April 2829 CE, Imperial Standard Reckoning
Los Angeles Metrozone, NorthAm Prefecture, Earth
"A SADDENED DUKE LANCINGS WEATHERS CONFIRMED THE DISCOVERY THAT HIS YOUNGEST SON HARABEC LEADS THE MARTIAN LIBERATION FRONT…."
The newsdrone continued to blare, going deeper into the story as it whirred slowly down the street and disappeared into the night’s gloom. Its screens continued to flash: NEWS NET : NEWS NET: NEWS NET…
Scarf had heard it earlier. It was just past midnight now. "That shave’s gonna be sorry he messed with Wings. Peterboy gonna cut him a smile now," he muttered.
"What?" Scarf’s partner Zolo, a little bald man with a face half covered by a blotchy red spider web tattoo, just glared at him. "What the hell you just say?"
Scarf sighed. "I said, the Emperor will make that Harabec shave sorry he ever set foot on Mars and messed with the Imperials, jake?"
Scarf resisted the urge to slap this stupid outsider shave. Why’d Goldruger stick them together, anyway? "‘Jake’ means good, OK – you know? ‘Shave’ is a guy; ‘chay’ is ‘girl.’ ‘Wings’ is what we call the Imperials. ‘Cut a smile,’ ‘squik’ – that means killin’. You get it now?"
Zolo laughed harshly. "Squik? Sounds like someone stepping on a bug!"
"Yeah. A bug." Scarf hoped he wouldn’t have to explain it again. He was embarrassed to be seen on the street with this chump, but Goldruger had sent Zolo along, so he had to go along with it.
This was a different kind of job for Scarf, and he didn’t want to glitch it. Goldruger was a shaker in the ‘zone, and you could make it diamond-bright doing his work. Scarf’d run a few errands for Goldruger in the past, little drops and stuff, enough to know that Goldruger was the Man. The money had tasted good then. Tonight’s pay was a lot better. Scarf saw a road up to the skylife. Shakers like Goldruger needed reliable streetjacks who hadn’t fried their brains on Chill or Lace like so many shaves and chays down here in the ’Snarl. Scarf thought of his own chay, Siena, and their shaver Tez. He wanted them out of the ‘zone worse than anything, especially Tez. That meant taking a chance like this when it came his way.
He glanced over to where a couple of grimy forms sprawled nearby like clumps of rags. Lace addicts, from the stink. Scarf could see drool trickling from a drawn, glassy-eyed face; he spat in disgust. Not Tez, he promised himself for about the millionth time. Never. Any child of Scarf’s started taking Lace, he’d turn the key on ’em himself. He pushed a white-blond lock back off the vidgogs and made himself breathe slowly. He should have worn a cap or something, probably. Never mind. Just stay chill, he told himself.
"The mark’s definitely moving deeper into the ‘Snarl." Zolo said impatiently. "Maybe we oughta nail the guy. Just off him and grab his bundle."
Scarf glared. He didn’t have patience for this bugnappy crap. Zolo was supposed to be hardtail, a pro. Sure didn’t act like it. Scarf chilled his voice. "Goldruger said follow. That’s what we’re doin’. Jake?"
Zolo didn’t sound jake about it, but he nodded after a moment. "Yeah, OK. Sorry."
Scarf clapped Zolo on the shoulder and forced a toothy smile. Then he tightened his trademark silk scarf against the cold and got back to business. "Heya, mark’s movin’."
A newsdrone paused overhead, braying a commercial segment. "TRY ZUPE-KLEEN…GETS ANYTHING OUT OF ANYTHING WITHOUT DAMAGING THE FABRIC!" Its display flashed up the lime-green Zupe-Kleen logo. Scarf swore to himself that if he ever met the weed who thought up the idea of sending those damn things out over the ‘Snarl, he’d squik him personally. He resisted the urge to pull out his laser and take a shot. Drones were pretty quick, and some carried stunners. Their programming told them to stun anyone within a hundred meters. That kinda made folk police themselves. In the end, the only drones that got taken out were hit by snipers. Otherwise, you just got used to them.
Stay tuned, shave, he told himself. Don’t go all bugnappy. Remember why you’re here.
The mark had made a pickup at the wharf earlier, took some kinda kitbag out of a storage cylinder. They’d followed him on the magtube here to Camerone Station. When he got off, they’d gotten off too and pretended to lose a credmark in a falafel autovendor. The mark had headed straight out without paying them any more than passing notice. Scarf and Zolo had given him a few seconds’ lead before following him up chipped ceracrete stairs out onto the street. Graffiti and flashburn scars snarled across the walls. They emerged into darkness broken by a dim holo flickering over some skinpit’s door. The hologram blurred up an image of a woman just beginning to drop her robe before the program abruptly skipped back to the beginning. Scarf scanned the mark heading down the street. They waited by the station entrance to give him some room.
"Clear," Zolo said. "Let’s go."
They stepped out after the mark. Scarf’s vidgogs allowed them to track the shave without coming within fifty meters. The infrared option even let them follow someone around corners on cooler nights like tonight when the streets were mostly empty. Tough zone, hereabouts. Their mark was either a little crazy or way tough to be out in it. Scarf’s hand rested on the hard butt of the laspistol hidden his jacket pocket, but what really gave him protection in this area was attitude. He and Zolo jandered along like they owned the streets. Anyone looking would scan he was hardtail. Zolo better stand up jake if pushed. Folk here fed on weakness.
His comm beeped softly on his wrist. Time to report.
"Mark’s hitting 87th block from Camerone," he said into the comm. "Turning right, toward the ’Snarl."
"Roj. Stay fleece." The voice was low and cold, Goldruger. Scarf shivered. Downside to this job was the Man himself. Scarf didn’t know the details, but folk claimed the shave used to be Wings, a Knight or something. Yeah, and they said Goldruger’d done something real bad, got his tail kicked downtown. Whatever it was, Scarf didn’t want to know. Knowing too much could get you squikked.
The mark paused at 87th. There were more folk there, brighter lights. Scarf and Zolo would have to close up the distance. If the mark knew he was being followed, he’d try a dodge there.
87th had more police, too, Scarf remembered. "Hang an eye out for ’Lice, heya?"
"…MASTER CAANON WEATHERS, WILL HEAD THE NEW STRIKEFORCE…" The newsdrone had followed them up Camerone. Fortunately, it passed them and headed for the crowds on 87th. "IN OTHER NEWS, POWER CURFEWS WILL PHASE IN NEXT WEEK AS THE TERRAN DEFENSE FORCE GATHERS ITS STRENGTH…"
Scarf dropped the gogs’ rez to regular and waited for the ‘drone to move out into the lights. Then he and Zolo hurried a little to make sure they could keep the tail on. The mark took a right turn and vanished onto 87th. Scarf broke into a run, reaching the corner quickly. Zolo huffed up a second behind him. Warily, they turned onto 87th.
The mark wasn’t too far along, still walking calmly. The street was busy tonight. The staccato beat of maffick pulsed from music boxes perched on cars and in windows. Pleasure chays flashed their pretty, tattooed legs and smiled under the watchful eyes of their bravos. A knot of older shaves warmed themselves by drum fires and shared homecocted liquor. Circles of younger shaves played scatterskittle and laughed when someone got cut on the whirling blades. Red, blonde, and brunette holograms blazed a rainbow of lewd welcome on all sides, inviting folk into the skinpits and nightholes. A block off, Scarf could see the silhouettes of the lascannon mounts on the curtain wall. Beyond the wall, the shiny towers of Center rose up in blue and green spotlights. The glowing spire of the Plaza of Heroes speared into the sky behind them. A gunboat’s running lights blinked red and blue as it hovered by the spire.
Scarf looked at it all with a familiar ache. A mural near the wall showed a cartoon of the Emperor getting a blood transfusion from a sickly Mars. LITTLE OLD PETER TAKING HIS LITER, the slogan screamed. FREE MARS! The curtain wall was a favorite target for graffiti, but ’Snarl folk also told dreamy stories of the imagined glories and luxuries of the "Skytown" that lay behind it. Someday, Scarf thought. Someday his shaver and chay would get out. They’d all live out there as a real family someday.
Back to business. Scarf and Zolo moved easily through the nightlife. No one seemed interested in the mark, either, which was real strange since he wore uptown clothes for this area. Scarf noted how straight the mark walked, how folk got out of his way like he was Wings or something. Maybe he was Wings. That’d explain why Goldruger just wanted a tail. Cut a red smile on a Wing and Peterboy would send in enough ’Lice to turn the key on half the ‘zone.
The nightlife thinned and the streets darkened again as they entered the outer ‘Snarl. Scarf motioned Zolo to drop back, and they stuck to the shadows. Gangs and dogpacks hunted these parts of the ‘Snarl, a maze of abandoned buildings and ruins not completely rebuilt from the last Earthsiege. He dialed up the rez again on the gogs. Time to report to the Man again. He did so, and received the same word as before: Stay on his tail. Find out where he goes.
Zolo dared a question on his own link. "What’s this mark carrying, boss?"
Scarf froze. "Zo-" he began angrily.
"None of your biz," came the icy reply. "Just stay on him. Like fleece."
"Heya, boss, null problem here," Scarf said quickly. Then he reached out and slapped the back of Zolo’s head hard. "You shut it," he hissed. "Just shut it. Boss ain’t payin’ for chatter."
Zolo shot an angry look at Scarf, the spiderweb stretching in around a scowl. "We oughta know what the guy’s got, is all."
"No. We just gotta follow." Scarf stared hard at the weed, willing him to back off. Scarf was definitely gonna have a talk with Goldruger once this was done.
Zolo sighed a moment later and looked away. "Jake by me."
They hurried a little to catch up. The streets got darker and Zolo got more bugnappy as they continued following. The mark kept up with his straight arrow stride, didn’t look even a little nervous. Scarf was sure now they were after Wings, and the certainty spurred him to greater levels of caution. They crouched behind a low wall and watched the mark walk up to an access conduit leading to old magtube tunnels. He paused and looked around. Scarf and Zolo ducked down.
"You figure he’s trying to shake us?" Zolo asked.
"Nah. Looks like he’s home." Scarf clicked his comm. Nothing but static. Jammed. "Damn," he breathed. He slid his head up and peeked.
The mark was gone.
"Ahh, crap!" No way was Scarf gonna let Goldruger down. "Come on!" He darted out toward the conduit. Zolo hissed then scrambled after him in a rattle of pebbles. The two moved as quietly as they could up to where they’d last seen the mark, and Scarf pressed his ear against the cold metal of the door. Their breath frosted the air. It was colder out here. A slight wind had picked up.
"Don’t hear nothin’," he whispered in response to Zolo’s round eyes.
"Maybe we oughta go."
"Null, shave. We check to see if there’s another way down. They used to build these in pairs." Scarf tried the comm again, but it was still glitched up. "Come on. We spot this as the mark’s home, then we can dodge out."
A brief search turned up a second access a short distance away. The door was stuck, but a nearby metal strut and a little jointspray from a can Scarf always carried loosened things up enough for them to pry a small opening.
"You go first," Zolo said, a quaver in his voice.
"That’s jake," Scarf was a little scared too, but a hardtail wouldn’t show any of that to a weed like Zolo. Besides, there was always Siena and Tez to think of. Helped to remember what a shave worked for. He squeezed into the access conduit and dialed his gogs for lo-lite. The shaft had rungs in the side, leading down into the shadows. Scarf began to descend slowly, testing each rung before putting his full weight on the metaplas.
Below him waited a blanket of darkness. To his surprise, he heard Zolo fumble into the shaft above him and prayed silently that the weed didn’t slip. A few pebbles showered him, but that was all.
The shaft wasn’t too deep. Scarf lowered himself carefully onto the tunnel floor. No power lines that he could spot, but there was a light down the tunnel in the direction where the mark went down. The gogs were doing their job, and Scarf was stone grateful to have ’em.
"Hey!" Zolo whispered from above. "Where’s the ground?" Silently, Scarf reached up and helped the little man down.
"I’ll lead, shave," Scarf breathed. "You hold to my jacket and follow, jake?"
"Yeah, yeah. Jake."
"We just spot the mark and then boost outta here."
"That’s definitely jake, shave." Zolo let out a quiet, nervous laugh. "Jake-jake-jake."
Scarf wished he’d never bothered to teach streetslang to this weed.
They crept forward, toward the light. Scarf forced himself to take deep, slow breaths. He could feel the sweat wet his back. He guessed Zolo was about to lose his cool completely.
"What was that?" Zolo hissed.
Scarf clapped a hand over the other’s mouth. "Wait here. I’ll check things out and get back." Better to go ahead alone. Zolo would get them both squikked. He wished he’d found another shave to come with him, but Zolo had seemed hardtail enough…
Forget it. You’re wastin’ time, he told himself. Just get the job done and you can go home. Never need to work with Zolo again. In the meantime, Zolo was so glad to stay put, it was embarrassing. Scarf curled his lip. What a spoonbrain!
Easing himself forward, he made his way to where the light was. He didn’t scan any sign of sensors. Sticking to the shadow, he adjusted the gogs and slid along the wall to get a better look.
It was weird. Just a few chairs, a table, and a bunch of tools laid on a stained towel. Suddenly Scarf got really, really scared. The mark was there, all right, a muscular shave in the company of a stone cute chay who also wore a suit. They each sat motionless on chairs, eyes open and staring. The kitbag lay on the table. That wasn’t what got to Scarf, though.
It was the wire linking the two people, running from sockets in their heads. It was the way they blinked at exactly the same time. It was the emptiness in their faces.
He began to back away, slowly. But then he heard a scream wail out behind him. Zolo.
Scarf turned and ran. He stumbled and fell almost immediately. He couldn’t see right- The gogs! He dialed them up and struggled to his feet. Zolo didn’t scream again. Scarf saw someone moving up ahead.
The laspistol was in his hand, and he snapped off a couple of shots. The crack of the superheated air sounded loud in the tunnel. He made a few more steps before the shrill of a stunner struck him into oblivion.
* * *
Scarf had been stunned once before, so the headache when he woke was no surprise. The paralysis, on the other hand, was definitely new. He couldn’t move hand or foot. He kept his eyes closed, tried to think despite the panic that welled up in him.
"You are…awake," a deep voice stated. "Do not…try…to deceive us."
Scarf found he could open his eyes, so he did open them a crack. He saw what looked like tunnel roof, a blaze of glowlight that threatened to split his brain open. In spite of himself, he groaned.
"You can move your…mouth. Your…eyes," the voice continued. A shadow bent over him, and a rough thumb peeled up his eyelid. "You are…unhurt."
The fear slapped words into Scarf’s mouth. They sounded dry and raspy. "Why can’t I move, shake?"
"You cannot move…due to the…effects…of selective neural blocks. The use of…this particular…chemical…does not cause shaking."
A feminine voice interjected. "The human did not query regarding shaking. ‘Shake’ is a form of address denoting recognition of a superior in the social hierarchy."
"Ah. Yet…I…am not part of his…congregation."
"It is true that you do not belong to his…sect tree. He nevertheless…recognizes you as…superior."
Scarf couldn’t stand it. "What the frix you talking about? Unblock me, shave! I won’t tell nobody you’re here."
Deep voice said, "The…animal…runs a…survival program."
The chay responded. "You must learn to further utilize…human idioms and paralinguistics if you yourself are to survive." A pretty face empty of expression loomed into Scarf’s view. The headache still throbbed, but not so much that he couldn’t spot the exact moment when her mask suddenly softened and became utterly natural. It was like she flipped a switch.
"You okay, shave?" she cooed.
"Heya, chay, I’ve been better. You gonna let me boost?"
"Maybe." She leaned down and kissed his cheek. Her breath smelled all minty. "Once you tell us what you know."
"I got any choice?"
She dimpled. "Not really. You wanna think about it?"
"Where’s Zolo? The other shave?"
She shook her head, smiled. "He’s froze, shave. Your las squikked him."
Scarf felt sick.
"Yeah." Her face held sympathy. She squeezed his limp hand. Her fingers felt warm and soft. He could feel everything, just couldn’t move. The fear jumped right back into his mouth.
"What you wanna know?" The headache scattered his concentration. Scarf fought to think. How could he convince them to let him go? All thought of pleasing Goldruger was gone at this point. Scarf wanted more than anything to see his chay and shaver again. "I’ll tell you jake if you let me go."
Deep Voice cut in from where Scarf couldn’t see him. "Who sent you?"
"A shave called Goldruger."
A familiar broadcast sounded faintly from somewhere, its hearty voice hollowed by the tunnels. "… EWS NET: NEWS NET… A SADDENED DUKE LANCINGS WEATHERS CONFIRMED THE DISCOVERY THAT HIS YOUNGEST SON HARABEC LEADS THE MARTIAN LIBERATION FRONT…"
Scarf tried unsuccessfully to shrug. "He wanted what you have in the bag, I guess."
The chay watched him intently. It reminded him of someone looking at a bug just before they pull the legs off.
"Answer carefully, shave," she whispered. "’Cause if you don’t tell us the truth, it’s gonna hurt a lot."
He managed a scruff of a laugh. "I believe it. I ain’t lyin’, chay. I don’t have a glitchin’ idea what’s in the bag. Maybe drugs? Maybe some kinda weapon?"
"It queries after…secure data, Nine," Deep Voice said.
"Call me Linda. Get used to the identification. You’re Merios," the chay said.
"We should not use these…designations…in front of the animal."
"No matter." She smiled down at Scarf. The mouth was warm, but her eyes were stone cold. "He won’t tell anyone."
Scarf didn’t like the implications there. He felt the tears start to build, but he kept them back. He was a hardtail, a frixin’ hardtail…
"…THE EMPEROR HAS AGREED TO SEND A STRIKEFORCE OF IMPERIAL KNIGHTS TO MARS TO FERRET OUT THE TRAITOR…"
Deep Voice paused. "The animals are careless with their data."
"So much is trivial," the chay said, her eyes still drilling into Scarf. "It is harder than you might conceive to accumulate useful datastrings."
"Giver-of-Will designed the Emperor’s brain, made the conversion. The Emperor unit has consequently proven to be efficient. Shall I place the tools here?"
"Yes," a third voice, a reedy one, replied.
Something clinked, and the chay commented, "The animal grows agitated."
Her face withdrew, and Scarf stared hard at the ceiling, suddenly filled with horrifying realization. "What are you?" he asked shakily. "You ain’t normal folk."
"It should be…apparent…even to your limited…animal mind," Deep Voice intoned.
"Yes," the chay said from somewhere to his left. Soft hands touched his temples.
"But you’re people!"
"We are organic intrusion and surveillance units." She laughed musically. "Spies, in your terminology. We use the same hardware as your Emperor."
Scarf was dumbfounded. "You’re Immortal, like the Emperor?"
"That’s an illogical term. We’re Cybrids."
The reedy voice intruded. "The brain is now prepped. Shall we use this candidate?"
"DON’T LET HEADACHES RUIN YOUR DAY!" The newsdrone chuckled. "TAKE IMPERIAL STRENGTH MEDERIPIL!"
"I see no logical reason not to," the chay said. "The procedure does not take long?"
"No," said Reedy Voice. "The transfer package operates via nano-surgeons. They are efficient. The neural blocks will keep the autonomic nervous system operating intact throughout the transfer and will also prevent the loss of organic integrity to ‘shock.’"
"What are you talking about?" Scarf croaked. "Some kinda operation?" He bit his tongue. What was this? He was hardtail. He wouldn’t beg, damn it!
The chay’s face appeared again. "Yes. You see, our Master created the technology that your Emperor used to become immortal, the artificial brain. We use that same technology to insert Cybrid minds in human bodies." She dimpled again. "Your body will be quite a useful addition to our hub."
A shrill whine cut the air, came closer. Closer. A brush of air tugged at Scarf’s skin.
Panic blasted through Scarf at last, and he screamed. "Nooo! Don’t do it! Don’t-"
"DO YOU SUFFER FROM AN ANNOYING SKIN CONDITION?" The newsdrone’s voice faded cheerily into the distance. "USE BIO-SKIN!"