I woke up, not to the sound of the ocean or the busy city outside, but to the gentle breathing behind my head. I felt Amy’s arm still wrapped around me, felt her soft skin underneath my neck, and I felt all right for the first time in a long time. The sun wasn’t shining and birds were nowhere to be found, but still I felt a sense of calm and optimism I hadn’t felt in a while. The sound of the ocean being piped into the room didn’t even bother me. I just laid there, feeling the warmth of Amy pressed against my back and listening to the sound of her breathing, thinking that things couldn’t really get much better right now. But as always happens, the perfect moment was cut short and I was pulled violently back into the real world. My comm was buzzing at me, a slight tingle in the bone behind my ear, and when I whispered “connect call” I heard the Chief’s voice on the other end.
“Hey, Darrow. You need to get down here. Johr is itching to get going, and the commissioner is breathing down my neck to get it done. ‘We’re spending a lot of money on this little attack, and we’d hate to see it go to waste.’ His words, not mine. Still, he wants Carlson dead or alive ASAP, and as much as you can gather about these bastards.”
I moved slowly, extricating myself from Amy’s grasp without waking her, and walked to the bathroom to get ready to go. “Yes sir, I understand. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Could you get me a few things? I need some proper armor, stuff that’ll go under my coat without looking bulky, and I’m going to need a biotech guy to help with a few ideas I have. Something to give me an edge should things go to hell.”
I heard the Chief breathing slowly but not talking; he was obviously thinking about my request. It wouldn’t be hard; the police had to have a biotech specialist on call for emergencies and to help prepare officers for specific tasks. The armor was a little tougher to get, but not impossible. My coat, as nice and bullet-resistant as it was, would be nowhere near good enough if it came down to a firefight. And God knows, things like this usually did. “Got it. Just get down here quickly. And try to leave that journalist girlfriend of yours back home, ok? She’s a nuisance and the station is more nervous with her around. Especially me. Her dad scares the hell out of me.”
I laughed at his last comment, knowing how much hell Jean Devereux could put someone through. “Yeah, I get what you’re saying. Is Johr’s sister at the station? She could be just as dangerous if she has another anxiety episode.”
“No, she’s at a safe house in the city, a nice little place guarded by a few of the only decent officers I have. She’ll be fine, and out of trouble more importantly.”
“Thanks, Chief. I’ll see you in a few minutes.” I hung up, staring into the mirror after getting dressed. I may have felt a little better than usual, but I sure as hell didn’t look it. I looked a man twice my age, with grey hairs sprouting up where there used to be all brown and bags under my eyes big enough to carry a change of clothes it seemed. I was tired, and no amount of sleep and good nights would fix it. I needed to be done, to be back where I could see things clearly again. Just one more job, I kept telling myself.
With that, I threw on my coat and checked my pistol for issues when I heard Amy stirring in the other room. Dammit. She would be a wrench in the works if she came with me, and an absolute demon if she found out I went without her. Well, there’s nothing to it, I thought, so I left. She would get over it, especially if I didn’t come back. She was strong; stronger than I was, at times. She’d find a way to make it all work. I found the two cops from the day before sitting outside next to their cruiser, so I got in and told them to get going before someone started shooting at us. They looked worried, but I just laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s a joke. I’m just worried my partner is going to kill me for leaving without her.”
Johnson and Sanchez exchanged some tenuous smiles, then went back to catching up on breakfast. Ah, the beauty of self-driving auto cars. They were controllable, if you wanted to; but only outside the major high speed lanes of the city. At those speeds one small touch of the controls in the wrong direction could cause a massive accident. So instead Johnson chowed down on an omelet and Sanchez ate a particularly unpleasant-looking food bar. All the nutrients the body needed to kick start the day in a tasteless chunk of sand and clay. Once at the station, I grabbed a cup of coffee and a bear claw, the breakfast of choice for police officers and middle management for hundreds of years. The Chief came up and grabbed his own breakfast, talking the entire time. “We’re ready to go, Darrow. We got approval from the military to use their gear and men for the day if needed and I found some military-grade body armor for you. It’ll be in the riot squad prep room when we’re done with the briefing, along with the police biotech specialist. Although that might be a bad idea, you know. Don’t want to go tweaking with implants the morning before a mission like this.”
I took a big bite of the delicious pastry, swallowed, then responded. “Like you’d know, chief. You barely have any implants at all. You’ve got what, a vital reader and maybe chemical regulator so they can keep an eye on you and keep you from developing mental degeneration, right?”
The Chief was a big man; a rarity in this day and age. Since the invention of nanotech and the marriage of various technological and biological disciplines, the issue of weight loss has been all but eradicated. Complicated systems of implants and nerve enhancements regulated digestion much more efficiently, causing the body to expel unneeded macro nutrients to avoid storage of fats and sugars, and better regulate signals sent to the brain to prevent over or under eating. But some people have always rejected radical physical enhancements; they prefer the old fashioned way, whether because of religious reasons, personal fears, or just their own issues with technology. Most still had the gene therapy to extend their lives, but as far as making themselves anything more than just a normal human they simply rejected it, a fact the rest of the world simply shrugged off.
“Yeah, well, I’m not one for the use of technology to make my life easier. Hell, I still use the oldest gun they make ammunition for, the .45 Colt 1911. I had to have the firing mechanism updated, but the whole thing is still as old as it gets.”
I laughed on my way back to his office, where there sat a dozen men, most in full military gear. The Chief introduced the men in optic camouflage as the snipers I would have as support if anything went wrong; their camo could make them damn near invisible, or project an image of something totally different that what was there. Made covert operations easy. The other two new faces were obviously the Coalition’s security agents, men whose job it was to make every cop’s life hell. I recognized one of them, but I couldn’t place where. I had worked with so damn many of them on so many jobs, it was hard to tell.
The Chief pressed a button on his desk, and the room went dark while a three dimensional representation of the slums came up. It was huge; several hundred square kilometers of run down old buildings, ramshackle huts and various businesses made from whatever the owners could scrounge up. We knew the general area the Sons of Kalia operated in, but it was still several square kilometers of high rises and warehouses. We needed Johr, that was obvious. “This is the area we believe Carlson is in,” The Chief said, indicating the highlighted area. “But we can’t know for sure. Johr, you and the Marshal will enter the slums from the city side, near where your apartment is, and move toward this area. Darrow will be there to protect you as much as he can, but you’ll have to be careful. We can’t let them know you’re there with backup or we’re done. The Marshal will provide you with a weapon once you’re outside the city, for personal protection. You have full immunity from anything you have to do to keep yourself alive and keep the mission on course, is that understood? The Marshal will have eyes on you at all times, and he’ll record anything you do outside those bounds. Once in the area, you’ll attempt to make contact with Carlson, and inform him that you were nearly killed in the blast and woke up with the other patients in the hospital. At that point, how far you go is totally up to you. You’ll be free and clear once the Marshal gets eyes on Carlson, and you should make your way back to the city if possible. If not, go to the top of the old Fremont Tower and activate the signal, and your extraction team will be on site in two minutes. At that point, the Marshal will follow Carlson until he’s sure he can capture the target and either extract him or perform a tactical interrogation. Now I want you six,” he said, indicating the men in the camouflage, “to cover the Marshal. You’ll be moving on foot into the area from the southwest, and once you reach your individually assigned overwatch locations you’ll provide whatever the Marshal needs, either covering fire or intelligence. Any questions?”
One of the security officers stood up and cleared his throat. “I’m Agent Allard of the Coalition Secret Service. This is my partner, Agent Ahlgren, and we’re here to advise and observe. Please carry on as usual.”
The only thing worse that a useless bureaucrat was a useless bureaucrat with a badge. He knew just enough to piss everyone off, but not enough to be useful. I’d dealt with them enough that I’d grown a little tired of their red tape and adherence to guidelines written exclusively, it seemed, to make everyone’s life harder. I finally realized where I recognized Agent Ahlgren from; he ran support on one of my first jobs to capture a particularly annoying fugitive; a job easy enough for a rookie and frustrating enough to provide a good hazing. Instead, Ahlgren wanted to use the guy as bait to lure out his boss, a job I was neither paid to do nor willing to do. So I grabbed my guy and left, with Ahlgren in my wake fuming. It felt good, but I always knew it would come back to bite me.
Once again the chief spoke. “Ok, we’re going to be leaving in two hours, with the support team moving in first to get established and the Marshal and Johr coming after. Good luck, Marshal, and try to bring the target in alive, would you?”
I just smiled and said “No promises, Chief.” With the briefing wrapped up, I went to talk to the biotech specialist. I had a few ideas for making my implants work better for the job. He was sitting in the medical area of the prep room, waiting on me apparently.
“Hey doc, I need some help; I want to be able to upload the information collected by my optical and aural implants in case I can’t make it out in time, and I also need better chemical regulation. I’m going to be doing some stupid dangerous things, and I can’t have anything throwing me off, especially not exhaustion and loss of concentration. And a few enhancements to my nerve cluster implant would be nice; even a ten millisecond boost in reflex response time would come in handy.”
He pondered it for a moment, then pulled a sub-dermal injector out of a drawer. “I can do that, no problem. There are risks associated with continued stimulant use; you know that right?”
“Yeah, doc. Don’t worry about it. Any longer than a day and stimulant poisoning will be the least of my worries.”
“Ok. Just wanted to make sure. As for your remote upload, that’s already built in. But if you think you need to upload in real time, we’re going to have embed a new antenna. It’ll just be a little bit of platinum wiring attached to the outside of your spine to use your whole body as a transmitter. Works wonders for high capacity data transfer. It’ll be a little sore for a while, though.”
“I can deal with sore, trust me. I have no problem with a little pain.”
“Well then, as far as the nerve cluster enhancements, you’ve got the best we make. I can try to tweak it, maybe increase the response time, but it won’t be much at all. If you want, I’ve also got some new painkillers, both dermal and for the auto-injector just in case. It’ll only last a few minutes, at most, and if you use more than one dose every few hours it’ll probably stop your heart. Still, might be useful in an emergency. And a large injection of nano-assemblers and stem cells might be able to stop the bleeding if you get injured, or even set and fuse a bone. But that’ll hurt like hell if it works, so be careful.”
After half an hour of injections and him typing away on his PDA, I finally got out of the med bay. I felt sore in a few places, but that was it. Before I had a chance to inspect the armor, I was accosted by Johr. “Hey Marshal. I know what you’re doing is incredibly dangerous, and I just wanted to thank you. If you weren’t willing to do it, I might still be in that cell. No matter what happened down there, you’re a better man than I thought you were.”
I shook his hand, a strong firm grip considering how much damage I’d done to his hand not even thirty hours ago. “Don’t worry about it, Johr. Trust me, I’ve been where you are. You can change, make a good life for yourself and your sister. Just be careful, and don’t do anything stupid.”
I won’t Marshal, I promise. I’m not going to do that to my sister. Not today, not ever.”
We both went to the prep room, where a full suit of the latest reactive armor was waiting for me, as well as a few weapons for me to choose from. I stuck with my old pistol, as always; a trusty .38 revolver that was totally impractical and brilliant. I always preferred the revolver style over the magazine fed, even though it was a pain to load after the first eight rounds. Still, it packed a punch and never failed to do it’s job, and that’s what I needed. The armor was a different story; bleeding edge tech in personal shielding and reactive armor; when hit by a bullet, the suit spread the impact force over a greater area, preventing the bullet from penetrating or breaking bones. In case of explosives or incendiary weapons the suit has a force field generator around the collar, creating a personal shield that prevents damage from explosive shockwaves and heat. Johr looked at the weapons, and after choosing a compact sidearm handed it to me to hold on to for him until we reached the slums. He was also given a basic injection of what’s referred to as natives, nanobots designed to operate withing a system without any implants or previous nanobots like most people have. I got a battery of them when I joined the military; they’re designed to prevent the body from attacking the nanites and create a baseline for further injections of more complicated and expensive nanites. Within an hour Johr was more healthy than he’d been in his entire life; the natives stabilized his basic vital functions and provided support to his immune system by copying his own white blood cells. As they assimilate into the bloodstream, they’d eventually replace his white blood cells completely, preventing his body from ever fighting back against the tech he’d be given. It was not possible to provide people in the slums with nanotech like that, since they were designed with an expiration date to prevent the code from adapting incorrectly and causing damage, and they couldn’t afford to provide boosters to every man, woman and child in the slums. Well, they could; it was just that no one cared to. So the slums still relied on chemical meds instead of nanites.
I was worried that Amy would wake up early and come down looking for me, something that with her was always a possibility. I learned quickly to never underestimate her ability to create little bits of chaos wherever she wanted, and now she’d be angry as hell. Instead, the minutes leading up to the mission’s start were quiet, and we were allowed some semblance of peace to get ready. With only five minutes until we were supposed to be at the city’s edge, we hopped in a taxi and took off.
We reached the outskirts of the slums, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. Even after all my time in the city, I never forgot it; it smelled the same everywhere you went. Death, decay, blood and vomit, the bouquet of the slums. I tried to ignore the flood of memories, but the tedium of walking for an hour quickly allowed my mind to wander. I remembered the first time I met Maria; we were both in the market buying whatever food we could afford for our families, shopping amongst stalls of pork, rat, and dog meat intertwined with a few stalls of fresh produce, an expensive luxury item in the slums that usually came from someone’s hydroponic garden. We bumped into each other while looking at the butchers’ wares, both eying a chunk of pork shoulder that would feed us and our siblings for a few days. But it was expensive, and neither of us had much, even compared to the rest of the slums. So instead we agreed that we’d buy it, and share the meal with each others’ families. For the next few days our families ate like kings; me and my brother; she and her niece. Eventually the pork ran out, and we had to go shopping again. We eventually decided that the most economical thing to do was to simply share all our food; much of it would go bad if we bought in larger portions, but the smaller portions were relatively expensive considering the food you received. After a year of this, Maria and I moved in together and got married; a small ceremony, with just a few friends. Still, it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen; the kids walked all the way out of the slums to pick wildflowers for hours, providing the two of us with an amazing wedding. We were together for a year when the militia came knocking, and I just couldn’t say no. Still, it was the biggest mistake of my life.
“Darrow, you back there?” I heard over the comm. It was Johr, wondering where I was. I could see him a few meters ahead of me, but he didn’t dare look back. So he used the subvocal comm, a device designed to listen for even the smallest vibrations in the jaw to translate into sound. “Yeah, I’m still here. Don’t worry. We’re almost there.”
I could see both of us, not only in line of sight but also on my tracking software linked into my optic nerve. It showed me where he was in relation to my position, I could also see his vitals as his heart rate kept spiking. His natives helped to keep him from losing his cool, but it wasn’t working all that well. His blood pressure was all over the place, too. I had to keep him calm. “Hey, Johr. Don’t worry, it’s all good back here. We just blend in so damn well, no one can tell us apart from this place. Except my ridiculous coat, I guess. That probably looks strange, but nothing too out of place. So, you weren’t born on the same planet as your sister, that much is obvious. How did you two end up here?”
I saw him shake his head, probably annoyed that I was trying to dig into his past but glad he had something to talk about. “Our parents moved here when she was three, and her bones were already to fragile to handle the environment. They tried paying for treatments, like the ones she’s getting now, but they couldn’t afford to do it for long. So her bones just got fragile again, and she was put into a wheelchair. I was born and raised here, so my bones developed strong and quickly. She grew up weak, and I grew up strong. So I became the big brother, no matter how much older she was. I was only two when my parents died, and we came to New York to live with my uncle, which turned bad quickly. Colleen couldn’t do anything, and my uncle couldn’t afford treatments, so we just fell by the wayside. Eventually we moved out when I found out my uncle was planning on selling me to a slave trader off-planet, and we had to come to the slums. It was terrible at first, but we made do. My sister taught in a school where she didn’t have to stand up and I did day labor, the kind of stuff usually done by machines in the city.”
I felt bad, knowing how unpleasant the memories must have been, but it kept his vitals stable and he probably knew it. We arrived at the area that was supposedly owned by the Sons of Kalia, and I went into defensive mode. Instead of a bunch of people just trying to get by, this area was populated with people who didn’t care so much about escaping that life, but more about hiding in it. Criminals, terrorists, and slave traders loved operating here because the Coalition didn’t do much about it as long as they didn’t venture into the city. I saw at least one man dealing drugs and another dealing in women, including a few women who either didn’t know what was happening or had simply resigned themselves to it. Prostitution was legal nearly everywhere, but in the slums it was common. Most of the women had strict regimens of drugs to keep them healthy and disease free, meaning that men who wanted casual sex but didn’t want to risk sickness could go to them instead. Up ahead at the end of the street sat a squat building, a warehouse maybe two stories tall with a flat roof and more broken panes of glass than normal ones. Outside stood at least half a dozen thugs, men with a will to hurt people and the tools to do it well. They were all armed, one with a hollow, alloy baseball bat and another with a pistol, and many more with improvised weapons ranging from steel pipes to wooden bats with a spike sticking out. The tattoo on one man’s face indicated he was part of a gang, and had killed at least half a dozen people. The rest all had a red tattoo on their arms, a filled circle with an upraised fist and a sword. The same marking as the flag Kalia flew during his fight for independence. Clearly we had found the right place. I let Johr get a little farther ahead of me, but stayed within range of my pistol in case they didn’t like his excuse. After he talked to them for a minute, one of them disappeared inside and came back out with a man, much taller, more presentable, and meaner than the rest of them. Johr gave me the signal that meant he found the right guy; he reached back and rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand, and then clearly made up some excuse because he was soon walking away quickly. I saw one of the thugs pull up his steel pipe, then suddenly there was a loud bang and Johr hit the ground. I ran up as fast as I could, calling for covering fire from the military officers, when I saw Johr lying on the ground. He wasn’t moving, but his vitals indicated he was alive, if only barely. Before I could get to him, the thug who had shot him whipped around and trained his gun on me, firing two shots in quick succession. I let the armor take the shots and pulled my own gun when the man’s chest exploded. Viscera hit the wall of the warehouse at the same time as the bullet, which embedded itself in the steel of the door and made a loud report. I turned to see the two thugs with the bats charge me at the same time. I got my gun up just in time to put a bullet through the chest of the man with the spiked bat, but the second thug got to me and knocked the gun out of my hand. I rolled backward, using the heel of my boots to dig into the ground and steady myself. He started running at me again, so I pulled the knife and fell into a defensive posture, not willing to give him a clean target. My armor would help with the impact, but all it could do is prevent a broken bone. It would still hurt like hell if he got a good shot it. Luckily for me, he jerked back as I heard another bullet hit his shoulder and stop him in his tracks, then another one went straight into his heart. I ran past his body toward Johr when I saw the thug with the steel pipe hit the ground, blood leaking from his head. Johr’s vital signs were still weak, but stabilizing with the help of the natives. I had an emergency nanite injection with me, a dose designed to help his body repair the blood vessels and arteries hit then break down after a few hours. He was losing so much blood, I didn’t know if it would work, but I stabbed him with the needle straight into the shoulder that was hit. If he was conscious he would have been screaming as the nanites worked fast to repair the damage, not being careful to avoid pain receptors and nerves. I dragged his limp body back toward one of the empty businesses, what used to belong to a drug runner as far as I could tell. I told one of the support gunners to come down and get him to take him back to the extraction point, but an eerily smooth voice came on the radio. “Negative. You are to remain at your post to prevent the target’s escape. Do not move.”
I recognized the sound of Agent Ahlgren’s voice, and it set my blood to boiling immediately. “Ahlgren, you prick! Johr is going to die if we don’t get him out of here, and he’s not getting out on his own. He’s lost consciousness and is losing a lot of blood. Drop the extraction team on the roof of the warehouse, if you have to.”
“Negative, Marshal. We are not going to jeopardize the mission for a criminal. Get in there and find your target.”
“DAMMIT AHLGREN! Stop being a goddamn robot for once and get me some help!”
Instead of Ahlgren, I heard the Chief’s voice on the radio. “Sorry, son, but we can’t do it. You’ve got to get in there and find your target, and hope Johr pulls through. Just... think about the mission.”
I knew they were right, from their point of view; I needed to get in and get Carlson; something made significantly more difficult by my complete loss of any element of surprise. I dragged Johr into a corner of the building, out of sight of everyone outside, then tried to seal up the building before getting on comm with my support. “Listen, I know you have your mission; do it, but please keep an eye on this structure. Make sure no one comes in.”
As a reply I saw a man around the corner drop as he tried to climb in the window. I looked up to where the shooter was, mouthed “thank you” and moved back toward the warehouse. There was no way I’d be able to breach alone, not the traditional way. They’d be watching that door and shooting everything and anything on the other side if they so much as thought there was someone there. So instead I circled the building, looking for another entrance, a window I could get to, something. Nothing. It was the front door or nothing, apparently. So I grabbed the stun grenade the military had provided, and threw it in through the window above the door. A few seconds later a loud pop and bright flash told me that it had worked. I tried kicking the door, but it was bolted solid on the other side. So I stepped back and signaled to the shooters, who hit the hinges perfectly. This time the door swung open, the wrong way, and I rushed in, gun drawn. The warehouse was open inside, with the top floor being a balcony that wrapped all the way around the structure and a few offices at the opposite end. I pulled up my pistol when I saw my first target, a thug trying to use a crate as concealment. Two shots through the flimsy steel crate rewarded me with a short scream and a thud as his body hit the floor. Immediately after I felt half a dozen bullets strike the armor in various places, feeling not unlike running into a wall. I ducked behind a large stack of crates and waited for a second before swinging around the other side, putting two more bullets into the chest of a second gunman. I saw a third and a fourth, standing on the balcony to both sides, and realized the were signaling a third man on the balcony directly above my head. I checked the distance and fired one shot at the man to my left, missing him but hitting the railing and causing a ricochet to ping off the steel floor of the balcony. I thought about the bullet outside had nearly passed through the wall, so I told the shooter directly outside to look for a target above me. They were using railguns, powerful, accurate, and able to punch through just about anything with enough power directed into the magnetic rails. Coupled with scopes that could pinpoint a target based on heat, sound, and displacement, they were accurate enough to kill someone from miles away. A second later a loud thud and a scream told me that the shooter had hit his mark, and the two men on the railing were visibly shaken. Good. I yelled out “Lay down your guns and surrender, and you won’t be killed!” The only reply I got, though, was a raspy “Screw you!” Fine. I turned back around the corner of the crates to find the men on the balcony, but they had moved. Suddenly I realized that there were stairs in the back wall. Two more guards shot at me from behind the crates directly ahead, and I felt one of the bullets hit my arm. The armor went down to just above my elbow, in order to allow for maximum mobility; below that, I just had reactive ballistic plates wrapped around my arm, useless against anything but a pistol or short barreled rifle. I felt the warmth as the blood leaked out of my arm, slowly pouring down the ballistic plates. The painkillers had already detected the injury and shut down the pain while the nanites took to repairing the damage. Still, it wouldn’t feel good after a few minutes. I shot the man who had hit me, and just as I tried to locate the second man on the ground floor I felt a bullet hit my chest. It must have been a big bullet, or fired from a powerful rifle, because I heard my ribs snap and fell back on the ground, clutching my chest. I sat up on one leg, using my other leg as support for a good firing position. I tried squeezing off two more shots at the gunman, but heard a click on the second pull. His shoulder snapped back, but he was still on his feet. He put another round from his large rifle into the forcefield around my head, and I felt it waver for a second as he reloaded. Decided it was best he didn’t get off another shot, I stood, ran toward where I had shot the first gunman, and grabbed his rifle. It was an old design, but functional, so I pulled it up to my shoulder and winced as I felt the nanites trying to repair my ribs. One more shot from that thing and I might have a punctured lung. I put two rounds into his chest and a third at his head, but none seemed to hit him. I noticed the vest at the last second, and shot him in the calf. He went down screaming, so I walked up and ripped the gun out of his hands and stuck my knife in between the joints on the vest he wore. It took a second, but I felt the knife cut through the ballistic fabric and into his arm, when blood started pouring out of the hole. I stood back up, looking around for another gunman, but saw nothing but bodies. The one who had been hit by the sniper didn’t have a head, and there was another body on the balcony not far from him. I looked toward the offices on the second floor, figuring Carlson would be in there. “This is Darrow; the guards are dead, and I think I see where the target is hiding. I’ll be coming out in a minute; please make sure there are no surprises when I get there.”
I walked up the stairs, slowly, as every step felt like being punched in the chest. The pain in my arm started coming back and I nearly dropped my rifle. Once I reached the office, I saw someone moving around inside. I pulled the rifle back up, wincing as it rested against my shoulder, and opened the door. I caught two bullets in the chest almost immediately, causing pain to radiate throughout my body. Luckily it appeared as though Carlson wasn’t well armed; he had a small pistol designed to hold only two rounds, and he had fired both. “Carlson, you’re coming with me.” I was trying not to show how much pain I was in, but every word stung as my lungs pushed against their cage.
Instead of moving, Carlson just sat back in his chair, put his feet up on his old wood desk, and laughed. “I don’t think so, Marshal. Why would I do that? This is so comfortable as it is! Anyway, my men are coming here to kill you. You’re going to be dead in a few minutes, sooner if you try to get me out of here. I’m not going anywhere.”
I didn’t have time for his stories. He was right; his men would be coming back from wherever they were to kill me, and the shooters outside could only do so much. I called back into the station for support, but I got the same answer. “We won’t commit the resources until you have him in custody or he’s told you what he knows! Otherwise, we can’t do a thing. They have orders.”
I sat down on the desk next to him, and pulled the rifle strap over my head and dropped it on the ground. “You’re right, Carlson. I can’t bring you back alive. Just won’t work. So, I’m going to play my favorite game instead: cause you pain until you tell me what I want to know. Simple rules, really. I keep hurting you, or you tell me what I want to know. Only when I’m satisfied with your answer will I let you die. So,
tell me Steven: who sold you the bombs?”
Carlson laughed, then spat in my face. “I’m not telling you anything, and you’re still going to die.”
I grabbed the knife from my coat and put it through his hand, pinning it onto the table. Instead of screaming, or yelling at me, he simply laughed again. “You think I can feel that? I have the same nanites you do, so I don’t feel pain! Simple, huh? Torture isn’t very effective that way, you know.”
Just what I wanted to hear. I called up my PDA, and told it to take control of his nanites. They’d be encrypted, like all nanites are, but they’d respond. Within a few seconds I had access to the nanites, millions of them floating through his body. What I did next no one even knew was possible; testing the theory was considered unfathomable; I told his nanites to access the part of the brain responsible for memory. It would probably kill him, but I didn’t care. Suddenly, the pain in his had came rushing back and he started cursing at me, calling me horrible things. As the nanites started firing synapses manually and searching for certain memories, he twitched uncontrollably. Not a minute into the procedure he was having violent convulsions as the nanites forcefully tore his mind apart looking for what I told them to look for. Eventually I saw what I was looking for; a specific group of neural patterns associated with speech and memory. I left, running out the front door while uploading the data I found, only to pull up at the building where I had left Johr, and called for immediate extraction. The shooters covered our exit as I tried to throw him over my shoulder, to no avail. The Fremont Tower was a kilometer away, too far for me to run in my condition, not to mention carrying Johr. His vitals were low, but stabilized. I didn’t know how much blood he’d lost at the time, but I knew it was bad. Suddenly I had a hand on my shoulder, and one of the soldiers was telling me to give him Johr, so I did. I nearly collapsed, but I made it out of the warehouse alive. And Carlson was technically a vegetable. I hoped to never have to do that again, to anyone. I can’t imagine how much pain it caused. I was just glad I got out of there with Johr alive. We made it to the Fremont without too much trouble; a small gang decided we looked like easy prey and they all died because of it. The soldiers, I noticed, were struggling with the smell and the people around them. As Special Forces, they grew up in nice homes, had the best biotech money could buy, and were raised to be fighters. They never saw this kind of thing. They were shielded from it by their upbringing. Only the lead marksman showed any sign of being comfortable, and even he was having a hard time.
I convinced the military drop ship to take us straight to a hospital, where Johr received emergency treatment. They had to put him in an induced coma; his brain didn’t get enough oxygen, so there was a bit of damage that the natives weren’t designed to repair. I was given my own room to recuperate while the nanites did their job, but I wasn’t looking forward to what would come later. It was a little hard at first, trying to sleep in that situation, but I got over it. I was too worried about Johr, and I needed some serious rest. The clock displayed above the bed said 1600 when I finally went to sleep. That didn’t last long, unfortunately. I was woken up by the sounds of running and people yelling for help, when I saw Johr behind transported by my room into the operating room. He would need hypodermic surgery, something rarely done in an age of nanites and tissues made to order. The clock was reading 1800 when they walked in; the two women in the world I did not want to see. They were both pissed, that much was obvious. And they had every right to be. Johr would be fine, but it would be a long road to recovery for him; longer, even, than for his sister. They said the bullet bounced around inside his body a few times before lodging itself in his spine; he wasn’t likely to walk again until the nano-therapy could take effect and he could be given a full treatment with nanites; by then it might be too late for the body to be repaired. Amy started in on me immediately, her voice loud and abrasive, but filled with concern more than real anger. “Damn, Ryan. You really messed yourself up. What the hell happened out there?”
I tried to find the words that I knew they both needed to hear, but I was too damn tired of walking on eggshells. “I screwed up; I screwed up big. Johr was making contact with a security guy; one of the guards for Carlson. He obviously didn’t like what Johr had to say. He put a bullet in his shoulder that eventually lodged itself in his spine. I stabilized him as well as I could, but the agents in charge denied my request for emergency evac for him; they obviously didn’t care and didn’t want to blow the mission. So I got stuck going in and finding Carlson. I was hit with a few dozen bullets, mostly absorbed by the armor. I still have half a dozen broken ribs, though. Doctor said Johr will be fine, but he’ll need extensive nano-therapy to get back to working condition. Until then, he’ll still go into protective custody to keep away from these guys. Ideally, they think he’s dead. But in my experience they prefer seeing a body.”
Colleen wasn’t about to let me off the hook. Where Amy was worried and frustrated with me, Colleen wanted to tear my head off. And I wanted to let her. I failed, and her brother was nearly killed. Now he’s a paraplegic and won’t be able to walk for a year. And it’s my fault. “Colleen; I’m sorry. I messed up, and I let you and your brother down. I can never give you guys back this time, but at least know that what your brother did was incredibly brave, and that he’ll be able to live with a clearer conscience for it. He did some terrible things, but he’s your brother, and he’s going to need you to be the strong one now. You have to help him like he helped you for so many years.”
Colleen was on the verge of tears, whether from anger or sadness, I couldn’t tell. Women were a mystery when the world began, and they still are today. “Marshal, I want to kill you for what you did. What you allowed to happen. But the truth is you’re not at fault; you didn’t do anything wrong. You let him help when he wanted to, and for that I’m grateful. But I’m not ready to forgive you. You just have to live with that. I will, someday, but more importantly you need to forgive yourself. You did the best you could with a terrible situation. And you kept him alive. Please take care of yourself.” And with that, she left. I knew that somehow we’d see each other again, but I couldn’t imagine it would happen for a long time.
“So, you get the information from Carlson? Obviously you didn’t bring him out alive.”
I hung my head. I did what I had to, and I didn’t cause him more pain than I had to, but still what I did was unethical as hell. I created an image of his brain at death, including memories and thoughts he was having. God knows what would be in there. Fear? Hate? I didn’t doubt whatever was there wouldn’t be pretty. Thankfully I didn’t have to be the one that sifted through all that data. They had supercomputers that could do it, in theory. But the human brain is a lot to sift through. I was just glad to be done with that part of the job. “I did what I had to. I didn’t torture him, if that’s what you want to know. But his death was a hell of a long way from painless. I had to get out of there, so I did the only thing I could think of. The only way to get the information out of him in a minute...”
Amy leaned away and pulled her hand from mine. “You didn’t... That’s not even guaranteed to work, and besides it’s cruel. It was banned by the Geneva Convention in 2235...”
“I did. And it worked, as far as I can tell. The information is being sifted through by a computer that’ll be able to pull his memories. Probably not as simple as an audio or video file, but enough that the computer will be able to compare the imprint with the identities of all the criminals in the database as well as locations on file. It’ll be able to narrow down who and where he is. Anyway, the only other option was quick, severe torture. The really messy stuff that no one wants to admit happens but does. He died fairly slowly, but he didn’t feel it. I made sure of that. So tell me, can you forgive me for what I did? ’Cause I’m not sure I can. I can justify it until the day I die and I’ll never feel right about it. But, I did what I had to do. Not the first time, and knowing my luck not the last.”
Amy sat there, watching me carefully as if I were a puzzle to be solved. Maybe I was, for her. We cared enough about each other, that much was obvious to anyone. But how far could it go? How far could she go with me? Because I sure as hell didn’t want to take her to those places. Those darker places in the universe, where the noblest and best men could be corrupted in minutes. I’d been a few of those places one too many times. I’m not sure that dirt ever washes off. Still, Amy deserved to at least learn for herself if she wanted. She was strong, stronger than me sometimes. That’s what scared me the most... “I can forgive you, Ryan. What you did was because you had to, and because I know you’re not just some crazy wild man without a plan. You believe in the ideals of justice and the law more strongly than most religious types believe in their god. It’s taken you down some dark paths, I know. But there’s no reason for you to be beating yourself up. Especially not now, when we’re so close to the end.”
I laid back on the bed, and thought about what the future might look like. I didn’t relish retirement; not completely. I still wanted to do the right thing, to do good in the face of so much evil. But I knew when to quit. I would live forever, and if everyone else thought the Marshals were obsolete, then maybe they were. “Amy, I want to quit, but I’m not sure I can. I’ve been doing this job for a while, and it’s stuck with me. What’ll happen when they finally shut me down? I don’t know what I’ll do with myself. I’m not the ‘relax at the beach and drink beer til I die’ type. Anyway, I prefer bourbon. What about you? You planning on being a reporter for the next sixty years? You’ll get yourself killed without my help.”
Amy just smiled. I wished then I could figure her out as easily as she seemed to have me pegged. “You could be my assistant/bodyguard. God knows I’m always getting in trouble...”
I laughed at the thought. Me, work with a reporter? “Sorry, but I don’t have that kind of energy. I’d be dead in a week from sheer exhaustion, listening to you running your mouth at dangerous people and having to make sure they don’t poke you full of holes. I’d go crazy.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather have you where I can see you than running around making the universe a better place with bullets and knives. You need rest, Ryan. And not a night in a cheap hotel, either. You need real, honest-to-god rest. And you’re not going to get it running around the galaxy tracking down every scumbag and killer you can find. So just stop. When this job is over, stop. Let yourself rest.”
I heard what she was saying, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. The truth is, I used my work to stay one step ahead of my past and the things I’d done. The part of me obsessed with the law and justice hated the part of me that wanted to get things done the way I used to do it. I wanted to do the right thing, but I also wanted to do it quick and messy. Amy saw it; I knew that much. It’s what has kept her from letting herself get too attached. Even with everything that happened between us, I still felt that she was holding back; keeping me at arms length. And I hardly blamed her for it. “Amy, I can’t make those choices for you, and I don’t want to; but you have to figure out for yourself how far you’re willing to take this. I have to see it through; you don’t.”
“I do, Ryan. I have to see where this leads, so that when it’s over I can go to my father and ask him why. Why he did all this, why he’s hurt and killed so many people, and how the hell he sleeps at night. I deserve that answer, and the only way I’ll get it is by following this course to the bitter end. So don’t try to dissuade me, Ryan. You can’t. You could argue til you’re blue in the face, but I’m coming with you.”
“Ok. But you have to promise me something: if I tell you to go, you have to go. No matter what. I can’t protect you; that’s been made painfully obvious to me. But I’ll be damned if I let you die because of your own stubbornness. Besides, someone’s going to have to survive so they can provide evidence against your father if I can’t. So please, promise me that.”
Amy watched me carefully, looking for some sign that I wasn’t being honest with myself or with her. She obviously wanted nothing more than to find some way to get out of the promise, but found none. “Sure, Ryan. If you tell me to leave, I’ll go. But if you tell me to leave, and you end up surviving, I’ll kill you myself. How’s that?”
Only the pain in my chest kept me from laughing right then. “Works for me. Now, if you don’t mind, I need some rest before we leave for wherever we’re headed. You’d better get some rest, too. I don’t imagine there’ll be much after this, not until we’re done.”
Amy nodded, then leaned back in the reclining chair and feel asleep almost immediately. I envied her that, the ability to just sleep wherever and whenever she needed. I envied her for a lot of things. Soon I’d be done with all this, retired and living on some quiet backwater planet with just enough amenities to keep me from going insane. That would never work for Amy and her insatiable desire to get herself into trouble. I drifted off thinking about the jungles of Threed, and how much I’d hate to go back.