in ‘72. Didn’t get my Rez Number like they promised, so I came to Seattle.” He shrugged, but she recognized pride. Nobody had gotten their Rez Number; wasn’t enough of the original EU left to keep promises.
“I’m…Brent,” Yuna said.
“Don’t want to know you, but I’m Kosal.”
“Alright, Kosal. I need a rest. Then I won’t be your problem anymore. Cho’?”
“The sooner you’re gone the better.” Kosal said.
Yuna was already drifting away. She checked that Brent’s ‘Link was still shut down and let the symphony sing her to sleep.
Memories didn’t work like that before the clinic in Busan. Before the nanite install, Secession War spook tech. At least Yuna didn’t think so; but what evidence did she have but her unreliable recollections. More like digital recordings, projected on the back of her mind. They were too complete, linear, sterile. Yet the periphery always a hazy, decaying, white-nothing, like the tracings of an unfinished painting. When they were her memories. She had to fight against the stowaways, the unintentionally copied images of hosts past. Those were jagged, angry things. Screams of color and emotions without context, worse than any nightmare.
Yuna tested Brent’s body. The pain was still there, but manageable.