Gavin G. Smith short story

the age of scorpioThis week sees the return of Gavin G. Smith, author of Veteran and War in Heaven, with his new novel, The Age of Scorpio, out on Thursday. Gavin has kindly shared a short story with us, the first part of which we are sharing with you today, and the second half on Friday. Enjoy!

Poor People

Part I

 

There’s a sense of inevitability when you open your eyes and the first person you see is the guy who killed you.  Being a ‘Sect meant that I saw hundreds of images of him but that’s only bad in comparison with the single image of human sight.  I was born with this vision so the multiple images of my murderer shouldn’t make the situation any worse.  Right?

I’d like to say something really cool like his piercing eyes burnt their way through me, but they had the same unfocused milky-grey quality they’d always had.  Woodbine Scab, my partner, friend and murderer, was standing next to one of the insurance technicians.  He had on one of his two suits; the stained, frayed, brown pinstripe with a battered trilby, a holdover from some long forgotten retro style he was just too lazy to change.

Scab was small, even for a human, and his skin was pale, almost white.  It seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it. His lips were stained green today.  I was never sure whether his appearance was an affectation or the result of bio-warfare on one of the many Conflict Resolution worlds he’d visited.

He just stood there waiting.  So I did what any self-respecting homophile ‘Sect would do when he sees the last of his not-inexpensive clone insurance about to go up in smoke.  I freaked.  I began thrashing about wildly in the nutrient bath.  I liked to think that I caused some concern amongst the insurance technicians, but as the equipment is controlled cerebrally all the rushing around was only mental.  I felt the sedative creep into my system as my protective lids began to close, slowly taking image after image of Scab away.

 

Normally in my sleep I would be able to do something constructive with my cognitive processes.  Unfortunately my old body was still being salvaged for parts (and to be fair, Scab had gone out of his way not to seriously damage any of the hardware), so for the time being I was a Natural. Instead of being able to sort through this problem calmly with the help of drugs and a very powerful computer, I had nightmares about it.

I had always prided myself on being one of the more imaginative members of my race; not particularly difficult, as hive society doesn’t encourage creativity, so I was a bit disappointed when my nightmares seemed to lack originality.  I was just replaying my last moment over and over again.  Kind of like an immersion, only not as interesting, or as real.

There I was, stood over Scab’s latest victim, when my dermal sensors picked up the microscopic needle breaking through one of the few exposed bits of my natural exoskeleton.  Then all my medical subsystems went red as the virus, tailored specially for me (and it kind of means a lot to me that he went to all that trouble), did its work.  In my drug-induced sleep I played this over and over again.  I think my fascination with humans has led me to develop that psychological masochist streak that so many of them seem to have.

 

When I awoke the next time I had the presence of mind, even in my Natural state, to keep my eyes closed.  If Scab had hacked into the insurance company’s systems then he’d know I was awake but otherwise I had some time to try and work this through.

Did he know?  That was the question I kept coming back to.  Regardless of the reasons he killed me, I had known that he was going to be here.  See, once I became his partner I was in it for life.  He couldn’t work with someone this closely and then have them wander off on their own, blurting out his business to all and sundry.  Me telling him that if we went our separate ways, and I hadn’t been in any hurry to, that I’d never mention our work to anyone just wouldn’t cut it.  Mind you, strictly speaking I’m breaking that assurance now by writing this down, so maybe he was right not to trust me.  I’d even offered to have memory surgery: nope, not good enough.  So we were partners now until he died, or I ran out of clones.  Well, this was the last one I could afford.   So I knew he’d be here waiting for me to continue business as usual.

Although nobody could actually claim to understand Scab, I came closest to making sense of his horribly twisted psyche.  I think I’d worked out why he’d killed me.  It was a largely due to embarrassment about the identity of his victims, or rather their very existence.  That and perhaps he was a bit worried about taking out a Seeder Churchman.  It was a ballsy move, even for the great Scab.

Scab had allowed me to be cloned because he didn’t know I’d updated my insurance.  He thought that I just downloaded my memory whenever I had the chance to pop into the insurance company.  If he knew I’d recently had both a memory save and a transmitter implanted I’d be dead all over again, only without a clone this time.

 

“Matto?”  The vibrations were terrible.  In order to communicate with me in my primitive, natural state, the technicians had to vibrate the tank at the correct frequency and leave it for the hairs on my carapace and my antennae to pick the waves up and make sense of.  I tried to curl up, moving away from the deafening sounds.

“Matto?”  This time the question was quieter and even though his voice was mediated I recognised it as Scab’s.  And yes, my adopted name is Vic Matto, and yes, I did name myself after the old immersion star, but see my earlier comment about ‘Sect imagination.  Why adopt a human name?  Business reasons.  It’s a lot easier for the other races than a series of clicks and pheromone secretions.

“Yes?” I clicked.  I assumed the facility had the ability to interpret my mandible movements through the gel that was simultaneously growing me a body and keeping me safe from the high G.

“How are you?” Scab asked.  Recently killed and running out of clone insurance, you murderous fucker!  I thought.

“Fine,” I said nonchalantly.  “What happened?”

“I had to kill you,” Scab answered sounding a lot more offhand than I had.

“Oh.  Why?”

“If I tell you then there wouldn’t have been any point in killing you, would there?”

“Good point.” And it was, if you were a psycho.  “You going to pay for the clone?”

Silence answered my question.

“Have you considered that this doesn’t make for a good working relationship?” I asked him.

“Not my concern.  I thought you were in this for the money, the big scores?”

Yeah, so I could retire early and comfortably, but that didn’t seem to be an option any more.  This is what comes from not thinking ahead.

 

It started on New Coventry, which is a fucked-up place.  The reason that it’s a fucked-up place is because it was started by a fucked-up race.  See, there’s this race called Homo sapiens who look like shaved monkeys.  They were the sorriest and silliest looking creatures that the Seeders ever put in known space.

Not only that but they came out of Red Space, on these ark ships because they’d had to leave their own planet.  Some cataclysm or other, hey it happens, we’ve all lost Hive Ships.  Thing is they’d forgotten where the planet was, so they can never go home and that’s just careless.

This race is almost as backwards as the Lizards.  It was only recently just before they made it into Red Space that they managed to prove with a calculator that God didn’t exist, it had never occurred to us in the first place.

Anyway they settled in and began indulging their predilection for environmental rape and viral expansion.   They created the Consortium and the Monarchist Systems, which gave them all the justification they needed to start screwing each other, and everyone else, over.  They lacked the work ethic and the ability to cooperate that we ‘Sects have but that didn’t stop them from becoming major players in Known Space.  This was, mostly due to an extreme and baffling moral flexibility.

They started the Monarchist Systems from a street gang that got delusions of grandeur, presumably just so they could fight the humans in the Consortium.  And of course, they got in early and became serious players in the Seeder Church.

So we not only put up with them but you get ‘Sects like me, who despite the instinctive human fear of large insects, actually choose to adopt certain of their idiosyncrasies – like first person prose, for example.  (Okay, strictly speaking they haven’t really done that in a while but a text file is the least likely format to be discovered by one of Scab’s neural audit programs).  Well, it’s their style. Yeah, okay, they assimilate stuff from every culture they ever encounter but they make it their own, give it that bit of human flavour. They make the best clothes, the coolest looking ships, the best immersions.  They still have audio pumping out in the street and the most stylish violence.  Sure, they may have invented the firearm before the targeted viral weapon and yes, the gun is a barbaric and backward weapon, but it’s also a tremendous amount of fun, as anyone who’s ever done a colonial immersion will tell you.

But if you want to see them at their best then you come to New Coventry.   It‘s a very human place, if human is a synonym for desperate. They all but cored the fucking planet, took everything that was worth anything from it, sucked every last bit of value out of it.

With every last piece of material that could be cannibalised used for its building, New Coventry was a huge great big skeletal city on a skeletal planet.   It was a planet-wide urban sprawl reaching high into the filthy sky and burrowing deep under the corroded skin. With all the material gone and the ecosphere ruined, they left everyone they didn’t want behind and went to find the next world, and the one after that.

So you have a planet whose only resource, if you can call it that, is excess humanity. But these humans are clever.  They found new and interesting ways to exploit their only resource: from sexual think tanks attempting to invent nth degree perversions to entice off-worlders to the de-regulated sex industry, to farming out bodies as viral cultures and sometimes just the plain old-fashioned culinary delights of eating something that was once capable of holding a conversation.  It still wasn’t enough.  The planet spiralled further and further into decay.

As we headed towards the dilapidated spaceport we could see buildings thousands of storeys tall that had been gutted, leaving only skeletal fingers mocking the populace, pointing upwards towards escape.

I saw the rickety makeshift scaffolding that connected the shantytowns and other slapped-together dwellings.  They were miles above what was left of the ground as we came down into the skeletal manmade canyons.

There were ruined buildings, miles high, leaning against each other, still inhabited by a ridiculously swollen population who had nothing better to do than increase.  Every single space seemed to be inhabited, crawling with life, scuttling over every surface.   It was the sort of scene that humans would have a rather racist and unfounded insect analogy for.

People lived in garbage camps, from shantytowns (which I was coming to think of as middle class on New Coventry), to the smart foam apartments of the wealthier criminals – though the word criminal was pretty much meaningless here.

Some just lay down anywhere to wait for bad things to happen to them.

There were entire floors of buildings wrapped in hermetically sealed, transparent, plastic, sheeting.  Naked, supposedly pure, idiot humans were bred for any number of reasons in these hermetically sealed environments.  Free range meat, test beds, the sex industry, sacrifices for the less ironic street cults.  If it could be done with a human body, chances were it had happened in New Coventry.

I can’t tell whether he did it on purpose, but Scab flew too close to one of the bridges and I saw some rag-clad human get sucked off by the draft of the ship before plummeting downwards.  It had become hard to tell the difference between the accidental death that seemed to follow him around like an aura and the casual violence he inflicted for reasons beyond me. Anyway, this mess was where it began.

 

The difference between a bounty hunter and the criminals we go after escapes me. I don’t know if I knew it once.  I suspect not.  I’d joined the army to travel and experience excitement.  See, I was a worker so I didn’t have much to look forward to. Mind you, I suspect warriors’ lives are boring as well.  It would explain the aggression I get from them when we meet but then I’m an uppity worker usurping their role.

The army was exciting, the Thunder Squads more so. I remain convinced that everyone would enjoy destroying entire cities if they were given the chance.  It’s therapeutic, especially if you have aggression management problems.  I guess the lack of emotions (never really got past the whole human self-gratification thing) adds to my inability to distinguish between killing for a government paycheque or a paycheque from the proceeds of “illegal”, whatever that means, pleasure virals.

Still, I chose Hunting, largely so I wouldn’t have people like Scab and me coming after me.  After the Squads you don’t really go for a nice nine till midnight corporate job.  With that level of training, psychological conditioning and enhancements, you find yourself heading towards a life of hurting others.  Even after you’ve had most of the really, really, bad enhancements removed.

Your choices are: corporate enforcer (too structured), churchman (too brainwashy), merc (yeah, because I didn’t just leave the army), criminal thug or if good enough, and I was, hit-man/assassin or bounty hunter.  I chose bounty hunter.   I mean, they’re never going to run out of criminals.  ‘Sides, I guess there’s still that ‘Sect part of me that says follow the flock, obey, be a good ‘Sect and all that.

In theory, due to some serious psychosurgery, Scab had less choice.  In theory, he was unable to break the law except within certain parameters.  Speaking as one of his murder victims, those parameters seem pretty fucking vague.  I mean would it have killed the Legion doctors to programme him with a “Don’t kill the only other biological life form that you’re in any way, shape or form close to” clause when they gave him the mental spaying?

 

We weren’t working when we went to New Coventry, nothing that sensible.  We’d just gone there because Scab in his infinite reasonableness had said that that was where we were going.  It could have been anything from wanting to buy some antique audio, to wanting to murder every human named Bill.  I didn’t know and he wasn’t talking.

 

It started going wrong in the pub.  The Degenerate Fruit Core is a bar, it has a simple layout.  It is a large area full of very basic seats and tables with some very sophisticated anti-surveillance and security equipment.  This is to insure a kind of no-man’s-land for all sorts of unpleasant characters from criminals (as I said, a term synonymous with the word inhabitant on New Coventry), to tax collectors, hunters and even police.  Well, when I say police, I mean the semi-legitimate, uniformed members of the more respectable vigilante associations.  There was a policeman/vigilante lying quite close to our table sobbing and bleeding.

As we threaded through this charming clientele it was us who were getting suspicious looks and negative vibes.  I mean, us?  There were tax collectors in here for Seeder’s sake.  Everyone present seemed to think we were after them.  This was largely arrogance on their part.  There was no one in here of sufficient importance to appear on our scanners, figuratively or literally.  The hostility aimed at us was probably compounded by my distinctly non-human appearance.  I carefully manoeuvred my six-limbed, hard-tech-enhanced body into the torture device that humans call a chair.  I was relieved that it held.

I sipped my drink and looked expectantly at Scab.  Now, most humans will tell you that ‘Sect facial expressions are largely lost on them.  Most humans seem to think the most innocent of our expressions mean that we want to eat them and lay eggs in their children.  So it would seem reasonable for Scab to ignore me.  But he knew.

“You could have done this on your own.  I could’ve stayed on the ship and done some immersions.  I’ve got a new one where you’re the colour blue…”

“I killed a snake once,” Scab said, ignoring me, which made me wonder a little about these “share” sessions we had.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said, looking forward to what was doubtless going to be a psychotic, verbal episode.

“It looked surprised.”

See, this is what I mean.  This guy can differentiate the facial expressions of a legless reptile, so how difficult would it be for him to read my body language from time to time?

Scab was continuing his theme; talking about killing a snake. I was never sure whether or not to believe this kind of thing. The snakes were a semi, or possibly completely, mythical race.  I didn’t doubt that if they did exist Scab had killed one.   Not because he had been an Elite and they got the chance to kill the most exotic things, but just because I felt that Scab was on a quest to kill every type of biological creature (and perhaps some that weren’t so biological) that existed. On the other hand, Scab had done a lot of drugs, so who can tell?

I’m not sure if I was supposed to listen.  It didn’t seem to make much difference one way or another. On the other hand, you never can tell with Scab, perhaps he paid attention to whether or not I was paying attention and one day he’d take issue with it, or set a test or something.

Well, I wasn’t paying attention. I was looking around for an attractive homsap lady who might want to try a bit of xenophilia. Of course, attractive in human terms was something of a problematic concept for me.  According to some witnesses I’ve slept with some real dogs in my time. Not that I’ve the slightest idea what a dog is.

As unfashionable as it is these days, I tend to identify myself as male and heterosexual.  See, my kink, and it seems you’ve got to have a kink these days, is I just want to have sex with human women.   My enhancements are flexible enough to take my homophilia to its fullest extent and there are enough experimental ladies and lipstick insectophiles to keep me busy, even if it means mostly fucking rich, decadent students.

Problem is, an insect who wants to be a human male and a human female who wants to be an insect are two people with identity problems and it doesn’t make for a very steady relationship.  On the other hand it tends to be more fun than wanking over an egg sack (don’t ask).  Besides, Scab is a jealous partner.  But in a non-sexual way. You get that, right? The non-sexual thing.

I was aware of the relative murmur that was Scab’s monologue going quiet. I looked back from my scanning of the bar. In front of us was a young feline. The young feline didn’t look too comfortable.  Very nervous in fact, shaky but in a way that suggested enhanced reflexes boosted far too high for him to handle.   He had a very sophisticated and powerful looking pistol in a speed rig at his waist.  He was acting like someone who definitely had something to say first. There was something about the kid that just seemed wrong, other than the nervousness, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

“Y…” At least I think that was what the kid was trying to say when something happened, something violent, something surprising even for Scab. There was a bright white glow.  The table we were sitting at split in two and the uneven halves fell to the ground. I looked at the kid. There was a huge gaping hole in his chest, cauterised. The kid toppled over slowly, making a choking sound. The white glow appeared by Scab’s palm.  It was the length of a carving knife.  Then it was sucked into Scab’s forearm.  The energy glowed from within his arm, turning flesh and skin translucent before it went out. There was a thud as the feline kid toppled to the ground.  I looked at Scab’s arm, mandibles agape.

“What the fuck?” I demanded.  Scab ignored me.  He was probably transmitting a very generous bid to the bar to erase from its memory what had just happened and not to call the authorities; such as they were here. It would be generous because it looked suspiciously like Scab had just used a coherent field weapon, probably an energy javelin. An energy javelin was S-tech, very illegal, even for a place like New Coventry.  It was illegal because the Church imposed this law, like all other laws dealing with Seeder artefacts. I knew that the Elite sometimes carried S-Tech on their most dangerous assignments.  I even think I saw one in action once when I was with the Squads but they’d never get to keep one, even a low end one like a javelin.

“That…that…” I said eloquently. Scab turned to me.

“I am diminished,” he said cryptically.  He seemed to be agreeing with me somehow.

My partner stood up.  It had gone quiet in the bar.  Everyone likes to consider themselves jaded when it comes to violence but even in the rarefied atmosphere of The Degenerate Fruit Core it wasn’t every day you got to see S-tech in action. Scab reached down and I saw the nail on his pinkie finger elongate as he pressed it through the fur, piercing the skin and digging into the flesh for a DNA sample.

“Want me to try and interrogate his neunonics?” I asked.

“No!” Scab said sharply. I satisfied myself with various passive scans, though as I did this something became apparent. Scab shook his head.

“It’s no good, they’ve been junked, good work, someone’s covering their tracks,” Scab said, largely to himself.

“That’s not a feline,” I said. Scab looked up at me, it was an odd look. Thinking back now, from the comfortable terror of my tank, it was probably at that point that Scab was deciding he had to kill me.

My passive scan also allowed me to catch Scab palming a tiny needle and injecting it into the corpse. I’m assuming it was some kind of chemical DNA scrambler designed to make sure that no investigators would get any decent info. This struck me as paranoid even by Scab’s standards, as presumably the cover-up bid that Scab had put into the Bar’s systems would have covered disintegration of the body.

Scab stood up as the bar’s automatons responded to the bid and came to drag the corpse off. As they did I looked around the bar at the hard faces glaring at us. This place was used to violence but this was different, they were afraid of us. Well, afraid of Scab if I’m being honest. I guess it was the feeling of potential helplessness that Scab engendered in them. If he chose to do something there was little or nothing they could do about it except go down fighting. For people as used to violent self-sufficiency and pseudo-rugged individualism as the clientele of this bar it must have been a bitter pill to swallow. Another bit of the myth of Mr. Scab started and headed off into known space. We left the bar.

We returned to the ship. Scab barely said a word, not that this was new, but there was something in his mien that worried me more than usual.  He was tense in a way that wasn’t normal for him, a way that I couldn’t quite explain.

The ship opened to let us in and we both headed into the organically minimalist lounge/cockpit – not that it couldn’t have been flown by neunonics from anywhere. Organic minimalist is what it was described as in the catalogue. As far as I can tell it means spending a lot of money on not very much furniture which, whilst admittedly comfortable, had a disturbingly biological feel to it. This is what happens when you let a surgically reformed recreational murderer choose your interior decoration. I doubt he would have liked the human kitsch of my room, though he may have enjoyed the insectile functional environments of my youth.

I settled on to the least disturbing of the organic chairs and hooked into an old Colonial Immersion: The Lizard Amazons of High Weston.  It was one of my namesake’s classics. Scab sent out an order from his neunonics and part of the room opened in a faintly disturbing manner (though perhaps I’m developing human psychosexual problems due to my homophilia, which would be cool!) and the vault was revealed.  It was quite small at the moment.  We weren’t keeping the corpses of any bounties in there.  Just some of our more potent virals, the heavy stuff and the liquid software that we wouldn’t get away with using, even on New Coventry.

Scab went into a meditative repose. He was beginning his investigations. He sent out legal, quasi-legal and downright naughty search routines into the communications nets of the planet and out to the transponders at bridge points.  From the bridge points the semi-intelligent search routines would be carried into Red Space by ships and transmitted by the Church’s beacon network all over Known Space, or at least the civilised part of it.  And when I say civilised, I mean those parts that had the requisite level of technology.  Me, I immersed myself in the Lizard Amazons.  Literally.

 

“Gaaah!”  I said, or a noise not too dissimilar.  I have to admit that it was an affectation. ‘Sects don’t really make that noise when we’re surprised.  We emit pheromones, but they’re wasted on humans.  Scab had shut down my immersion.  It didn’t seem to matter how many times I told him how it felt, he lacked the tact to bring people out of immersions gently.

“I am being hunted,” he said, somewhat melodramatically if you ask me.  He looked up at the curved off-white organic ceiling of the lounge.

“Another one gone,” he mused.

I checked my internal clock.  I’d been out for just over a New Coventry day.  Easy to do when you’re immersed. My body had been watered, fed, and chemically supplemented by my internal systems whilst I’d been out.  A bit pissed off, I exuded a pheromone that managed to convey my irritation, with a subtle quizzical undercurrent. I called the scent, being woken up by an inscrutable psycho.  Scab sniffed the air.

“My search routines are being tracked down and murdered, even my best stuff.  It’s a massacre, you should see it.”  This worried me.  See, basically the way the universe works is a kind of evolutionary bidding war.  Whoever has the most resources to throw at a problem generally wins.  Scab and me are no slouches, especially for independent operators.   Our shit is good, pretty much the best private and illegal shit you can get, mixed in with our own experience (though Scab tended to handle the software and the communications stuff and I handled the hardware).  So if our stuff was getting taken out, then it was by serious players.  Some of the bigger criminal organisations, a corporation, government/military or royalty/aristocracy (though it lacked the vile lunacy of the Inbreeds) or…

“This assault has something of a religious feel to it,” Scab announced with what might have been a degree of self-satisfaction.  True, Scab was something of an emotional minimalist, but I think over the years of our relationship I’d begun to detect certain undercurrents of something like emotions.  I, on the other hand, was exceptionally emotional for one of my race.  Understanding and trying to behave as humans do has given me a better understanding of what to be afraid of.  As a result of this understanding I was currently expressing myself with a new scent I liked to call oh shit!  I clattered my mandibles together in what I hoped was a nervous mannerism.  There was a sort of irritating half smile playing across Scab’s purple lips.

“Oh, nice one.  Well done,” I said, sitting down heavily, the kidney-shaped chair trying to mould itself around me.  The chair was oblivious to the fact that I wanted to be uncomfortable and fidget nervously.  Scab watched my battle with the chair passively.

“What,” I asked, pausing for emphasis. “The fuck did you do to piss off the Church?”  Scab shrugged.  “Well you must have done something.” I said.  “Whilst you were in the legion?  The Elite?  Back when you ran with street cults?”

“I don’t think so.  Despite the heresies, the Church doesn’t really pay much attention to the cults.  The Legion would never go up against the Church and if I ever did anything in the Elite against the church then I didn’t have the clearance to know about it.”

“This is a death sentence,” I said, and I meant it.  The Church is the most powerful organisation in known space.  Supposedly neutral, it controls the S Tech handed down from the Seeders, the quasi-mythical genetic engineers of the known races and apparently the reason that the known races all look like animals from each other’s home worlds/habitats.  Each race is nothing more than an uplifted animal.  They only had a few templates and an apparently poor imagination.  Still, shaved monkeys make me laugh.  S Tech of course includes the Bridge Drives that opened up Red Space.

“I’m not so sure,” Scab said.  I looked up at him expectantly.  “The money’s definitely Church – or from inside the Church – but if the Church wanted me dead then they have the resources to do it more directly.”  I thought about this.  Scab had a point and, more importantly:

“You think it’s just you that they’re after?”

“Well obviously, but my problems are yours.  See, what I’m wondering is, why the lone gunman?  And did it not seem somehow personal to you?”

“Perhaps if you hadn’t killed him so quickly, or maybe even just hadn’t killed him at all, using an incredibly illegal weapon, then we could have asked him.  Do you know who he was?”  Again, asking was a mistake but as I said, I’m pretty sure he’d already decided to kill me by then anyway.  That was why he let me in on what he knew.  Scab looked at me thoughtfully for a while.  Probably deciding how much it would be useful for him to tell me and when would be the most profitable time for him to kill me.

“You were correct, the gunman wasn’t a feline.  He was an extensively modified human, a fashion feline.  He was subtly, but very heavily, augmented with some of the best combat nanonics, the kind that debit isn’t usually enough to buy, but he had only rudimentary training.”

“That’s weird. Why spend that amount of debt on a pleb?” I asked.  Scab shrugged.

“The personal touch.”

“What about the bar?  Why no security?”

“The bar had been bribed. Not only that, but someone had tampered with the Operator.”  Again, this was serious shit.  I didn’t know much about the Core but it was rumoured that the Operator was an ex-Hunter like us.  The security at the Core was top notch, the good shit, as they say.  That would usually mean that the Operator would be packing some serious liquid software in his cerebrum.  Interrogating neural systems is just about the most difficult hack.  To do it to someone like the Operator of the Core, that would take some skill and some ware.  This was serious.

“Lone gunman?” I asked, trying to sound hopeful.  “Was he a programmer, made some cash, got himself some combat enhancements and became a psycho micro celebrity stalker?”  Scab shook his head.

“I don’t think so.  Somebody paid him to do this.”

“Trace the debit at the bar?”

“Pythian black accounts all the way since planetfall.  Traced it further back and he ceases to exist.”

“So what makes you think this is church related?” I asked.

“First of all, someone’s pulling serious strings.  Secondly, I ran some intuitive parallel routines and that’s when I started being hunted down and stamped on fast.  I even had stuff manage to track back to me.  They were programmes that could make a mess of you, vegetable-making stuff.  I had to shut down several of my cognitive functions last night when you were immersed and purge.  It even caused me to shit myself,” he finished.

This was worrying – not that Scab had shat himself, that was just unpleasant – but crossover attack programmes like that.  I didn’t have half the defences that Scab did in that area.  Yeah, Scab had managed to defeat them but he’d had to switch off.  What if we’d both been attacked at the same time?  Gunplay’s hard enough without several of your cognitive functions switched off and pants full of shit.

“So someone’s covering for an amateur to take a shot at you? Some kind of kill for thrills hunt?  Sponsored by the Church?”  Scab shrugged.  “Did you find who the guy was?”

“I’m not sure but I think he was a low grade organic test bed from Cyst.”  I let this sink in.

“Who wouldn’t have the money to pull this off?”  Scab shook his head.  “Isn’t Cyst where you grew up?”  Scab nodded.

I think he’d worked out what was going on but didn’t want to tell me, or he just didn’t want to admit it to himself.  Though more likely he felt it was just another irritation that required removal from existence so Scab could get on with his.  I wasn’t pushing this too far – neurones, ably assisted by a powerful computer in my head, were beginning to fire. I was making connections.  Though how much was me and how much was the liquid computer I didn’t know (curse that thing, I should have drilled a hole in my head and drained it, not that it would work).  It’s terrible when you’re not quite sure how stupid you are.  Still, I didn’t like where this was all going.

“Where’s this all going?” I asked, despite myself.

“They fucked up.  He was augmented on New Coventry,” Scab said and I nodded.

“Dumb.”

“There’s only a few places that can provide the level of sophistication inherent in our dead test bed and I think I’ve narrowed it down to here,” he said and transmitted a file to my neunonics.  I checked it out.

“He lives in a Listed Building,” I groaned.  Scab smiled.

 

The building was beautiful.  It dated from the boom times, about a hundred years after the first human colonisation.  Back when the planet still had natural resources.  I’d quickly downloaded the history proudly transmitted by the building’s Heritage Organisation.  I knew everything there was to know about the building’s history, which kind of irritated me.  This is one of the reasons I like text.  You can kind of speed read it and not necessarily take it all in.  When it’s sent to your neunonics it’s there.  It lacks the feel of proper memory but where my memory ends and my software begins is difficult to know. Actually it had been very clearly delineated but I had hazed up the boundaries a bit, wrote some routines that made me forget, or improperly recall, things.  It was great for getting into arguments with people and being wrong!  How human’s that?  Still, I digress.

Huge building, tallest for it’s time, yadda, yadda, yadda.  The heritage group had used demolitions and tailored material viruses to clear away the hulks of some of the surrounding buildings to give it that tallest building, good view feel.  Good view?  Of what?  This was New Coventry, for fuck’s sake.

But despite all that shit I was impressed, or at least I was doing a good impression of it.  We stood in the foyer, which was made of some fancy shiny stone and had pretty patterns drawn into it.  I looked up, and up and up.  The centre of the building was hollow and just went up, a stairway (how quaint) going round it.  I needed to use my optical enhancements to see the domed roof.  But get this; the whole thing was wood panelled.  Yes, I know!  Wood!  It was all very nice, though it offended my ‘Sect instinct for space management, but this “niceness” worried me.  Scab liked to destroy “nice” things.

Scab had decided to take along a bit more insurance.  Our personal satellites accompanied us.  Black, hardened composite spheres, just under a foot in diameter and although they could take a fair amount of damage for their size they were lightly armed, usually only with a small laser.  What they did have, however, was very powerful scanner suites and a similarly powerful liquid computer, both tight beam connected to our neunonics, providing us with highly detailed information constantly.  They also increased exponentially our processing power.  They hovered just above head height on their anti-gravity motors, another legalised, Church-controlled derivate of S Tech.  Those church boys just like to piss on the laws of physics, is what I think.

Having P Sats hovering around you is apparently fucking irritating if you’re human (though I don’t think either the lizards or the felines are particularly fond of them either) and it takes years of working with them to get used to their hovering presence.  Humans complain it’s like having a huge insect buzzing them constantly.  It’s really not, cheeky fuckers.  The simultaneous presence of our P Sats and this much wood began to worry me.

“Scab,” I said nervously.  Scab ignored me.  “This must be the hardest heritage society on New Coventry.”  If this heritage society had managed to maintain this building on this planet then they must have had some serious firepower and some serious tech backing it.  Not to mention pretty good security, which brought me to my next question.

“Scab?  Why are we still armed?” Scab ignored me.  “Scab?  Why are the satellites still with us?”  Scab ignored me.  “Scab?  Tell me you didn’t just hack this building’s security?”  Scab was still ignoring me.  It must have been a pretty brutal hack.  That sort of thing is not going to go unnoticed, and so of course we took the stairs.  It would take time to climb them but it would be a better place to get noticed than an elevator, especially one that could be dropped in a shaft, pumped full of virals etc, etc.

My body is mostly machine; the important bits are still ‘Sect.  I think.  This is for two reasons really.  The job, obviously, and because ‘Sect Hive Habitats have a much lower gravity than many of the planets inhabited by other races.  They needed to, in order to support our exoskeletons.  All of which meant is I was not going to get tired climbing these stairs.  I did, however, get bored.

We made it up to the two hundred and something floor and the alarms still hadn’t been triggered as far as I could tell.  Floor wise, we still had a similar number to go.  I had been aware of the noise of panting breath and the vibrations of a probably-human life form running down the stairs for some time now.  Finally I saw the harried looking individual turn the corner ahead of us.  He kept his head low but seemed to be running for all he was worth.

His head was hairless, and his whole body had an emaciated wiriness to it.  He wore a black one piece made of a moulded shiny, black material under an artfully shredded feather top.  Despite his somewhat androgynous nature I guessed he was nominally male, or one of the quasi-male sexes, depending on sexual-surgical modifications.

I scanned him as he approached, more from habit than actual interest.  He was carrying some interesting enhancements.  Experience (okay, experience and decent software) suggested that he was probably high line criminal thuggery of the more expensive kind.    We continued our plodding climb.  Scab was smoking a cigarette, which was one of his more disgusting and completely pointless retro-vices.  Look it up, see how ridiculous it is?  Still, it made his fingers and teeth an apparently fashionable off yellow colour, the sort of thing that would cost a fortune in a salon.

Scab stopped, he turned round and leant on the polished wooden rail and watched the hairless man run.  He ran around the four walls and ever downward.  Scab seemed lost in thought as he stubbed out his pointless cigarette on the polished rail in an explosion of sparks and ash.  I actually jumped.  I’ve been in more combat and gunfights than I can count but I still wasn’t expecting this.  Scab drew his tumbler pistol from the holster at his waist and fired it across the huge stairwell.

The anachronistic, and for my money completely overpowered, revolver made a fantastic noise, brilliantly amplified by the acoustics of the old building.  A foot of orange flame shot out of the end of the pistol.  See now, this is what it’s all about, this is why we carry guns, they’re noisy and colourful.  A smear of blood appeared on the wood panelled wall next to where the man had been running as his left leg spun out from under him, hit by the rapidly tumbling massive caseless round.  The man hit the ground, hard.

“The fuck did you do that for!”  I yelled at Scab, though I did take a moment to appreciate the still echoing report of the gun.

“Intuition,” he said, holstering the smoking pistol and turning to resume his climb up the stairs.  We were heading in the opposite direction from the man he’d just shot.

“Well, as long as you had a good reason,” I said to his back.  Regardless of the hack, the Heritage Organisation would now be aware of our presence.  I looked at the man as he staggered to his feet.  The fact that he could do so was a tribute to the hairless man’s enhancements, as the hydrostatic shock from Scab’s good ole’ pistol should have blown his leg off.  I turned and moved to catch up with Scab.

 

We found the floor we wanted and headed down the tasteful wood and glass corridor.

“We made?” I asked.   Scab nodded.

“They’re on their way.  Two elevators full, maybe a dozen.  Remember, they won’t want their precious building harmed.  Fucking hobbyists,” he told me.

We entered the office of the enhancement alchemist.  A security automaton lay dead in the corner.  No sign of trauma but no sign of animation either. Shame, it looked like a good automaton.

More traumatised was the human receptionist behind the desk.  The front of his face was fine except for some bruising on the top and bottom lip and a few shattered teeth.  The entire back of his head and part of his neck was a fine red sheen on the wall behind him.  His skull was almost hollow.

The door from the front office to the consulting room was open.  Scab took in the scene and strode into the consulting room.  I followed, scanning as much as I could.  The room was plush and there was more wood.  Presumably wood fetishists were drawn to this building.

Artfully designed mock-glass vials and flasks containing various nanonic and liquid software enhancements lined the walls or were stood on work surfaces.  Presumably the room was filled full of diagnostic monitoring equipment as well as manufacturing and distilling equipment, but this was all very tastefully concealed.

The neural alchemist was sat behind his desk, a disabler still attached to his temple.  The contorted expression and the small hole in his head told me he’d recently been subject to a rather invasive interrogation procedure.  Scab staggered, though I was only aware of this from my active scan as I was checking out the room for possible threat.

“Ok?” I transmitted to Scab neurally.

“Seriously infected ‘ware in here, more nasty feedback programmes,” Scab sent back.

“You going to shit yourself again?” I asked.  Scab ignored me.

A few seconds later, shaking his head, he transmitted back to me, “Everything’s junked, they did a good job.”

He turned and walked out of the consulting room and then out of the office.  In his right hand appeared the tiny spit gun, moulded to fit the curvature of his hand.  He raised the weapon and it fired at the elevator’s closed door.  There was minimal muzzle flare and the weapon was as near as damn it silent.  The air was filled with deadly flechettes.  He wasn’t even looking where he was firing as he walked towards the stairwell.  He stopped firing as I came out of the door after him.

Scans from the P Sat and his own internal systems told him that I was entering his field of fire.  I had my tri-barrelled shotgun pistol in my top two arms.  The door to the first elevator was just beginning to open.  It was full of six terribly cut up Heritage Society (wood fetishists?) members.  The inside of the elevator looked like it had very recently been full of razors, which, to a certain extent, it had.

Images transmitted from my P Sat told me that Scab was reloading his ridiculously rapid-firing spit gun as his P Sat attached itself to the shoulder strap on his raincoat.  Scab stepped up on to the railing and stepped off into open air.

Neunonically I switched the shotgun pistol from single barrel to all three and triggered them before the doors to the second elevator had fully opened.  Electromagnetic force propelled kinetic ball bearings at hypersonic speeds down the barrel.  The bang broke every nearby piece of glass.  Six anal-retentive hobbyists were lifted off their feet and slammed around inside the elevator.  With more speed and less dignity than Scab I headed for the stairwell, frantically trying to strap my P Sat on.

Now my scans were picking up the alarms as I launched myself out over a mile high drop.  The height didn’t bother me.  I’d been inserted from orbit before.  It was the thought of doing that drop surrounded by heavily armed and highly annoyed Heritage Society members.  Scab was transmitting to them, telling them to leave him be and he would go.   If they did not, he threatened to do as much damage to the building as possible.

Empty shotgun cartridges tumbled into space as I inserted new loads and snapped the pistol shut.  As we both floated down the massive stairwell I could see more Heritage Society members with precision ranged weapons walking to the edge of the stairwell and watching us drop, carried by our P Sats’ AG motors.  Scab dropped impassively, I more nervously.  My optical implants could see the expression on a lot of the Heritage Society’s members’ faces, and they did not look happy.  But then again, they also had doubt.  They’d heard of Scab and knew how he went about getting his own way.  On the other hand, I was very much of the opinion that if they chose to attack us there was not a lot we could do.  We’d get a few but in the end we’d die.  I knew this and they knew this.  The problem was I don’t think Scab did, and at the back of their minds, Scab had taken on some kind of mythical status.  I don’t think Scab was un-killable, I just think he hadn’t been killed.  Each and every one of them thought that if they were the first to fire Scab would kill them before he died.  That was how it worked, his reputation separated you from your buddies and made you feel special in the way that he’d single you out to put the hurt on.  Hell, I wouldn’t try and kill him and in the big scheme of things I was quite a dangerous individual.  So we dropped.

In my mind’s eye I could see the man that Scab had shot scrambling down the stairs, leaning on the wall, moving for all he was worth, leaving a bloody smear behind him.  Frantically trying to put as much space between him and us as was possible, even as we unrelentingly fell towards him. Yeah, yeah, I know, too many meta-urban noir immersions.

 

With the synchronicity that makes a rep like Scab’s he touched down ever so gently on the fancy stone floor (apparently it was called marble, according to my files) just as the unfortunate hairless gentleman stumbled to the bottom of the stairs and made for the foyer.  He had a kind of stumbling sprint and was holding the leg wound inflicted by Scab’s tumbler pistol.  The guy’s own nanites would be trying to knit the wound closed.  The unfortunate spared us – who am I kidding, he spared Scab – a look of terror and foolishly tried to draw a weapon.  With a hiss Scab took to the air in a P Sat assisted jump, raincoat billowing out behind him.  He landed on Hairless.  A laser went skittering across the marble.  Something caustic was spat in the victim’s face, almost immediately I was aware of the scent of corroded skin and flesh.  Members of the Heritage Society came running out into the foyer.

“Stay back!” my amplified voice warned and then I began searching the ranks of the Society. Where was he?

Sharp fingernails dug into Hairless’s skin, sending nasty bio toxins coursing into his bloodstream.  I continued my scan and then I found him, the wannabe, the rep seeker.  I could see him calculating what would happen if he took down Scab.  He might as well have had his intent written on an animated tattoo dancing across his fucking face.

The liquid blade of a metal-forma knife sank into flesh.  Scab’s neunonics guided it through the victim’s body, enough to incapacitate, readying Hairless for the interrogation that would violate his mind.  At the same time Scab was hacking into the victim’s neunonics, checking for suicide routines.  Hairless’s memory could be crashing, toxins and nanites designed to render him a mindless vegetable might have already been released.

The Wannabe made his move, but Scab would be aware.  He would have the data from his P Sat’s sensor package, but that wasn’t the point.  This kind of behaviour needed to be discouraged.  I’m not sure why it had to be discouraged.  Presumably it helps remove the stupid from the gene pool.  Big gene pool it may be, but every little helps, especially in a place like New Coventry.

The Wannabe headed straight for Scab’s seemingly unprotected back, some kind of woefully inadequate blade in his hand.  Time to play the scary insect again.  I made my way through the crowd, tossing aside any Heritage Society members not quick enough to get out of the way.  I grabbed Wannabe from behind and threw him backward into the air, high into the air.  All three barrels of the shotgun pistol went off, the one handed shot requiring all the recoil compensation the weapon and my arm had.  Wannabe exploded, noisily, in mid air.  It was just wet stuff that hit the marble.  Whether because of the violent suddenness of Wannabe’s death or just the thought of yet more cleaning up, the Society’s group dynamic became one of non-intervention.  Scab stood up, smoothing down the raincoat that was now even more stained than it had been.

“Got what you need?” I asked.  Scab ignored me and walked calmly to the door, as if oblivious to what was going on around him.  I followed him out.  The feed from my scans kept me constantly aware of what the Society was doing as I left.

 

Scab must’ve got what he was looking for.  That’s when our little visits started.  They were always the same.  The victims were mostly humans.  Those that didn’t look human I suspected were cosmetic jobs.  I couldn’t be sure, because Scab was using electronic countermeasures against my scans.  Agewise they were all about the same.  Sex varied across the gamut, from the five official human sexes to their own invention of semi-viviparous with alien flowers implanted instead of genitalia.

I couldn’t find out where they were from. A lot of them wore extensive facial and bodily mutilations as a fashion statement, which would suggest a place where advertising diseases were a problem.  Like Cyst?  Best not to think about that too much.

Probably only a few of them were combat trained but all of them were carrying top of the range combat enhancements.  One or two gave us a little bit of trouble, but that was just the smart ones.

Basically, we were showing up in places and murdering people.  A lot of them.  Like twenty or thirty of them.  I’d killed more, obviously, you’ll do that in a Thunder Squad when your weapons are designed to take down an entire city, block by block.   Normally I had a reason for the killing, usually money, but I was just killing people because Scab was.  This made me uncomfortable.

He became more and more uncommunicative, as difficult as that should have been.  He was as impassive as ever but there was some kind of undertone to his actions, I was sure of it.  It was almost as if he was as close to fear as he got.  This worried me.  Well okay, if I was being honest, this made me want to do the ‘Sect equivalent of shitting myself.  Not literally you understand.  I’ve still not quite mastered human nuances.

Marcus

Marcus joined Gollancz as an Editor at the beginning of 2011, and is greatly enjoying the chance to work on the kind of books he’s always read. His shelves at home are groaning. Previously, he spent ten years as a bookseller for Blackwell’s, ending up as Sales Manager for their flagship London shop on Charing Cross Road. He lives with his partner, a historian and novelist, and their very small child, who is going to know more about SFF then anyone else at nursery. This may not be a good thing.