Read an Excerpt
The Terminal State
By Somers, Jeff
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Somers, Jeff
All right reserved.
IT ONLY GOT DEADLY WHEN YOU STOPPED
“Evry’ting fallen apart,” Dingane groused, rubbing his dry, cracked hands against his unshaven chin. “T’whole fuckin’ world, yeah?”
I raised the wooden cup from the wobbly table and held it in the air between us, steeling myself. I’d tasted some terrible things in my life, but the moonshine Bixon made out back routinely tasted like it had been filtered through corpses and it felt like it was taking a layer of your throat off as it went down to boot. I was a murderer, Plague survivor, and wanted man, and I still had to steady myself before each shot.
“Quit your fucking bellyaching,” I advised Dingane, “and tell me if you got my stuff.”
He was right—the System was cracking open—but that was no reason to encourage him. After years of plotting against each other, the System Police and the civilian government had been in open civil war for a year, piling up bodies and destroyed cities, burning through yen and bodies, building up these sudden fleets of military-grade hovers and weapons, things that hadn’t existed for decades, since unification had ended war for fucking ever, didn’t you know. The whole world, bound together for a while, one government, one police force, no armies in sight. And now we didn’t have police anymore, just armies, and it didn’t matter who won. You just wanted them to get it over with fast, before they killed everyone.
Dingane paused, nasty, and then thought better of it and smiled. I immediately wished he hadn’t, green teeth and black gums, and I tipped the shot into my mouth to distract myself from his grin. My throat tried to close up in instinctual defense, but I was ready for that and just worked it on down. I breathed through my mouth.
“Ohkay, ohkay,” Dingane said, affecting a jolly expression. “Av’ry is impatient today, uh? Av’ry’s in the revenge bidness, huh? You lis’n to Dingane, m’friend, an’ be happy. Fo’get these two men made you so fuckin’ angry.”
I gave him a frown, a steady unhappy expression. “There’s a reason you’re crawling the fucking earth trading in junk and reclaimed ammunition, and I’m sitting here hiring you. When someone sells me out”—Wa Belling, handing me over to Kev Gatz and the Plague—“lies to me and leaves me for dead”—Michaleen, staring down at me from the hover as it drifted away, leaving me to be bricked in Chengara—“I don’t fucking forget.”
You’re small, a voice whispered in my head. I blinked, ignoring it.
Suddenly he was grinning, happy to oblige. Just like everyone else, if you were polite you got static. If you showed them your fist, they got polite. “You pay’n the bills heeyah, so ohkay,” he said hurriedly. “I got mos’ de stuff you ask. Not easy t’transport heavy shit, t’big shit.” He spread his chalky hands. “No ’overs any mo’, Av’ry. From here t’Florida you can’t get no ’overs. An if you could, the fucking armay be shoot’n your ass down, trust. So I can’t get the big items. And bullets is hard. Ammo. Hard. No one makin’ any’ting anymore. Nowhere. Mexico, sheeit, usesta be, Mexico you get any’ting, now, no. Nothin’ in Mexico ’cept armay and cops, armay and cops, shootin’s at every’ting, bombing t’cities back to fuck.”
It was my fate to listen to Dingane bitch and moan every now and then. I’d pulled his ear a few times to discourage him, but Dingane was one of those leathery fellows who looked a fucking century old and acted like pain didn’t mean shit to him anymore, which maybe it didn’t. Easier to let him talk. I wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t move things along. “Hell, Dingy, can’t you shut up for one fucking minute?”
He gave me the grin again. “Sho’ can, Av’ry, but I thought y’wanted news of your order, huh? You wanted clips, mag’zines, for what’ver caliber I could get. I got some, I got some, but it ain’t cheap or easy. N’one down south makin’ ’em up an’more. I gots to go far afield, you dig? And the Geeks—oh, fuck, the fuckin’ Geeks, Av’ry. Dey band t’gether, you know that? SPS? All these fuckin’ Techies, throwin’ shit down.”
I let Dingane talk. It was good cover. I closed my eyes and pictured the place, Bixon’s uninsulated shack with the long bar made up of crates in the back, the wobbly tables lashed together, the big ugly metal stove in the middle of the room glowing red, pulsing with heat, making the whole place smell like my own armpit, and stinging the eyes with soot and smoke. Better than outside, where snow was howling—the weather was fucked up. You never knew what you were gonna get these days. Rumor was it was all fallout from the war screwing up the climate, but who the fuck knew. I’d never been in this part of the world before. Neither had most of us.
I thought of Old Pick, long dead now. I thought about everything that fat old bastard had known, the data of lifetimes, the oral history of every criminal worth remembering in New York since Unification. And who knew what water he’d carried across the line from pre-Uni times. All of it gone now, like they’d never happened. And there’d never be another Pick, ever. Not these days.
The tables, six of them, arranged randomly in the tight space beyond the bar, more or less around the stove that stood in the middle. Me and Dingane, the Mayor and her cronies playing dominoes, Tiny Timlin and some of the other kids looking puffy and sick on their fourth or fifth dose of Bixon’s poison. Bixon himself, behind the bar, a man who had never washed once since I’d known him, more beard than human at this point. All of them just flotsam, people fleeing the war and dead cities abandoned by one side or another, showing up here. For the most part, if you could lend a hand, you were pretty much welcome.
If you couldn’t lend a hand, or didn’t want to, and stuck around anyway, that’s where I came in.
“And this utter t’ing you ask me to look into, I t’ink I got you something.”
I popped open one eye and put it on him. The black bastard was grinning again, pleased with himself. I shut my eyes again. “Yeah?”
I pictured the place again: one door in the front, a heavy piece of wood on crude but solid hinges, one in the rear of the room that led out to the back where Bixon created his horrible juice. I didn’t know how he made the stuff, and I didn’t want to know; if I went back there and found him milking some terrible giant green worm, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Behind me, the band was chicken pickin’ their way through a complex series of chords that managed to sound pretty good even though they had ten strings between the three of them. They were old guys, fucking ancient, but everyone here did something. If you couldn’t work the fields or make booze or kick the shit out of people when the Mayor told you to, you played a bass line on a single string and made it sound snappy.
And then, bellied to the bar and examining his cup of booze dubiously, the Badge.
Not a badge anymore, but certainly an old System Pig. I didn’t recognize him.
Me either, the voice whispered faintly and was gone. Not a ghost, since Dick Marin was still—well, alive wasn’t the right word for it, but still in existence.
But he had the look.
“Yeah,” Dingane said, leaning forward so I could get a real good whiff of him, a courtesy. “Europe, I ’ear. Amsterdam. Both o’ dem. Solid source, uh?”
I shook my head, opening my eyes again. I didn’t hear from my ghosts much anymore, but they still popped up once in a while, still there, still complete and whole. Amsterdam. Both of them. I figured Michaleen would be in Europe—I wondered if Belling was working with him again. Knowing a city was a good start.
“Why you lookin’ to leave, eh, Av’ry?” Dingane shifted and spat into the sawdust on the floor. “Y’got a good thing here. Roof, food, friends. Should not walk away from dis, I don’ think.”
I looked past Dingane. “I got unfinished business. Debts to settle.”
The cop—ex-cop—turned to survey the place, sizing us up. He was tall and heavy, a gone-to-fat heaviness encased like a sausage inside a heavy leather overcoat, which looked battered and salty, and a dark-blue suit that had seen better days. His shoes were woefully unprepared for the mush outside, with a noticeable hole in one through which I could see his bare toe, pink and squirming. You didn’t need to see his credit dongle—assuming he still carried one like a totem—to know this ex-cop had seen better days.
He still had that gloss, though. That cop arrogance. He’d somehow escaped Marin’s avatar purge, and he’d somehow wriggled away from the civil war to go adventuring, but even without backup or a discretionary budget or fucking shoes he still thought he was going to run the show here. His hair was bright red and thin, a halo around his pink head. His cheeks hung from his face like they were full of ball bearings and sagged with weight, and his eyes were watery and red.
As I watched, the cop picked up his cup without looking at it and delivered it to his wet mouth. Tipping it back without hesitation, he swallowed the shot whole and returned the cup to the bar without comment or visible reaction. My respect for the man went up a half inch. Anyone who could drink Bixon’s poison without wincing or coughing or bursting into flames had something going on.
Glancing to my right I found, as always, Remy staring at me. Remy had lost his gloss; he was starting to look like a normal human being. I didn’t know how old he was or why I always had squirts running after me like I was fucking Santa Claus, but Remy was coming along from the spoiled little brat in his shiny shoes screaming about his daddy. He was firming up, and I even had hope he’d someday stop calling me Mr. Cates. Then we had to work on the staring, but to be honest it came in handy. I nodded my head slightly, and the kid was up off his crate immediately and out into the storm.
The ex-cop’s voice was booming, deep and smooth, the voice of a man used to being obeyed. His eyes, though, roamed the space nervously, and his hands were curled into fists. The music stopped on a dime.
“My name is Major Benjamin Pikar,” he shouted, turning slowly to make sure we all got the benefit of his jiggling jowls. “And I am here to protect you!”
Major. I eyed him up and down and decided he’d given himself a promotion. His coat was captain, if that.
Our mayor, who’d been elected by dint of referring to herself as the Mayor until we couldn’t stand it any-more, behaved herself and kept her eyes off me. Gerry was an amiable old hag who’d been a banker before the Plague. She’d lost her family during that little fun ride and had been in Chicago when the friendly folks of the System of Federated Nations Army had sent in five hundred thousand single-use bomb drones armed with F-90s, field-contained armaments. Wandering south out of the wreckage, she’d found us here in Englewood. She was skinny, with a huge triangle of a nose that bobbed up and down whenever she talked and gray eyes permanently squinted from years peering at holographic data streams. The last time one of these ex-pig entrepreneurs had shown up to save us from the big bad world, Gerry’d leaped up to announce she was the mayor and would speak for the town, and I’d been forced to knock her unconscious.
“I have been assigned by order of Richard Marin, Director of Internal Affairs for the System Security Force, to take administrative charge of this settlement, bring it in line with the laws and customs of the System of Federated Nations, and organize your defense against both the insurgent forces and… criminal aspects seeking to take advantage of you,” Pikar said with a straight face. I wondered, briefly, why Marin never just cut the cord and promoted himself to director of the Whole Fucking World or What Was Left of It After the F-90s.
Can’t, the man’s outdated ghost whispered in my head. Programming limits. They thought by limiting my position they limited me.
Pikar looked around to see how well his shit was floating, and he didn’t look pleased, his red face getting darker, his knuckles white at his sides.
“Perhaps you have heard,” he managed to say calmly, putting his hands on his hips in a practiced motion that pushed his coat back to reveal the twin guns under his arms and the battered badge clipped to his belt, “rumors of SFNA Press Gangs in the region.” He nodded crisply. “I can confirm this.”
I glanced at the two windows, small and cloudy, set into the front wall. Against the snow, I could clearly see dark forms gathered at each, and I put my eyes back on Pikar to make sure he hadn’t noticed. He hadn’t; he was caught up in the pitch. I knew what was coming next. I could have written the script for him.
“There is no reason to fear, however, as I am here now to organize your defense against these dangerous rebels.” He was all business now. He’d given us the scare, showed us the cannons, and now came the offer. He turned to signal Bixon for another drink. Bixon, as wide as he was tall, was all beery muscle without a hint of augments. He just stood there behind his rotting makeshift bar, hands hidden and caressing, I had no doubt, his prize possession: a personally restored 10-09 shredder, original SSF issue and held together, literally, by tightly wound strands of silvery wire. It had seven rounds left, and odds were it was going to explode in his hands if he ever dared fire it, but it still made grown men who knew what it was shit their pants when they saw it.
“I will require the following items in order to fund and organize my office here,” Pikar boomed, tapping his fingers on the bar. “First—”
I’d had enough. “First, shut the fuck up,” I said. I didn’t say it loud. Everyone heard me anyway. This was what I got paid for, if you counted a roof over my head and enough tasteless gruel to keep me alive—not to mention a bottomless tab at Bixon’s—as pay. I hadn’t received any better offers, so I’d stayed on, kicking asses and running shitheads along.
The ex-cop looked at me, and to his credit all his nervous tics were instantly gone, replaced with the careful stillness of someone trained to handle himself. “Excuse me, citizen?”
I stood up, wooden cup in one hand as I slid my other one into the oily pocket of my raincoat. Waving the cup around, I pushed my hand through the slit cut into the pocket and put my palm on the butt of my prized Roon—the best handgun ever made—oiled every night and cleaned every other, gleaming and smooth like there was no such thing as rust, decay, or death. I made for the bar, working hard to keep the pain and stiffness in my leg from showing. “I said shut the fuck up. You’re making this place smell worse than it normally does with that bullshit, and that’s saying something.” I placed my cup on the bar. “Sorry, Bix.”
Bixon nodded, his eyes still locked on Pikar. “No worries, Avery.”
Pikar turned his head slightly toward Bix, but kept his eyes on me. Logging the bartender as a combatant, marking his position, probably noting for the first time the absence of visible hands. He shifted his weight and angled his hand from his belt to tap the badge.
“You don’t want to fuck with police, friend,” he said. “This is official business.”
I nodded, leaning with my back against the bar. The badge had shorted out and didn’t have the cheery gold glow of the holograph anymore. “From what I hear, the System Pigs’ business these days is tripping over themselves retreating from the army. You ain’t the first asshole to wander in here out of the fucking snow with holes in his fucking shoes trying to shake us down. You’re looking for soft touches. Keep walking until you find some.”
That was his one chance, I decided. Fair was fair. Couldn’t blame a man for trying to score. Only for pushing his luck.
He kept his flat little eyes on me and his hands perfectly still. His jowls, though, were quivering, rhythmically, bouncing slightly with every thudding heartbeat that kept his face purple. Then he smiled.
“New York,” he said, jolly now. “The accent. You’re Old Work from the island, right? Spent a few weeks in some Blank Rooms here and there, uh?”
I shrugged. “You don’t know me.” He probably knew of me, my name, but it didn’t matter.
He nodded. “Maybe not. I know your type. Strawman, stuffed with shit. You all think this piece of turd is your hero?” He suddenly asked the room. “You’re betting on the wrong man.”
My own heart pounded and my stomach was complaining about Bixon’s swill. A cold sweat had popped out on my face too, and I wondered if there was any way to turn puking my guts out into an advantage in a gunfight.
“Look out the windows, friend,” I advised. “We’ve called out the militia.”
He squinted at me. I almost felt sorry for him: Every cop in the System had been transformed into an avatar, usually against their will. He hadn’t. That meant he’d been in some backwater post, a fuckup out in the middle of nowhere, or else he’d been running a lot longer than I’d imagined. Desperate. Shot on sight if the army found him, packed into a data brick for leisurely debriefing whenever the immortal Dick Marin felt like it if the cops picked him up—he was screwed. He wanted to look, but he didn’t want to be stupid, didn’t want to look stupid. That was all he had left. The aura of a cop.
Everything falling apart, sure. Dingane had it right. Even the System Pigs were just ghosts these days.
The shadows in the windows looked good. Menacing. Remy and his friends had balls, sure. They didn’t have any guns, but you couldn’t tell that through the windows. It didn’t matter if Pikar looked or not, if he saw men with rifles or kids pissing their short pants—it made him think, it fucked him up, and that was all it was meant to do.
He snorted. “I’m taking control of this settlement,” he said slowly. “I am ordering you to hand over whatever it is you’re fondling in your pocket and take your seat.”
I had everyone trained by this point, and I was pretty sure I could count on them to stay still and not do anything I’d regret. Except Bixon. I struggled to keep my eyes off the barrel-shaped asshole and contented myself with hoping he didn’t move. The whole place was still and quiet, narrowed down to Pikar and me, my aching leg and stiff back. I wondered, for a second, if Pikar was aching too, how old he was, what he’d been through.
And then he moved.
It was good, too. He’d taken the windows seriously and realized that with me and Bix standing across from him we were nailed in crossfire, so he went low, crouching down and yanking his guns out beautifully, both clear and in his hands in a blink as he duckwalked to put his back against the front door, out of the imaginary rifles’ sightlines. Jerking the Roon up and out of my pocket, I put two bullets an inch or so from his left ear and then threw myself up and back onto the bar, giving myself a million tiny splinters as I pushed myself across, dropping behind it like a sack of wet cement.
As I righted myself on the floor, I saw Bix heaving the shredder up with a yell, and before I could stop him he depressed the trigger and the familiar headsplitting whine filled the room, the 10-09 barked and jerked up out of Bixon’s hands, spluttering six rounds into the ceiling before it smacked Bix in the nose hard enough to break it.
I hedgehogged up, poking my head over the bar just long enough to take in the room and then dropping back down, braced for the pop pop pop of a trained shot. There was nothing, no noise at all. I heaved myself back up with a grunt and let the bar support me for a moment, the Roon pointed at Pikar, who was slumped in front of the door, his belly a swamp of blood, one arm still up, holding his gun on me. Everyone else was still sitting, frozen, like this was all just the fucking floor show.
Pikar grinned blood. As I slowly walked the length of the bar to step around, his gun followed me, inch by inch. Just as I cleared the crates, his finger twitched, sending me to the floor with a choking grunt. Instead of the thudding bark of a shot, there was just a dry click. I pushed myself back up to put the Roon on him. The cop was just laughing, still holding the gun on me. As I got to my feet, he pulled the trigger a dozen more times, getting the same dry click each time.
“You shot me with a fucking shredding rifle,” he sputtered, flecks of bloody spit spraying from his mouth and landing on the floor, where the dry wood soaked them up forever. “You fucking rats. I don’t even have any fucking bullets.”
I stood up and kept the shiny Roon on him. My ass burned like someone had stabbed a million tiny pieces of wood into it. “What kind of asshole pulls his piece if he can’t do anything with it?” I hissed. I was angry. I wanted to slap his face for being a fucking asshole. “Were you going to throw it at me?”
“Fuck you.” He sighed, deflating. He was still holding his useless gun on me, even though his arm shook with the effort.
“Avery,” Gerry suddenly said, her voice a scratchy whisper. “Okay, man, the situation’s calmed. We’ll take care of him from here.”
I nodded without looking at her. Pikar was still smiling at me. “You were a cop,” I said. “You know how this works. You pull a gun, you take the consequences.” I’d learned a lot about the human race over the years. I’d learned that the dead didn’t stay dead. I’d learned that no good deed ever went unpunished. And I’d learned that trying to have a code of honor got you a lot of people telling you how much respect they had for you while they were beating your head against the floor.
Ignoring the dull pain in my leg, I took a bead and put a shell in Pikar’s face. Then one more in his chest just to be safe, making him twitch and flop. I turned and stumped back to the bar, slipping my Roon back into place and then putting my shaking hands flat on the bar. The only cure for Bixon’s rotgut was more, and fast. It only got deadly when you stopped.
I DIDN’T HAVE TIME FOR IT. I HAD PEOPLE TO KILL
“What are you smiling at?”
I turned away from the darkness and the wind and focused on the trooper. I still hadn’t gotten used to the dark. There wasn’t a light anywhere, and no moon in the sky, and the whole world was just wind and the creaking, shaking truck bed, just a single uniform so white it seemed to glow with its own energy and fourteen other assholes who hadn’t been fast enough. The truck was ancient, a rust bucket being driven by a Droid on a programmed course. Distantly, I could see other trucks streaming across the desert, just bouncing headlights.
The trooper was a fucking kid, but everyone was a fucking kid these days. His face was dirty, but he sat with the shredder on his knees like a man who wasn’t afraid of fifteen shitkickers who hated him and wished him dead, even if the shredding rifle bucked like a wild hog and took three seconds to warm up from cold metal—a crowd-control weapon only an asshole would use. Three seconds was a long time in my world. Or the world that used to be mine.
I inched the smile up a notch. “In a couple of minutes I’m going to break both your thumbs, and I’m looking forward to it.”
He studied me for a moment, his face blank. Then he smiled, ten years dropping from his face just like that. “Talk to me again and I’ll hook you to the back and drag you to the Recruit Center.”
I laughed, nodding, and looked back at the desert, replaying my favorite memory: me on the ground, watching a hover rise into the air with a sudden jerk, Marlena’s face peering over the edge down at me. Sometimes I saw Michaleen’s face leering down instead of Marlena, cackling. Mocking me.
I turned back to the interior of the truck bed for a moment. No one was looking our way, afraid to be associated with me, except Remy, who was still staring at me like I might pull Nutrition Tabs out of my ears. We were all just biological resources—the army needed manpower. They weren’t too picky about the quality of it—they had augments to make you stronger, faster, sharper—so they just went around scooping up every asshole who couldn’t run fast enough, pushed them into the grinder, and out came shock troops on the other end. It was a beautiful system.
At least the army had resources to tap. The System Pigs, under the reins of Director of Internal Affairs Dick Marin—the King Worm, as he used to be known when he was just the top cop in the System—had converted every cop in the world, practically, into avatars. Droid bodies with digital brains. The avatars were expensive and required rarefied materials, and under the strain of a civil war, they’d lost their last avatar factory and were suffering severe manpower shortages as a result.
The wind was exhiliratingly cold, and I was, against all odds, still alive. Feeling strangely cheerful, I looked back at the trooper. “Fuck you,” I said, still smiling.
He thought about it, but after a moment he smirked and looked away. It would have been good if I’d gotten him up, off-balance, and pissed-off, but the kid had more on the ball than that. So I took a moment and went over my resources. Since I had a whole moment, I did it twice.
Our silicon bracelets had been put on sloppy; I’d been out of mine for half an hour. That was one. I looked around the truck as the wind tore my hair—longer than I’d ever had it before—and considered my fellow presses. It was pretty much the entire population of Englewood who had survived the raid. Gerry, our unelected mayor, sat on the opposite side of the truck, up toward the cab, slumped over with her head down. Bixon, bleeding from his scalp and looking pale, stared straight ahead and moved with gelatinous ease every time the truck hit a bump, vacant. Remy, staring at me. Our eyes met and he blinked once, deliberately, and looked down at his lap and then back at me. I moved my eyes down, and he spread his hands slightly, flashing me his bare wrists. When I looked back at the kid’s face, he was smiling at me. I gave him a little smile back. Fucking Remy. He’d been following me around for months, telling the other kids he was my deputy, a word I’d never heard before. I liked the kid.
So, I had me and a fourteen-year-old kid who’d grown up with a Droid nanny wiping his ass. I looked back at our guard. Soldiers were humans; they weren’t avatars with control chips like the cops, so you could negotiate with them, sometimes. I’d had some success bribing army grunts in the past—escaping from Chengara Penitentiary, I’d paid out millions of yen for a pair of parachutes and the right to jump out of a hover—but I didn’t think my yen was worth enough anymore, and I’d seen the grunt taking his marching orders from his commanding officer right before we’d pushed off. He might not be impressed with me, but he was scared shitless of the tall, skinny colonel with the white hair and perma-tan skin. Both of the colonel’s eyes had glowed softly, the left iris a cold silver and the right a warm orange. He didn’t smile. I had an instant impression that he had never smiled, that he might in fact lack the necessary muscles.
“Cheer up, citizen,” he’d bellowed. “You gonna remember this day as the happiest day of your life, the day you joined the System of Federated Nations Army, an’ rejoiced.”
Thinking of Chengara made me think of Michaleen. The Little Man was unfinished business, and here I was being kidnapped into the System of Federated Nations Army. I didn’t have time for it. I had people to kill. If I’d gotten moving three days ago like I’d intended, I wouldn’t have been scooped up with the rest of Englewood’s ridiculous population.
I looked back at the kid and nodded. We had some pretty reliable sign language; the kid had attached himself to me and followed me everywhere, my fucking valet, and I’d taught him a few things. He nodded back, and I turned to study the guard, still sitting there at the back, shredder across his knees, looking about as fearsome as a daydream. The SFNA soldiers were fast, filled with augments that made them faster and stronger than nature had intended, with a host of extra little abilities like night-vision and such—one-on-one, they probably weren’t a match for the cop avatars they were waging this civil war against, but they still had bad motherfucker as a baseline. Me, I felt pretty good. A few months of eating steadily and taking it easy, with just an occasional head to crack, and I felt better than since before the Plague. My leg still ached and I wasn’t as fast as I’d once been, but I was in decent shape.
I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the trooper on a level playing field, but I didn’t intend to play fair.
There was nothing good about getting pressed, from what I’d heard. Aside from the fact that most of the people being pressed were going to be shock troops without much value to throw against entrenched positions or other suicidal missions, rumor had it that a lot of the officers sold people out of the army if someone wanted you badly enough—or sometimes wholesale, in big groups to anyone who had the cash. I could think of a few folks who might not mind getting their hands on me, and I didn’t want to find out if any of them were still interested.
I signaled the kid, and he nodded again. He let the bracelets drop silently to the floor of the truck, stared at his feet for a few seconds as we bounced along, and then stood up.
“I want to go home!” he shouted, putting some screech into it.
The guard was already on his feet, shredder in his hands—fast. But he didn’t toggle the shredder into life. He held it on Remy as he balanced on the balls of his feet, but he didn’t regard the kid as a threat.
“Sit the fuck down,” he ordered. “You make me say it again and I’ll smack you.”
“I want to go home!” Remy shouted again. I kept my eyes on the guard, watching, and when his jaw locked and his weight shifted, I leaped up and jumped at him, putting my hands on the shredder and smacking it up into his face, breaking his nose easily. I launched myself into him and let gravity take us down, cracking his back over the tailgate and pinning him there with my weight. I smacked the shredder into his face one more time because it felt good, and then I pushed it down onto his throat, hard enough to choke him a little but not hard enough to do any real damage.
“About those thumbs—”
He surged beneath me and I was thrown backward—the kid was strong. I kept my grip on the shredder and tore it from his grasp as I staggered back, crashing into the crowd. They shoved me away like they were afraid I might get some balls on them, so I popped back up in time for the grunt to bury his head in my stomach, knocking my breath and what felt like my kidneys out of me and shoving me back into the crowd. There were a couple of high-pitched screams and hands were on us, pushing us away frantically, all of them too terrified to see twenty seconds into the future, which was us scattering into the desert, free. Most of them had come from comfort, from money, some even from power—old power, power that wasn’t there anymore. None of them truly believed they were fucked. They still thought an angel was going to swoop down and collect them, apologize for the inconvenience, and make it all go away. Including me, who’d been keeping them alive for the past six months.
The grunt put his face in mine, wrapping his arms around me and squeezing with excruciating, surprising force, making my ribs bark and trapping the shredder between us. Blood had spilled out over his mouth and chin, making him look suddenly older, more dangerous.
“Still got the thumbs, old man,” he panted at me. “You gonna break ’em with your mind?”
I liked this guy. I liked the troops better than the cops—the cops were all fucking attitude, dandies in their rich suits, even before they’d all been forcibly turned into avatars, Droids with digital brains. They had more metal in their brains than I liked, sure, but we all had faults. I tended to kill everyone I met, more or less by accident.
Before I could tell him about my growing affection toward him, Remy rose up in the air and attached himself to the back of the soldier, his skinny arms locking around the grunt’s neck. Before I could even blink, he’d leaned in close like a fucking lover and bit the grunt’s ear, a savage, tearing bite.
The guard screamed. It was a high-pitched, boyish scream. He staggered off me, his arms slapping up at Remy, and I smiled, thinking, That’s my boy.
I straightened up and spun the shredder before me, feeling good. I kept my balance as the truck swayed and bounced under me. The gun’s ammo readout glowed red and plump, a full clip. But I didn’t want to turn the guard into a fine red mist, even if Remy got clear; he was just doing his job. Swallowing the ice ball of nausea and pain in my belly, I flipped the rifle around and grasped it by the barrel with both hands. It was top heavy, but I didn’t need it to be a good weapon. I just needed to knock him off the truck, leave him behind in the night.
Remy wasn’t giving up easy. The grunt had both hands on the kid’s head, trying to tear him off, but Remy wasn’t going. I took three steps forward, swinging the shredder back behind me. Just as I got within range, the guard got a grip and tore Remy off of him, throwing the kid down onto the bed, where he skidded along the slick metal floor, crashing softly into the cab.
I swung the rifle, but the guard’s arm flashed up faster than I thought possible and intercepted it, like smacking into an iron bar. He wrenched it violently and I let him have it, diving forward and using his own trick, putting my hands on his throat and pinning the gun between us. This time, I squeezed for all I was worth.
“Sorry, chum,” I panted, winded suddenly. “The army just doesn’t suit me.”
He grinned at me, and I fell in love with the bastard. “Fuck, man, I don’t blame you. If I’d been bought out by Wa Belling, I’d get the fuck off this truck too.”
I froze. “What?”
The grunt nodded. “The CO told me. You set a fuckin’ record on the price. If a fuckin’ Gunner like Belling wanted me, I’d lie, cheat, and steal to get away, too. I heard stories about him—he’s all over our watch lists. Got a standing 909 order—if we press him, we shoot him.”
For a moment, I was outraged. Wa Belling. He’d been a founding member of the Dúnmharú, sure, one of the original hardcases. He’d been a personal fucking failing of mine, though. He’d fucked with me in London on the Squalor case, first pretending to be Canny Orel, the most famous Gunner in history. He’d killed people when I’d ordered him not to. Then he’d pretended to be my ally in New York, killing cops because I thought it made a difference. He’d sold me out during the Plague, though, when a madman had unleashed a trillion nanobots on the world, with me as Patient Zero with Belling’s help.
I hadn’t see him since then. I’d cooled my heels in Chengara getting fucked over by his boss, Canny Orel—aka Michaleen Garda, my bestest pal in prison, who’d lied to me and used me and left me for fucking dead after fucking me over. I’d spent the last six months contemplating revenge against Michaleen, but Belling—Belling would be a fine way to start. Wa Belling had played me for a fool for fucking years. Why not?
“If he’s got a standing kill order,” I said, “how can he do business with you?”
The guard snarled. “The CO deals with anyone who can pay the price,” he spat. “Dick Marin could make him an offer and he’d make the fucking arrangements. Anners is a fucking pig.”
His outrage was touching—a true believer. There were more of them in the System than I’d have imagined. I eased back from the guard. We stared at each other, him frowning suddenly. I held out the shredder.
“Here,” I said. “Let’s call it a wash.”
The soldier stared at me, the bottom of his face a mask of blood. His hands were slack on the shredder for a moment and then firmed up as he straightened up. He studied me for a moment, and then smiled. I almost thought he understood. Or maybe he was just relieved to bring in the full head count he’d been entrusted with.
“Take your fucking seat then,” he said warily, watching me and finally toggling the rifle on. The squeamish hum was torn away by the wind and barely seemed to be there.
Wa Belling. I turned and found my seat again. I had plenty of markers Belling could pay off, and if this truck was bringing me closer to Belling, then fuck it, I was going to ride my way to him and then shove my fist up his ass as far as it would go.
I sat down and the two people on either side of me tried to shrink away. I looked around and saw Remy up by the cab, staring at me. I glanced at him and looked away, flushing.
“Shut up, kid,” I whispered. “I’m working.”
Excerpted from The Terminal State by Somers, Jeff Copyright © 2010 by Somers, Jeff. Excerpted by permission.
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