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"Market discipline must be maintained."
Chairperson of the Board Margaret Hopworth-Smith
We rose from the depths of the Urboplex like a plague of sewer rats, drifting upwards on crowded platforms, riding the humanity-packed escalators, or climbing hundreds of stairs to emerge blinking from seldom-used exits.
We were a hard-eyed lot, younger rather than older, and almost universally desperate. For we were the bottom feeders, the lowest-ranking members of a long, hard food chain, willing to do what it took to survive, and well aware of the fact that whatever value we had was related to brawn rather than brains. Something I've been short of ever since a portion of mine were blown out during the Battle of Three Moons.
You remember, the Battle of Three Moons was the key battle in the Labor War fought between the deep-space tool heads and the corpies. I was a Mishimuto Marine back then, and, according to my service record, one tough hombre. Anyway, the loss of that much gray matter makes me a bit slow at times, which is why I eke out a living as a bodyguard instead of doing something more respectable. Not that I have many clients, which accounts for my willingness to do less desirable tasks as well.
I left the low-rise lift tube, walked the short distance to the high-rise tube, and stepped inside. It was packed with the usual mix of droids and day workers. The robots didn't give a shit, but the humans made room for me. Lots of room. More than I needed. It might have been an especially polite crowd, or it might have been the fact that I stand seven feet two inches tall, weigh two-fifty, and have a triangular-shaped skull plate. It extends acrossthe back of my head and points forward towards my nose. That, plus a lot of short, prematurely white hair, makes me stand out in a crowd. The white eyebrows, bright blue eyes, and squared-off chin help too. But all of us tend to stand out, the men and women who live by the gun, and risk their lives for less money than a taco vendor makes in a day.
Not that we are better than taco vendors, because it takes real guts to go home to a crummy little cube, kiss the wife, play with the rug rats for an hour, grab some sleep, get up in the wee hours of the morning, make the tortillas, fry the soy, prepare the lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and salsa the customers expect, haul your stuff two miles through scum-infested corridors, and set up shop. Not just once, but day after grueling day. Now that takes guts. Real guts. More guts than most shooters have.
The doors whispered closed, the platform moved upwards, and the air was thick with at least thirty kinds of fragrance, cologne, perfume, deodorant, and shampoo. I grinned. No matter what sort of scent my fellow passengers wore, it wouldn't cover their lower-level stink. Fear and poverty works its way in through your pores, penetrates your guts, and pollutes your soul. It makes you do what you're told, say what's safe, and kiss corpie ass.
Which could account for the fact that the lifers keep us around. You can program a droid to kiss your butt, but they have to obey, and that takes all the fun out of it. No, there's nothing quite so elevating as to have a real honest-to-god sentient by the short hairs. That's real, that's fun, that's power!
A woman caught my attention. She was on the other side of the platform and looked good in her T-shirt, waist-cut jacket, and matching pants. She might have passed for anything if it hadn't been for the telltale bulge of a cross-draw hip holster and the wary look on her face. Our eyes met and she gave me a slow, deliberate nod. The kind one pro reserves for another. I nodded in return, knowing we understood each other in ways the people around us could never comprehend. We knew what it was like to kill people no worse than ourselves, to sleep with one hand on a gun, and live with our backs against the wall. Yeah, we knew and it didn't make a damned bit of difference. Because knowing doesn't mean jack shit. Life sucks, and that's a fact.
An ad for Duane's Big and Tall Shop was projected into both my ears as the lift tube's computer ran a superficial analysis on my appearance and chose what it deemed to be the most appropriate commercial.
The platform slowed and stopped on Surface Levels 1, 2, and 3 before the woman and I stepped off. We avoided each other but knew we were after the same thing. Money. Five hundred smackers for a single day's work. More moola than I had made during the previous month. It's rare for a real dyed-in-the-wool member of the Big Board to put out a call for one shooter, much less two hundred and fifty, so there would be plenty of takers. Especially since there were no requirements beyond "a reasonable degree of mobility and a valid weapons permit." Or so the ads said.
And, thanks to the preference shown to disabled veterans, I had a permit. Brain damage and all. Scary, isn't it? But that's how it is in a world where poppers pop, snatchers snatch, and bodyguards guard.
The day workers scattered for their temporary jobs while I made my way through a labyrinth of corridors, sky bridges, and hallways before arriving at Droidware HQ. I have trouble with directions sometimes, so I had scouted the path twelve hours before and committed it to memory.
As with most corporations, the lifers had taken good care of themselves. The lobby was a huge affair that featured acres of dark red carpet, tons of gray-white marble, and what must have been a thousand board-feet of real mahogany. A golden "D" graced the back wall and shimmered with internal light. The woman at the front desk was real. Real pretty and well aware of it. She stared at the top of my head as she handed me the baton. "To your left."
The baton tugged towards the left and I obeyed. The woman I had seen in the lift tube had arrived ahead of me and disappeared through a pair of double doors. I followed. Outside of some small vid cams that oozed over the walls and ceilings, the hallway was completely bare. The woman passed between another set of double doors. I followed and stepped out into a good-sized auditorium. A bin had been provided for the batons, so I added mine to the rest.
The auditorium was equipped with rows of starkly utilitarian chairs and a small stage. The floor consisted of polished concrete and slanted down towards an industrial-size drain. Not the sort of place to entertain share owners, but just right for an assemblage of greasy, grimy, lower-level scum like ourselves.
Fifty or sixty shooters had already arrived and managed to look studiously bored. I knew a few of them and nodded politely. No one asked me to sit next to them, nor would I have accepted if they had. It's better that way, in case you end up on opposite sides of a fight, and a whole lot safer. Friends can betray you. Strangers can't.
I chose a seat towards the back, found that my legs wouldn't fit, and stuck them out into the aisle. A hard case with a fist-flattened nose nearly tripped on them, opened his mouth to say something, and caught his reflection in my skull plate. I smiled and he moved on.
Shooters of every possible size and description continued to arrive until the place was more than two-thirds full. It was then that the lights dimmed, the forward wall shimmered, and some broadcast-quality 3-D video appeared. The piece ran ten minutes or so, and did a bang-up job of describing Droidware Inc., the high-quality robots that walked, crawled, rolled, hopped, skipped and jumped out of its highly automated factories, and the almost godlike crew of full-time employees who ran the company. All thirty-six of them. The last of these, a grotesque apparition who had what appeared to be a hundred-year-old head on a twenty-five-year-old female body, bid us welcome and introduced a man who appeared as if by magic at the center of the stage.
I say "a man," although he didn't look much like a man, since vat-grown analogues and complicated electromechanical systems had replaced most of his original organs. Just one of the many fringe benefits associated with life-long employment. Machinery whirred as the lifer surveyed the crowd. His voice was distinctly artificial.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Droidware Inc. My name is Jaspers, Ralph Jaspers, and I'm in charge of Competitive Management at the big 'D.'"
Jaspers paused as if to give our pea-sized brains time to absorb this vital piece of information and continued. It appeared as if a well-intentioned PR type had instructed the lifer to gesture with his hands, and he waved them in every possible direction. "You were invited here because we need your help to deal with a competitive threat."
I felt my gut tighten. A competitive threat? Was Droidware Inc. about to declare war on one of its rivals? The big board had been pretty successful at limiting open conflict between the companies, but it happened once in a while, which accounted for some rather large standing armies. Armies I no longer cared to be part of. If I had learned anything in the Mishimuto Marines, it was that war sucks.
It seemed that Jaspers could read minds, at least simple ones like mine, and extended a synthiflesh-lined palm. "No, this is not the beginning of a corporate war. The competitive threat I referred to stems not from one of the many fine corporations that offer products similar to ours, but from the nasty criminal element that preys upon our droids."
The audience shifted uneasily, since many of them were part of the "nasty criminal element" that Jaspers referred to, and wondered where this was headed. I thought I understood, although my brain is notoriously unreliable, and prone to the occasional error. Still, I knew that Droidware Inc. manufactured some of the best robots on the market: a fact that attracted thieves and discouraged potential customers. After all, why buy a Droidware model if others were almost as good, and a lot less likely to be stolen?
It was a common sight in the lower levels to see a team of scrappers blindside a droid, drag it into a passageway, and strip it for parts. Parts that quickly made their way into the illegal black-market robotics shops, where they were used as components for low-end bots that eroded Droidware's market share. Yeah, some companies had armed their robots, but scrappers still found ways to steal them, and their weapons too. And nobody cared either, since the droids had put millions of flesh-and-blood people out of work, and were owned by the same companies that refused to employ us.
"So," Jaspers continued, "we decided it was time to do some housecleaning. We spent months preparing for this day. Our agents have identified the most successful scrappers, know where they live, and how they operate. We have grid coordinates for the illegal factories that purchase black-market parts, profiles on how they operate, and detailed information about their security systems. Your job is to take that information and put it to good use. Similar efforts are underway around the world. Questions?"
The most obvious question was "Why should we help you make robots that take jobs away from human beings?" But the answer was obvious. Robots were more efficient than people were, amortized themselves in two years, and never asked for a day off.
The second most obvious question was "Why not order the Zeebs to do it?" Especially since they were indirectly controlled by the corporations, but the audience knew the answer to that one as well. The Zeebs kept order on the streets but lacked the training and incentive to do anything more. Sure, the corpies liked to complain, but since anything that resembled real law enforcement might get in the way of profits, they left things as they were. We were silent. Jasper liked it that way and nodded his approval. "Good ... let's get down to business. Plans have been laid and are ready to be executed. Before we move to that step, however, there are some minor housekeeping matters to deal with. Corporate security informs me that twenty-seven members of the audience lack the weapons permits necessary for this kind of operation and will not be allowed to participate."
I don't think anyone was surprised to learn that Jaspers was in radio contact with his goons. I remembered the baton and the vid cams. The corpies had taken our mug shots, fingerprints, and lord knows what else. More than the minimum amount of information necessary to run us through the so-called "Citizen's Registry," and come up with twenty-seven unlicensed shooters. Shooters who had lost their permits or never had one to begin with.
Doors popped open around the perimeter of the room, and uniformed soldiers stepped in. They wore the burgundy-and-gray uniforms of the Droidware Dragoons and held riot guns cradled in their arms. Their was a universal hiss of indrawn breath followed by the loud whisper of fabric as hands went to weapons. Some people stood while I remained perfectly still.
There are sizeable gaps in my memories, but my dreams are quite vivid. One involves a group of soldiers firing into a crowd. I don't know if the massacre really took place, or if I was there, but I'm afraid that it did and I was. So I had seen what double-ought buck does to a crowd and knew what the industrial-strength drains were for. Jaspers held up his hand.
"Please be calm. There's no reason for alarm. Those individuals who do not have valid permits will be detained for a period of six hours and compensated for their time. Their weapons will be confiscated but they will be released unharmed."
"Why?" a man off to my right demanded suspiciously. "Why detain us?" He stood in a half-crouch, hand on gun, eyeing the Dragoons with open dislike.
"Because those who do have valid permits would like to arrive down-level unannounced," Jaspers replied calmly, "and because you are not authorized to carry a weapon."
The rest of us, those with valid permits, nodded sagely, and said things like, "Right on," "You can say that again," and "Tell 'em how it is, J-man!"
There was little doubt that the non-permitted shooters would sell us out if they had the chance. We looked at the man who had asked the question, and he wilted under the weight of our stares. He and twenty-six other people were led from the room. I wished I was one of them. The concept of getting paid for not working appealed to me. I should be so lucky.
The last of the rejects was no more than out the door when the rest of us were divided into what Jasper called "Sanction Teams" and placed under the command of steely-eyed ex-military types. And, being a steely-eyed ex-military type myself, I approved.
Judging from the way they carried out their briefings, the team leaders had done their homework. There were twelve people on my team, and our leader was a hard-eyed, tight-assed woman named Norris. She was pretty in a pinch-faced "don't mess with me" sort of way, and I liked her style. We had gathered towards the rear of the auditorium, and she was talking about the equipment piled at our feet. She stood at parade rest.
"Forget the hardware you brought with you. According to data provided by the scanners built into the entry hall, you people are armed with everything from double-barreled Derringers to Hicap Machine Pistols. Rather than mess around with such a wide variety of ammo, and take the time to assess the reliability of your hardware, we decided to issue Glock Disposables." Her arm blurred, and an ugly-looking block of metal and plastic appeared in her hand. I recognized it as the weapon in question. She sounded like a drill instructor.
"The Glock .9mm semi-automatic disposable hand gun was designed for police use but will meet our needs rather nicely. You will notice the protruding twenty-five-round magazine here, the over-sized safety here, and the thumb-activated laser sight there. Each weapon is capable of firing up to three magazines prior to deactivating itself." Norris smiled. It appeared and disappeared so fast I couldn't be sure that I'd seen it at all.
"So, if we lose a team member," Norris continued, "and the scrappers grab their weapon, there's a limit to how much damage they can inflict with it."
The guy next to me cleared his throat nervously. He had the soft, pot-bellied look of an off-duty security guard. "What if we need more than three magazines?"
Norris raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Then we are in deep shit. Seventy-five rounds should be more than adequate for this particular mission, but if it isn't, then use your own piece as a backup. Satisfied?"
He wasn't, but the man swallowed and nodded his head anyway. I made a mental note to stay as far away from him as I possibly could. They guy had "casualty" written all over him, and I had no desire to die.
After that we were issued one-size-fits-damned-near-everybody body armor, feather-light headsets, and a call sign. Norris invented them on the spot, and mine was "Lurch." It could have been worse, so I didn't complain.
Then, exactly one hour and fifteen minutes after Jaspers had started his presentation, we were ready to go. And not through the public walkways as I had assumed, but down through the nearly empty lift tubes, stairways, and corridors normally reserved for Zeebs and other officials. It had taken me the better part of an hour to reach the surface from Sub-Level 38 of the Sea-Tac Residential-Industrial Urboplex. It took less than fifteen minutes to make the trip back down. Not to Sub-Level 38, but to Sub-Level 35, which is almost the same thing. A fact which I found to be rather interesting, since it meant the entire transportation system was intentionally rather than accidentally screwed up. I had just started to ask myself why when my call sign surfaced in the middle of the mumbo-jumbo that had passed through my ears but missed my mind. "Is that okay with you, Lurch?"
I had absolutely no idea what Norris was talking about and decided to take a chance. "Umblepop. I mean, yeah, sure."
"Good," Norris said smoothly, "then come up here with me so you'll be handy when the time comes."
I groaned internally, worked my way forward, and joined Norris at the head of the column. "Never volunteer for anything." That's the second or third maxim of every military organization I ever heard of, and I had somehow managed to violate it.
A pair of Zeebs approached. The Zeebs take their name from the skin-tight suits they wear. Suits that are white with diagonal black stripes. They look great on Olympic athletes and terrible on everyone else. Including this pair.
Norris motioned us against the wall. The first cop, a nasty piece of work with meaty thighs, started to say something but bit the words off when Norris flashed some interactive I.D. It recognized the Zeeb, read out some code, and the police continued on their way. I don't know about the others, but I was impressed.
I waited for the order to move out, but Norris stared into space, listened to a voice via her earplugs, and subvocalized a response. She nodded, said something else, and turned to us. "Okay, boys and girls, take five but stay off the air. We're waiting for teams three, eight, and sixteen to reach their launch points."
I leaned against the wall. You had to give the corpies credit.
They might be assholes, but they were competent assholes, and knew how to get things done. Like launching all the teams at once so it would be impossible for one set of scrappers to warn the rest. Yeah, the plan was well conceived. But even the best laid plans have a tendency to come apart when the shooting starts. Norris interrupted my thoughts.
"Okay, people, time to rock and roll ... Now remember, don't fire unless fired at, and watch out for noncombatants."
The truth was that it was damned hard to find any noncombatants below Sub-Level 15 or so, but we understood what she meant, and nodded obediently. I had no desire to grease the pathetic slobs that worked in the scrappers' sweat shops, and the others didn't either.
Still, it didn't hurt to check our weapons and the backup mags slotted into pockets on the front of our chest armor. I didn't like the Glock's teeny-weeny grips, but the laser sight was nice, as was the heavy-duty magazine capacity. I was scared and felt an almost overwhelming need to go to the bathroom.
Norris pushed an access card into the slot by the door and waited for it to slide open. She stepped out and I followed. The corridor was packed with people. They took one look at us and ran, or tried to, since the bodies behind them blocked the way. Someone screamed, neon shimmered, and the usual flow of down-level water splashed out from under our boots as the crowd parted and Norris led us to the right.
I saw a sign. It was shaped like an arrow. Angry red letters jerked down towards a pair of graffiti-covered metal doors. When Norris spoke, her voice sounded a full register higher than it had before. "Those are the doors, Lurch! Break 'em down!"
I suddenly knew what I had unintentionally volunteered for and damned near shit my pants. But there didn't seem to be a whole lot of choice, so I picked up speed, aimed my shoulder at the doors, and hit them as hard as I could. They gave, thank god, a lot more easily than I was ready for, and I fell forward. Somebody stepped on my back in their eagerness to follow Norris wherever she was going, and I gave them a silent blessing. They were welcome to my share of whatever bullets happened to be waiting.
The whole team had splashed past by the time I did a push-up, wiped the water from my chin, and staggered to my feet. I heard a confused babble of voices through my earplugs and stumbled forward, not so much out of loyalty to the team as from a sense of self-preservation. The hallway was long and dark, punctuated here and there by rectangles of light with a lot of deep, dark shadows in between. I knew that any one of them could conceal a gun-toting, fire-breathing, homicidally inclined free-market capitalist. The team represented safety in numbers, and I had a strong desire to be safe.
I glanced into the doorways as I ran by and was treated to the sight of dismal rooms packed with ragged-looking pieceworkers. Most were adults, but a third or more were children, their eyes dull as they clipped one component to the next. Some of the brighter workers had seen the team, the guns, and the body armor and jumped to the correct conclusion. They were on their feet and headed for the nearest exits.
The rest sat where they were, parts clutched in grimy hands, waiting for instructions that would never come. I wanted to tell them it was a bad idea, that it was quitting time, but doubted they would listen. Jobs were hard to come by, even crappy ones, and they weren't about to split without one helluva good reason.
A sledgehammer hit me between the shoulder blades. I heard the boom of a handgun and hit the floor facedown. I'd been doing a lot of that lately, and I hoped it wouldn't ruin my good looks. The combination of inertia and the slime-covered floor carried me down the corridor. I rolled, thumbed the laser sight, and watched the ruby-red dot dance across the ceiling. I forced it down, found the scrapper, and squeezed the trigger.
The Droidware body armor had saved my life. The scrapper wasn't so lucky. Either he wasn't wearing any, or what he had was too thin. The outcome was the same. My slugs picked the man up, threw him backwards, and bounced him off a wall. He was still in the process of falling when Norris blasted my ears. "Hey, Lurch! Where the hell are you, anyway? We could use some help up here."
I felt like telling her to kiss my ass, but old military habits kicked in, and I did what I was told. I lumbered up the hall, aiming my weapon at every shadow I encountered, half expecting to catch one between the eyes. Any hint of radio discipline had disappeared, and my plugs were filled with garbage.
"Watch it ... watch it ... the little one has a gun." "Cover my back, damn it..." "Come to poppa, little robot ... daddy has a present for you." "...Not a god-damned scrapper in sight..." "Whoa, momma! Check those buns!"
It was about then that I caught up with the rear guard, a scrawny little weasel with the rather appropriate call sign of "Snotface." He motioned me forward, and I had just pulled up alongside him when the fecal matter hit the fan.
The scrappers seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. They poured out of the shadows, dropped from overhead accessways, and popped out of doorways like so many jack-in-the-boxes. And every friggin' one of them had a little kid strapped across their chests, leaving their hands free to do other things. Like blow our heads off.
The kids screamed, the scrappers opened fire, and Snotface took one through his open mouth. I sensed more people fall and heard Norris give the only order she could. "Ignore the kids! Shoot the bastards!"
She was right, I knew that, but couldn't bring myself to do it. The rest of the shooters opened fire while I stood there with a gun in my hand, unable to pull the trigger. The children came apart like so many cheap dolls as a hail of bullets hit them and were stopped by the body armor between them and the scrappers.
That's when I saw her. A little girl with straight black hair, doll-fine features, and a thumb in her mouth. She didn't scream, struggle against the straps that held her in place, or do any of the other things you would have expected. She just hung there, watching the destruction, waiting to die.
Something primal worked its way up through my throat and came screaming out my mouth. I felt the slugs hit my body armor as I made my way forward. A smaller man might have stumbled, might have fallen, but my size worked in my favor. The bullets hit and I kept coming.
I saw the scrapper had long greasy locks, bad teeth, and a two-day growth of beard. He grinned, knowing that I couldn't shoot without hitting the girl, tilted his gun up towards my highly reflective head, and started to squeeze the trigger.
I guess I'll never know why the little girl took her thumb out of her mouth and grabbed his hand, but I'm real glad that she did, because it gave me sufficient time to cross the intervening space, grab the bastard's head and spin it halfway around.
The move was all strength and no science, but it worked anyway. Bones crunched, the scrapper's eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped towards the deck. I grabbed and held him long enough to free the girl. She looked into my eyes, smiled approvingly, and pointed towards my skull plate. "Shiny!"
I smiled in return. "Very shiny. Do you like it?"
The little girl nodded, slipped her thumb back into her mouth, and waited for whatever life would bring next. The firefight was over by then. It took the better part of an hour to find the girl's terrified mother and hand her over.
Norris was super-pissed by the time I got back, and threatened me with all sorts of dire consequences, but so what? It wasn't like she was my boss or anything, so I kissed up enough to get paid, double-checked to make sure the right amount of money had been dumped into my account, and headed for home. I was tired, and a shower seemed like the best idea I'd ever had.