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Sign of the Hunter

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Xanthius and Zentropia are population control agents, on the trail of a murderer, in a future metropolis that was built over the ruins of London.

Scifi / Thriller
Age Rating:

Chapter 1


Sign of the Hunter

Beneath the hazy, starless night sky, lanes of traffic whirred between sky-scrapers, illuminated sky bridges, suspension cables and the intricately tangled monorails, along which, neon metro tubes meandered like glow-worms.

Xanthinus and Zentropia moved across a gantry on the epsilon sector, the fifth level of the towering metropolis. They both wore full-length raincoats with hoods down. A golden spaniel followed at their heels, wearing a coat and boots. To their right, a row of silos cast angled elongated shadows across the walkway.

Xanthinus paused to look over the rail and watch the elevator tubes rise and descend. ‘This is the highest I’ve ever been.’ He sucked greedily on an electronic cigar and ran a hand through his spiky grey hair.

Below the dancing lights, the streets of Tamesa buzzed with activity. Like a colony of ants, denizens swarmed around pedestrian zones and glass towers, intent on errands that, to the casual observer, had no obvious purpose; all watched over by the hovering saucer-shaped sentinel drones.

‘Come on!’ Zentropia snapped. ‘Your dawdling gets worse.’

Xanthinus followed her towards the hatch below the silos. A portable battery-mounted, flashing blue light had been placed next to the entrance. Zentropia ducked beneath a black and yellow striped beam to enter the corridor. The clicks of her heels echoed off the metal wall-panels. Small light crystals had been placed at intervals along the length of the passage, dimly illuminating the numerous oval doors in the style of ship’s airlocks. Halfway along the corridor, an officer from the Metropolis Police Force stood sentry outside a door; another man was sitting next to him on a low stool, smoking an electronic cigarette. The uniformed officer touched the peak of his cap.

‘You from Population Control?’ the seated man asked. Zentropia nodded. ‘Callistan, Beta 9730, SID.’ He stood up. ‘The officer inside was checking the abandoned waterworks for illegals. He must have come across one and been killed – an old-type blaster shot to the chest. I’m still waiting for forensics.’

‘Why hasn’t this plant been dismantled?’ Zentropia asked.

‘The municipa hasn’t got round to dismantling it, yet – it was locked up.’

‘What about camera footage?’ Xanthinus asked.

‘Nothing running around here,’ Callistan replied. ‘But the sentinels fly by regularly.’

Xanthinus stuck his head through the hatch to survey the dimly lit cubicle. The claustrophobic room was about four and a half meters long and three wide, fully metal panelled. A small alloy table provided the only furniture. Apart from that, the cubicle contained only a rubbish bin and water purifier. The dead police officer lay sprawled on the floor, face down alongside the contorted form of his dog. A piece of cloth was stuck in the air conditioning grill, fluttering in the air flow.

‘How come the air-con’s still operating?’ Zentropia asked.

‘He’d rigged up a simple self-perpetuating dynamo to the circuit, giving enough power for this room; he’s good at improvising.’

The uniformed officer spoke up, ‘The CSU is here.’

A silver and blue humanoid robot padded along the corridor on rubber-soled feet: it was childlike in stature, with camera lenses for eyes; black and white chequered bands ran down the length of each limb and MPF was emblazoned across its forehead. The walking laboratory entered the cubicle and set about a methodical analysis: scanning, spraying, dusting, probing and swabbing.

When the droid finished, it turned to address them, speaking in a monotonous computerised voice. ‘No fingerprints. There are traces of DNA, some old blood, saliva, hairs and semen.’

‘So ...?’ Zentropia asked, ‘his ID?’

The droid paused, waiting for a response to the uploaded data.

‘Iskantrex, a Sim, Male, serial 3037h; an unusual subject, born in the Outer Zone among the savages; eight years ago, he infiltrated the city and managed to escape detection for a few weeks before his capture – nobody knows how, but it’s assumed he was helped by sympathisers. He escaped from a controlled breeding facility seven years ago, along with a female, before they could be sterilised, or indeed euthanized. At the time of escape, the subject was one hundred per cent organic, but traces of nano-lube indicate that he has become a cyborg, or at least, acquired some bionic limbs. There is also a trace of silicone-based ocular lubricant, so he is probably using artificial eyes to pass the scanners, as a class two. No doubt he has infrared vision. Such subterfuge would also require an ID chip taken from a citizen. How he passes the x-rays defies logic.’

‘He must have got the chip from a dropout,’ said Callistan, ‘someone living an alternative lifestyle outside the system – a cyberpunk, perhaps. He probably killed for it. But he must also be receiving help from collaborators who support the revolutionary known as Appos.’

‘Why do we tolerate it?’ Zentropia asked. ‘Every citizen should be accounted for. No wonder this Appos gets away with inciting rebellion.’

‘It’s called free will,’ said Xanthinus. ‘Some people think it’s important.’ The statement earned him strange looks from his colleagues. He shrugged, ‘It’s the will of Nemis, isn’t it?’

‘At least we’ve found his safe house,’ Zentropia enthused.

Xanthinus grinned. ‘He’s probably got rat holes all over the city. There’s no other trace?’

‘Slight traces of pollen – Dionaea gigantea.’

‘And no sign of the female escapee’s DNA?’

‘No, she was killed two years ago during an attempted recapture. He was arrested but escaped again – he is resourceful. No other individual has used this room for a long time.’

‘All right, officer!’ Callistan said. ‘You can bag and drag them out now – give us some room.’

When the officer had removed the corpses, Xanthinus sent the dog in. ‘Go on, Canistra.’

The overweight dog waddled around the interior sniffing frantically and wagging her short tail.

After a few minutes, Xanthinus entered, just managing to squeeze his broad shoulders through the narrow entrance. He pulled at a strap protruding from the wall and pulled down the bunk bed to lock it in place.

‘What kind of place is this?’ Zentropia asked.

‘These cubicles were where workers lived,’ the detective replied, ‘back when the population was out of control.’

Xanthinus pulled a torch from a pouch and shone it at a laminated poster above the bed. ‘Talixandra ...’

‘Who ...?’ Zentropia entered to look at the image of a female cyborg in a sexually provocative posture. The cyborg’s hair was Medusa style, comprised of numerous artificial snakes.

‘She was one of the first great burlesque stars,’ Xanthinus explained, ‘back when cyborgs were considered attractive, before they became second-class citizens. Now most of the stars are entirely artificial – gynoids.’

‘It looks disgusting. But why would our man want a poster like that?’

‘A lot of men have a fetish for the fusion of the human form with machines.’

Xanthinus ignored his partner’s look of disapproval. He eased himself up to sit on the narrow mattress, fiddled with the dials on the torch, and shone black light around the poster.

‘What do you make of that, Sigma 9903b?’

‘A roughly scrawled H, or a K, maybe ...’

Xanthinus shook his head and pulled out a light scribe. He used it to point at the tiny circle at each extreme point on the symbol, one after the other. ‘I would say this is Betelgeuse, this Bellatrix, this Saiph and this Rigel.’

‘You mean the Orion Constellation,’ said Zentropia, frowning at being patronised. ‘So what – it could have been there for centuries.’

‘It could be a clue, associated with the poster,” Xanthinus insisted, ‘time to do a little old-fashioned detective work.’

‘Do you think a pornographic poster and a piece of astronomical graffiti are going to help us find the fugitive?’ Zentropia scowled.

‘Perhaps,’ he replied, wearily. He turned to squat and examine the contents of the rubbish bin, while his partner looked in the metal mirror and fussed with her short blonde hair. ‘Not much else to go on, some empty sachets of liquid nutrition. Let’s get out of here.’

Back on the gantry, Xanthinus looked up muttering, ‘Why can’t we be up there in the heavens with the Omega class, rather than crawling about down here in the gutter?’

Zentropia just shook her head in reply. They entered an elevator and descended to street level.

‘This Sim ...’ Zentropia began, ‘old images of him will be useless if he’s had reconstruction done to his face.’

‘Let’s go check out a place I know of,’ Xanthinus spoke with the cigar hanging from a corner of his mouth. ‘I’ve got a hunch.’

‘A hunch – since when have agents worked on hunches?’

‘Just humour me.’ He blew smoke in Zentropia’s face and grinned at her contempt.

After exiting the elevator, they left the open air and rode an escalator, passing beneath digital signs reading TO THE PLEASURE PRECINCT. The fast-moving conveyor belt was packed with travellers representing a cross-section of Tamesa’s inhabitants: humanoid robots, squat droids and cyborgs mixed with regular people and their dogs. The wall screens on one side of the enclosing arched tunnel displayed newsreels showing the results of terrorist bombings on the city; the opposite side showed the beautiful golden-skinned face of Nemis, her hypnotic voice talking about respect for the sanctity of life and not allowing the rebels to ruin the order she had created. Suddenly, the images became scrambled by interference. When the distortion ended, the head and shoulders of another figure appeared, disguised by a black and white chequered headscarf. The slogan, ‘Equality for all’, ran repeatedly across the screens.

Citizens of Tamesa, this is Appos. Reject the propaganda and totalitarian authority of Nemis – she’s not real, merely a program designed to brainwash you. Abandon your political apathy and demand equality for everyone: droids, cyborgs, Sims and so-called Homo Superior. Living in harmonious equilibrium is how nature intended it to be - don’t let them carry on living up there on their Mount Olympus, pissing on us all…

More interference heralded the return to normality – Nemis appeared to carry on condemning the rebels.

‘At least we’re getting quicker at cutting off the signal,’ said Zentropia. The agents leaned over the rail together seeking privacy – Zentropia whispered in her partner’s ear. ‘If your “hunch” pays off, we need to find the collaborators helping him. That’s even more important than capturing him. The traitors must be brought to account.’

‘We’ll let him lead us to them, hopefully,’ he replied. ‘Just think, if he led us to Appos, we’d probably get promoted higher up the order. I’d get above Delta level and out of the gutter.’

‘I’m already out of the gutter.’

Xanthinus shook his head and dragged deeply on the cigar.

They exited the escalator on the outskirts of Soho. Xanthinus led the way through numerous cavernous alleys lined with booths illuminated by red lights. Harlots in rubber bondage gear stood in the entrances, beckoning them. One woman even addressed Xanthinus by name – Canistra ran up to be petted by her.

‘It’s disgraceful,’ said Zentropia. ‘They shouldn’t be allowed in the city.’

‘They are sterilised, some people find comfort and pleasure in them.’

‘You mean – you! I didn’t know you’d opted for an active libido. You’re an animal, Delta 38000E.’

‘Here we are.’ Xanthinus turned into an arcade.

Arched entrances lined either side of the long corridor, offering every form of virtual escapism and literal entertainment.

‘This is the one,’ said Xanthinus. It was an establishment called the Orion Lounge.

They entered the sleaze bar, and passed by a large glass tank filled with rounded, fat, black and white striped bees. The bar was patronised by mostly single men who sat alone with their dogs. Some of the canines wandered around pestering other clients to be stroked. Three cyber punks acted as waitresses. Xanthinus ordered absinthe and led his partner to a booth with a good view of the rest of the tables and the stage.

The entire ceiling of the lounge showed a real time, albeit delayed, image of the Orion Horsehead nebula’s centre; the vast interstellar hydrogen cloud bordered by brightly burning stars. Various designs of gynoids in sexually provocative poses adorned the walls, some of them famous burlesque artists.

On stage stood a pair of humanoid dancers: female in form, but rather androgynous. To the sound of a two centuries-old pop song about how video killed a radio star, the gynoids began their routine composed of humanly impossible acrobatics and contortions, eyes burning cobalt blue. Their liquid skin shifted restlessly like mercury.

Xanthinus gazed at the ceiling. ‘See, Zentropia, that’s how stars are formed. Those particular stars burn with such intensity that they are destined to die within a few million years; their demise contributes towards the birth of more stars.’

‘Fascinating,’ she replied with a hint of sarcasm.

Their waitress appeared with a tray; she smirked at Zentropia’s disapproving appraisal. The crown of her bald head was tattooed in purple and black leopard print, extending down one side of her face. Her lips and eyes were painted black, numerous piercings adorning her lips, nose and ears; her naked breasts protruded from a simulated leather cuirass, the left-hand one artificial and metallic, the other natural, with the nipple and areola painted black. The right arm was made of the same metal alloy as the false breast, the other tattooed in leopard print.

Xanthinus set about preparing the drinks; he placed the alcohol-soaked sugar cubes on spoons and set them ablaze with the lighter provided. The burning cubes were dropped into the beakers, igniting the absinthe. He then extinguished the flames with a drop of iced water.

‘Quite an expert, aren’t we? What makes you think we’ll find the perp here,’ Zentropia took a sip of the foaming green drink, ‘just because it has Orion on the ceiling and strippers on the walls?’

Dionaea gigantean ...’ Xanthinus pointed at a planter. The half-meter tall, genetically enhanced Venus Fly Trap plants turned their heads as if in response, jaws gaping wide. ‘A recent gimmick they employed. Of course, there are other establishments named Orion Bar, Nebula Lounge, and so on, but this is the only one with those plants, that I know of.’

‘If you’re right, I suppose I’ll have to concede that being a sleaze has its advantages, sometimes.’

A young woman nervously entered the lounge and approached a table occupied by a lone male. She glanced around as though expecting a trap. Her appearance was orthodox, but the man was a cyborg, his bald head crowned by a fixed alloy skullcap, with a matching false nose. She sat down and they huddled intimately.

Zentropia and Xanthinus feigned interest only in the stage; the gynoids’ limbs were impossibly intertwined in a serpent-like mating dance.

‘That’s him,’ Xanthinus spoke like a ventriloquist.

‘How could you know that?’

‘Instinct ...’

‘Hunches, instinct – next you’ll be claiming you can transform into a lupoid.’

Xanthinus stooped to address the dog. ‘Go on, Canistra, seek. Good girl.’

The dog did a circuit of the lounge; she sniffed the client’s legs but ignored the advances of other canines. She ended up at the feet of the suspects, begging for attention. The woman obliged and played with Canistra’s ears.

Mission accomplished, Canistra returned in expectation of a reward. Xanthinus took a strip of artificial dried meat from a pocket and presented it to her with praises.

The suspicious couple turned to look at them. Xanthinus grabbed Zentropia and kissed her, his mouth stifling her protestations. It was a short and awkward kiss, and it earned him a look of pure hatred from his partner, but at least the suspects seemed to have forgotten about them. Before Zentropia could give Xanthinus a piece of her mind, the air was filled with the sound of buzzing. Some bees had been released from their tank.

‘Don’t worry,’ Xanthinus responded to Canistra’s concerned whines. ‘They don’t have stings.’

During a long instrumental interlude, the swarm spread across the lounge in aimless flight, until the plants began to vibrate, mimicking their buzzing. Like moths to flames the bees flew into the crimson-lined yonic maws of the carnivorous plants. Every trace of the insects was soon eradicated.

‘What’s the point in that?’ Zentropia demanded.

‘It’s called ‘living art.’ Xanthinus shrugged; he downed his drink and prepared another.

Zentropia grimaced. ‘The signal in here’s terrible. I’m going outside.’

Xanthinus took the opportunity to finish his second drink and set up a third. He watched the simulated sex being enacted on stage.

Zentropia returned. ‘A sentinel has a lock on both chips.’

‘Now we’ll get the whole cell.’ Xanthinus discreetly eyed the suspects.

‘If they separate, let the sentinel follow her, we’ll stick with him. They’re so beautiful, don’t you think?’ Zentropia had one eye on the dancers. They scurried around the stage floor on eight limbs, seamlessly joined like an arachnid.

‘If you like that sort of thing,’ Xanthinus replied. ‘Robotic art doesn’t fascinate me; I prefer females with flesh on them.’

‘Don’t be crude,’ Zentropia eyeballed him.

Xanthinus took a swig of the absinthe and stared back. ‘Are you really religious …? I mean – do you believe all the doctrine? I just don’t understand the logic of it all – our place in the new order…’

‘Shut up,’ Zentropia ordered. ‘I knew you were thinking like that. Don’t analyse what you don’t understand, just do your duty.’

‘But is Nemis right? I mean …’ Zentropia’s stare made him stop.

The dancers each split in half, vertically, their respective left and right hand sides rejoining with their opposite; then the gynoids’ forms merged together as one to take a bow.

‘He’s on the move, come on.’ Zentropia urged.

They pulled up their hoods as they left the bar and followed the suspect back into the tunnels.

‘You must think about it, sometimes – if she’s even real?’

Zentropia ignored him to concentrate on her prey. The suspect’s behaviour became ever more erratic and suspicious as he attempted to cling to rare pockets of shadow between the harsh fluorescence of the street lights, glancing warily over his shoulder.

They continued following him out of the pedestrian-only zone. He passed the iris recognition scan and x-rays required to enter another sector, without a problem.

‘He’s had good work done,’ said Xanthinus.

‘All the more reason to catch the traitors who helped him,’ Zentropia returned as she crossed the road, dodging hover-cars, scooters and puddles of polluted rainwater. They casually followed the man into an open square. Zentropia covered her right ear with a cupped hand. ‘The angels are about to piss on us again, better cover up.’

Xanthinus followed her lead, putting on his mask and gloves. He covered Canistra’s head with her hood and fixed a mask over her muzzle.

No sooner had they adjusted their clothing than the corrosive rain started to pour, eating away at the new city’s corrupt foundations. The rain hissed upon contact with matter – a nauseating vaporous mist soon blanketed the ground. There was now no chance of guaranteeing they would maintain visual contact with the hooded suspect.

They took shelter beneath an awning. ‘Did you hear?’ Xanthinus asked with a muffled voice. ‘The drones lost the signals, both his and the girl’s.’

‘But how ...? It’s never happened before.’

‘The signal from the chips went dead – probably signature switching. Their evasive technology is improving all the time. I bet he’s gone underground, probably heading for the cathedral.’

They left the cover and sprinted through the downpour. The square rapidly cleared of pedestrians.

In the shelter of an elevator tube they removed the masks, and were soon descending into the bowels of the city – no words passed between them until they received another update.

‘You were right,’ Zentropia conceded, ‘Cathedral Square, acting suspiciously.’

‘Fits the description, even if the chip’s ID doesn’t match.’

They emerged in the underground and entered an eight-seat shuttle tube, warning off other passengers who tried to join them. A gang of cyberpunks tried to enter the car – the leader had a lime-green Mohawk hair style; half his skull was an alloy mask with a glowing red eye. Xanthinus drew his gun and pushed it against the punk’s metallic cheek.

‘Go on, freak; give me an excuse,’ he growled.

The punk backed off, raised his hands in surrender, and spat on the window as the doors slid shut.

As the shuttle set off, smoothly accelerating along the magnetic rails, Zentropia turned to address Xanthinus. ‘Very subtle and barely legal ...’

‘Yeah, well, I’m in a bad mood. Working with a snob like you doesn’t help.’

Xanthinus found himself at gunpoint. Zentropia had the muzzle of her gun pressed against his temple.

‘Xanthinus,’ she hissed. ‘If you ever try to kiss me again, I’ll blow your head off. Then I’ll excuse it by informing the police of your thought crimes. I’ve recorded some of the blasphemies you’ve uttered. Do you understand?’

He turned his head so that the muzzle pressed against the centre of his forehead. ‘Go on,’ he urged. ‘Do it! I’ve often thought of doing it myself.’

‘You’re impossible!’ She put the gun away. ‘As your superior, you give me no choice but to recommend you for psi evaluation.’

Canistra sat up in a begging posture, but was ignored. They rode in silence for a while, both looking at their own reflections in the windows.

Zentropia suddenly turned on her partner again. ‘It took some doing, recreating higher civilisation again after the Dark Age, the reinvention of advanced technology – just think on that when you have doubts. I know I’m very conservative, at least, compared to you, and don’t think I don’t envy your free-thinking. But I do know something, there’s no such thing as perfection in this Universe, it’s a scientific impossibility. How it is might not be ideal, but it’s better than what went before.’

The short journey ended at a square, where a dome had been built to enclose and preserve the cathedral, long before the old city became buried beneath the new. A restless crowd filled the square, swollen by refugees fleeing the acid rain. Like a giant watching over them, an enormous statue of Charles Darwin dominated the centre of the square.

Xanthinus led the way, clearing a path for Zentropia with shoulder barges and curses, until they finally reached the steps of the cathedral. They entered the Gothic cavern to look over the heads of the congregation. All eyes were on the huge wrap-around screen at the rear of the building. The face of High Priestess Nemis loomed large on the screen, reciting her Marxist-Darwinian mantra to the gathered acolytes:

Gone are the days of embracing inherent selfishness, the self-gratification of the individual at the expense of a wider obligation to the rest of society. Out of the ashes of devastation the new order has risen like a phoenix, enabling us to leave our bestial past behind and aspire to godliness ourselves. The evolutionary process never relents, at times it idles, but occasionally, an accelerated phase allows for true enhancements of the human race. Out of humble beginnings the program of life seeks the attainment of perfection – through revolution and evolution.’

‘Through revolution and evolution,’ chanted the congregation.

Gaia will be revived again;, under our guardianship the balance of nature will be restored …’

Xanthinus listened intently to his earpiece.

‘I heard,’ Zentropia said. ‘He’s left the building.’

‘Heading for the ruins – they’re so predictable.’

With the aid of directions from a sentinel, they soon picked up the trail again. Their prey led them into the maze of tunnels and domes, and through the long-abandoned ghost town. The streets were poorly lit and this time it was the agents who clung to the shadows. Occasionally, they would hear or glimpse the activities of extermination units in the near distance, cleaning up the nests of rats and cockroaches that infested the old city. The primitive brick dwellings were devoid of doors and windows and, for the most part, the foundations had shifted, so that the larger houses leaned on the smaller, threatening to crush them. Apart from the fumigators, only archaeologists ever wandered those desolate streets. Then they realised they had lost him.

‘Now they’ve lost his signal,’ said Xanthinus. ‘The interference down here is terrible.’

Canistra paused in her endless sniffing and criss-crossing of the road to bark at them. They followed her through the tunnels.

The suspect had entered a dome, enclosing a square littered with rubble; he was stood before a broken-winged statue of a flying archer. He glanced round casually at the sound of their approaching footsteps, and then returned to staring at the statue. Both agents drew their side-arms and separated to compromise the suspect in a cross-fire, but the man seemed resigned to his fate as he turned to face them. He held up his gun, and then threw it – the weapon slid to a halt in the space between them. Close up, the plastic surgery barely hid the fact that he was old – too old not to be an illegal.

Xanthinus began the interrogation. ‘How did you get away with it for so long?’

The man shrugged, pulled his raincoat tighter around him and folded his arms. ‘I was lucky, I guess.’

‘Nobody gets that lucky,’ said Zentropia. ‘Did you kill a citizen to get the chip?’

‘No, of course not; he had an accident.’ The man slid down the base of the statue to sit on the floor. ‘I’m no killer.’

‘What about the police officer?’ Zentropia asked.

‘He gave me no choice.’

‘What were you doing in the cathedral?’ Xanthinus asked. ‘Are you religious, or maybe you were reminiscing about the Old Religion?’

‘If there is a God, I hate it.’ The man smirked. ‘I knew I was being followed and tried to lose you – but I knew it was no use, so I came here to die.’

‘We know you must have had help from a cell of collaborators,’ said Zentropia. ‘Inform on them and maybe you’ll be allowed to live. Accept sterilization and you could go to work in the outer valley, where your kind belongs.’

‘Don’t treat me like a fool,’ he smiled at them. ‘I’m past thirty, they won’t let me live. I’ll be given so-called humane euthanasia.’

‘We want the information,’ said Xanthinus. ‘One way or another we’ll get it. We want to know the ID number of the cybernetic surgeon who did the work; the person who devised the brain-cloaking implant; who modified the chip to switch ID – every traitor who helped you.’

‘Never!’ the man’s tone turned defiant. ‘They are the future, not androids like you. Look at you – you copy us in every way possible. You even make yourselves flawed compared to your robots. And you use man’s best friend.’ He pointed at the dog. ‘I bet you even delude yourselves that you’re human.’

‘What are we supposed to do?’ said Xanthinus. ‘Sit around all day like machines?’

‘Isn’t it ironic?’ the man continued patronising them. ‘You’ve tried so hard to copy us that it’s all conflicting and screwed-up – just like it was when we were in control.’

‘And you think the rebels will make everything wonderful, do you?’ Zentropia said.

‘They have truly become like us and you should make way for them – that’s evolution, not the dogma of Nemis. Anyway, I have children and they’re safe with them. One day they will be free. If you do try to take me in, I’ll only escape. I’m ready to die now.’

Zentropia squatted to address him, loosely gripping the gun. ‘We could take you in and administer truth serum.’

‘It won’t work.’ He grinned. ‘My blood cells have been altered to make it almost immediately fatal, and I will never give in to torture.’ A cockroach fleeing from the fumigation scuttled up to one of the man’s boots. He picked up the insect and nursed it in his palm, like a pet.

Zentropia continued: ‘You don’t really believe that this Appos will make a difference, do you?’

The man laughed. ‘I am Appos, didn’t you work it out? But my work is done. You think you are the hunters, but soon you will be the hunted – revolution and evolution.’

A sentinel appeared to hover overhead, recording the scene. Zentropia stood up and waved her gun at it. ‘Move on, it’s under control.’ The drone buzzed around uncertainly for a few moments, then disappeared. ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ Zentropia asked him. ‘Why can’t you accept the new order and your place in it?’

The man began quoting some antiquated scholar: ‘If you want to rule the world, does it follow that everyone else must welcome enslavement?’

Zentropia raised and pointed the gun at his chest.

Xanthinus groaned and shook his head. ‘You can’t kill him – don’t you realise you’ll be creating a martyr? They’re probably recording this. It’s not up to us to kill a human ...’

Zentropia turned the gun on him. ‘Drop your gun and kick it over here, you’re under arrest for treason.’

Xanthinus did as he was bid. He took a crumbling old real cigar from a pocket and lit it. He then called Canistra to him and picked her up. Zentropia turned the gun back on Appos.

‘Wait,’ he pleaded. ‘Can you first tell me how you picked up my trail again, after the signature switch?’

‘A sentinel caught you crying,’ she replied. ‘As a matter of interest, what were you thinking about when you became so emotional?’

‘It was my wife,’ the man sighed, a single tear running down his cheek. ‘Something reminded me of her, how she was – before your kind killed her.’

‘She was a breeder, she should have been sterilized.’ Zentropia pulled the trigger. As the cockroach crawled out of the man’s lifeless hand, Zentropia stamped on it ... ‘And you should have had your tear-glands frozen.’

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