Futurismic fiction hits the ground running for the new year with “Roots” by Mark Ward.
Super-enhanced transhuman troubleshooters; augmented and virtual realities; griefers and grifters and ex-girlfriends… when Chris East sent this one over from the slush pile, I took a look at the first few paragraphs and was sucked inexorably right through to the end before I knew what hit me. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did – be sure to let us know in the comments box at the bottom!
by Mark Ward
The first Hitler was seen by a jogger chasing the morning light through the remains of San Francisco. He stood in the grassy clearing once known as Ghirardelli Square declaiming to an invisible audience.
The runner hesitated when she saw him, sneakers tapping time on a strip of sidewalk missed by the robot reclamation teams. He looked crazy but she did not know if he was the pervert or harmless kind.
The countdown in the corner of her vision went pink so she pushed off the kerb and out across the springy turf. She relaxed when she saw its shadow pointed toward the sun. It was only a shade. Good work too. The uniform draped well and even the toothbrush moustache looked the right side of ridiculous. She shot some footage then wiggled her fingers to file it to the news channels. Another Hitler popped into view before she dipped under the tree line.
Hitlers were rampant by the time she was leaning on her thighs on Pier 39, sucking in lungfuls of air and fighting the urge to puke.
A thick drift of them, their jerking salutes as choreographed as a chorus line, had formed around the Fountain of Light in Montgomery Park.
On Alameda beach Ingrid Treatment felt the outbreak as a fat tingle behind her ear. She swore, thinking she’d triggered a trap in the malicious code she’d flushed from the fresh idiot who had been the day’s first case.
Case One had been found wandering the shore incoherent and dehydrated by the adware buried in some POV porn he’d gotten who knew where. He was blind, deaf and spouting jingles and money-back-guarantees. Ingrid stood, internal defences cocked, then relaxed when the tingle came again. Trouble elsewhere had tripped the alarm. She blinked the beginnings of a polka to bring up an overlay. The Fountain of Light. The tingle pulsed again. Twice. Yeah, yeah, she muttered. I’m coming.
She crouched in front of the idiot and smiled. His irises were free of error messages and the lights in the gray knot of wetware at his throat had stopped strobing. Then his vanity ‘ware kicked in and flawless skin flooded over wrinkles and freckles. Ingrid borrowed his view. It felt clean, his overlays were intact and his feeds were connecting him back to the augmented reality of America. He had to hope he’d done nothing illegal while the ads were in charge. She left him sipping a glucose smoothie and pondering the warning written across his sky.
She strolled down the beach to the water’s edge. Shimmering waves stretched into the distance. “Where are you?”
“Dolphins,” said the lifter.
“They like to see themselves in my shiny hide.”
“Just get here and pick me up.”
“Sir. Yes, Sir.”
She snagged a snapshot of a rocky outcrop 500 metres away and sent it to the little craft. “Race you,” she said.
The sodden sand at the wave line was a runner’s dream – soft enough to soak up the push of each pace but not so hard it hurt to sprint – even when she let the body mods push past 115. Feet so fast she flew. She whooped like a kid, flashed along the deserted beach round toward the rocks. Offshore the silver lifter carved a path through the waves pulling a rooster tail of spindrift that rattled like ragged applause as it fell back on the sea. The lifter’s front irised wide open.
Then one, two, three huge steps up the rocks, a leap and Ingrid was airborne, falling toward the rising sun, limned in rainbows from the spray gathered by the rising lifter.
Darkness as her eyes adjusted. The crash foam creaked as the lifter kicked round and accelerated toward the Hitlers. Seawater sequins dressed her in a glittering sheen and Ingrid felt washed, clean, ready for whatever the hell came next.
Haxel was co-ordinating the response team. The actual Haxel, the man himself – not a fuzzy duplicate. “Billy the Id is our code monkey on this. He’s chomping through the code to find and kill its replication routine. So far, he says, so far, it looks benign but if we don’t shut it down we’ll be wading in them forever. Call-Me-Gwyneth, Tobi-Wan and Zola-Bear are on crowd control. They’ll be on the ground in 30. Ingrid?”
In the dim interior of the lifter Ingrid boosted the gain on her mike. Her slow heart beat bumped across the channel.
“Ingrid. You’re our trouble shooter. So if there’s any trouble…,”
“I shoot it.”
Ingrid was a PD legend – from day one at the academy. The clip shot in the locker room was famous. Ingrid strode through, broad shoulders deepening the sweep of the swagger every Public Defender brandished, loving herself in her dress blues. She passed Hank the Tank – a cop turning PD to top up his pension – and heard him mutter: “Jeez, I don’t know whether to fuck it or fight it.” She redlined the mods and hit him so quick even on slowmo her fists were smears. She stood over his prone body. “Now,” she said, “you know.”
Billy the Id came on, referencing sub-routines. Ingrid tuned out as she turned to the video windows stacked up in her vision like poker plaques. The Hitlers were on every channel thanks to all the bodcasters who had showed up. It was all Adolf, all the time.
The lifter dipped. Ingrid cued up her combatware, settled the mauss gun in its holster, whipped herself upright, gripped the handles set above the door and put on her poker face.
The door dilated and her vision flared white. She hit the grass at the edge of the Hitlers, bounced up and made for the nearest bodcaster, letting the combatware rip through his defences and kill the uplink. Then she moved on. The groans of blinded bodcasters marked her progress through the silent field of jerking, saluting Hitlers.
One face in the crowd made her stumble. She turned away, rewound two seconds to be sure. She’d never seen the whole face before – just chunks scavenged from the retinal buffers of dead PDs. She’d stitched them together over the years into a nightmarish composite yet here he was, Blo-fi, standing in a field of Hitlers wearing a dumb smile.
It couldn’t be Blo-fi. All the time she’d logged studying his MO pegged this as wrong. Even if he wanted a showdown the Hitlers were too cheap. Too public. But she was going to learn where this fool had bought that face. She’d beat it out of him if need be. She fumbled cropping the head shot. Had to tap out the opening to an Irish jig twice before she could share the image and composite with the other PDs.
“Jesus fuck.” That was Tobi-Wan – the new boy.
Too keyed to stand still, Ingrid circled round behind Blo-fi.
The Hitlers blinked out. All gone.
She loved it when they ran.
In ten footfalls she hit 120. The holster hunkered down and gripped her thigh as the wind hooted through the trigger guard. Blo-fi kept pace. Kicks of dust and soil marked his route. Ingrid watched him use the banks of turf bordering the paths to stretch the corners. Impressed. He’d done this before. Maybe it was him, after all. No ordinary man could sustain such superhuman speed.
Jumping from view to view she kept him in sight.
She’d feel lousy later but now Ingrid felt honed. An instrument, stripped down, doing what she did best. They blasted through the park, ignoring everything they ran past, over or through. Long grass whipped her shins. She felt the first washy weight of lactic acid in her thighs as she realised he was heading for the Tock Tower – San Francisco’s last skyscraper. A last stand or a trap? Whatever, if it got dangerous she would call the police, no problem. She’d catch him. She gritted her teeth and barrelled through the open door.
Borrowed views showed Blo-fi heading for the lifts.
The lifts were circular platforms set on slim arms that radiated out from the tower’s central pillar. The platforms on the longest arms were the slowest and Ingrid jumped on one as it swept toward her and began spiralling up and up. She jumped to quicker-moving platforms set on shorter arms to make a swifter ascent letting the mods prompt each jump. She matched Blo-fi leap for leap as they headed for the fastest platforms near the pillar.
Ingrid clenched her fists, Blo-fi was three metres higher and just in front, two platforms away. She boosted her ears and heard him panting. Frustrated, she flicked her fingers and pinged a status check off the gun. It shook itself in the holster and pressed its stippled grip into the ball of her right thumb.
The slowing lift whiplashed her onto the roof. She rolled upright and saw Blo-fi stumble toward the parapet, she clicked her fingers bebop style.
“I’m close,” the lifter said.
She advanced on Blo-fi, pulse strong enough to make the roof shake, ready to dodge a bullet. It ended here; she had nothing left. Her right leg shook like an aspen.
“Give it up. You’ve got nowhere to go.”
Blo-fi reached inside his jacket.
The police program made her a spectator in her own head. Her view telescoped until it felt as if she were sitting in the last row of her skull. A glowing red crosshair flicked into view; the iron sight of the mauss gun bobbed in the centre then it kicked, one, two, three times. The booming shots came from a long way away.
Blo-fi stepped back. The leaflet in his hand fluttered away to reveal a bloody shirt. Good grouping, she thought. He staggered, looked at the hole in his hand, then fell. Over the parapet and into thin air.
Ingrid shook off the police program, ran toward the roof edge. Called the lifter.
“Already on it.”
“Not so fast that…,”
“Shut up. This is going to be tricky.”
She stood on the parapet edge, boots bracketing a splash of blood, soles slick on the granite lip. The plunge to the park plucked at her like a dare.
She stepped off.
The lifter swooped toward Blo-fi, slowing as it climbed to catch and cradle his injured body.
Windows strobed past like old-fashioned film.
Blo-fi settled on the crash couch. Ingrid hung in the open door of the little craft as it slowed. She hovered over him, ignored the meaty smell of blood, and loosed her combatware, kicked in the doors to his memory and started copying everything before brain death deleted the lot.
“How close are we?” she said. His chest fell, stuttered, then rose again.
“We’ve fallen so far we must…,” The crashfoam sighed.
“Shut up, this is taking all my…”
Proximity alarms blared and Blo-fi twisted at the harsh sound. Blooming airbags lifted him into Ingrid’s arms, anointing them both with clumps of blood.
She thought the bumps were his pulse but it was the lifter settling. He was gone. Blo-fi’s grizzled face faded into the fresh features of a kid in his early 20s. Not a decades-old killer. Just a kid. A kid. The police had shot and killed a kid.
The kid’s name was Buddy Packer – the youngest of the three Packer boys, none of whom worked a damn day in their life thanks to the shrewd syndication deals Granny Packer had made way back when.
Ingrid sat in Bar K, south of the bend in the bar so she could look down its length past all the drinks and drunks, over the safety rail and beyond to the trees that stretched away and away until they bumped into the hills somewhere in the next state.
She sat so still for so long that she became a meeting point. Nudists, their genitals pixellated, air kissed behind her back, prosthetes used their extra limbs to lift drinks past her ears and overhead mankeys chattered in the perches provided in the coffered ceiling of the treetop hang out.
Oblivious she sat, eyes closed, taking a crash course in Buddy, sifting through the memories grabbed before he died and dipping into what everyone knew about him.
The eldest Packer boy managed the family fortune, the middle one was a dentist and Buddy was everyone’s friend.
He had upgraded the standard set of body mods rich folks carried which help him beat his brothers at any and every sport. It was all he had. Public clips showed he had a whip-quick forehand some pros struggled to pick up.
Buddy even had a cause – though he was more hanger-on than dedicated follower for the privacy protest movement. He helped out, like today, acting as point man for the outbreak, channelling traffic.
Behind her eyelids, Ingrid sat in a featureless field of Buddys – each one a link to a memory stream. When she had first sat down at Bar K there had been enough Buddys for a good-sized reading group – now incidences of the lad filled the plane from horizon to horizon.
She sat cross-legged by the bare feet of a birthday Buddy – his 21st judging by the glass of Cristal he held.
Haxel stepped into view around a tennis Buddy. This time she got a low-res dupe of the ragged geek who kept everyone’s realities running. The moiré on his cheeks looked like acne.
She regarded him. “You’re here to tell me I should drop this, hand it over to someone else, someone less obsessed, someone who has a clearer head, someone who is not so implicit.”
“And you are going to say that you are the perfect PD to take this on, that you have been chasing Blo-Fi for years, you know the case back to front and are the last of the PD’s he seems to like killing. You’ll say it feels personal now it’s just you and him.”
“In reply you’ll offer me help from other PDs.”
“Which you’ll refuse.”
“So you’ll shrug your shoulders and ask me what else I need, though you know just what I’m looking for.”
They shared a grim grin.
“We could never fool each other Ingrid, could we?”
“We’ve been doing this too long to be surprised.” She surged to her feet, stepped up and loomed over him. “Have you been dabbling in people’s dreams again? What have you got?”
Haxel held up his hands. “Nothing so sinister. I just happened to be there when Buddy’s close friends found out. And one was thinking this.” He gestured and Ingrid felt a memory sidle inside her head. She swallowed, and wiggled her fingers. There was no sound or vision – just feelings. The echo of a thrill.
“This is from Fi Malgar. The girlfriend. Some small part of her is happy Buddy is dead.”
“What do we know about her?”
Ingrid paced. “Pretty, but not so much that she scares folk. Smart, but not so much that she doesn’t have to listen. Rich, but not so much that she doesn’t have to care a little – even though the family fortune means she doesn’t have to do much about it. I think Buddy is, was, one of the things she was doing about it.”
“And how, Ingrid, are you going to get her to help? After all, you just gunned down her conscience.”
“I didn’t kill him, the police did. I just held the gun. Cavanagh’s Law established that…”
Haxel folded his arms.
“What else do we have?”
“Plenty, we just help her find a way make his death mean something. I know her inside out. Let her think it’s her idea and she’ll come along. She’s halfway there already. She just needs a push. I don’t care how we do it, I just want her memories. Where is she?”
“At a flashmob memorial for Buddy. The lifter knows where.”
Ingrid opened her eyes like she had been switched on, vaulted on to the bar top, sprinted along its length, accelerating all the way leaving a shattered, glittering wake of liquor, ice and glass. She dived over the balcony rail and was crucified against the warm light for a moment before the lifter scooped her up and arrowed for the distant hills – so intent on its purpose that the trees bowed at its passing.
The mourners were gathered on the broad lush lawn that swept down from the Malgar mansion toward the tennis courts, swimming pool and stables. Fi stood at the centre of the crowd.
Ingrid told the lifter to scatter the folk as it landed. She walked across the manicured turf to a chorus of shrieks, curses and flapping black linen. Fi stood her ground.
The lifter took off. A timer in the corner of Ingrid’s vision reached 56.66 before Fi cracked stepping forward to swing an open palm at Ingrid’s face. Careless, Ingrid blocked it and the other when it came.
Fi tried again and again. Ingrid blocked every time – pushing the hands back to Fi’s side until she wept frustrated tears. Fi spat: “Murderer. You’ve got a goddamn nerve showing up here, after what you did. Did to Buddy.”
“I didn’t kill him. I don’t even know how I’m wired up for that police program, it’s…”
“Don’t give me that Cavanagh’s Law bullshit. That’s just an excuse to let you state killers off the hook.”
“Listen,” Ingrid bit off the word and flashed up Buddy’s face for a moment to still Fi. “Buddy was set up. Someone sold him a face that they knew would make us call the police. That’s who killed him. They knew how it would end. That’s why I’m here. Buddy got played and so did I. Help me and his death gets to mean something. For me. For you.”
Ingrid brought up a speech bubble. Beyond its filmy boundary the world faded to a blur.
“If you want I’ll give you the speech about being sorry for your loss and fly away. But then you bury him and he buries you. It ends. Or you can help me make it matter. Tell me where he got the face.”
Ingrid went toe-to-toe with Fi. “You know what? Honestly? I’m not sorry for your loss. I’m mad as hell and I want to do something about it. But I can’t do it alone. I need you. Only you.”
Ingrid stared at Fi for a long moment. When Fi’s eyes flickered, Ingrid suppressed a smile.
Fi said: “I don’t know what I can tell you, Buddy was so honest with me. We had no secrets. I don’t know where he got this face from. We were so open with each other.” Fi’s vanityware strobed as it tried to hide the woman’s tears.
Buddy used a body language prompter on your first date to trick you into liking him, thought Ingrid. She said: “I think you’re right, but that intimacy will help a lot. I have to understand him like you did.”
“He needed me. He was a still a boy in a lot of ways. So innocent.”
A boy who syndicated your sex life for cash and gave you a porn star’s face, Vagina Woolf, when he fucked you, thought Ingrid. She said: “It’s those insights I need to unpick his life and choices. To get at the real him.”
Fi’s eyes flickered. “What do I get for helping you?”
“An exclusive. A chance to grieve in private. A chance for you, and no-one else, to tell your story.”
“Okay.” Fi dragged her hands across her eyes and smeared the tears away, then sniffed and blinked in sequence. Lights on the knot of wetware at her throat rippled in response. Archiving already. Smart girl. “But I don’t know where he got the face.”
“We’ll figure it out.” Ingrid pinged the lifter. It was high above chasing buzzards.
“Oh, and Ingrid?”
Expecting more tears she got a ringing slap on her cheek.
“I’ve got a whip-quick forehand too.”
The bubble flared violet then collapsed as the lifter stooped to scoop them up.
“Do we have to do this here?”
Ingrid turned from Buddy’s house. Fi was in the lifter – the only thing visible in the dim interior was the red lights in the knot of wetware at her throat.
“We do,” Ingrid said. “This is all about context. You and Buddy spent a lot of time here. It’ll help us sift his memories. Pick out what’s useful.”
She stepped back and held up her hand. Fingers emerged into the light from the lifter and grabbed the offered hand. Ingrid tugged and Fi followed, lips tight as she stepped onto the lawn. She paused, freed her hand then took a few steps. From behind, Ingrid saw Fi’s jaw muscles bunch. Her left hand was a fist and her right wound a knot in her black linen dress.
“Give me a tour,” Ingrid said as she stepped past and swished through the grass. Ingrid opened the door and stepped back.
Fi stared through, lifted a heel but made no move.
Ingrid let the ghost of Buddy bubble up. It flooded along her arms and legs and shifted her stance. She let it make her lean against the frame, drop one shoulder and bounce the toes of her left foot – one, two – on the dusty boards. Just the way Buddy did the first time he welcomed Fi home.
Fi glanced up at the noise, frowned then took a deep breath and strode through the door.
Ingrid shut down the ghost and shuddered. She hated taking on the dead; it always took an age to feel like herself again. She followed Fi.
Fi walked through the house pointing out ornaments, pictures, paintings and furniture. Where it came from. When they bought it. How much it cost. Ingrid watched Fi trail her fingers on the clothes, cups of cold coffee and books Buddy had left strewn around. Like he would soon return.
There was a PD Forensics overlay in every room, a heat map showing where the happy couple had recorded their time together. The bed was thick with them, obscured in a fog of chatter, sex and lazy mornings. Ingrid watched Fi avoid every place she and Buddy shared.
They ended up on the verandah out the back, Fi in her rocking chair and Ingrid leaning on the rail looking out across the meadow down toward the brook at the end of the garden.
“Buddy’s clouds suck,” Ingrid said.
“Clouds. Buddy’s clouds suck.” She turned. “I’m channelling what we grabbed of his memories, I’ve got up his standard view up. He put up his own clouds. And they’re really blocky and false.”
“They were the first thing he made as a kid, crappy, but all his. He was a wannabe designer.” Ingrid saw her look up and to the left then one light in her neck knot pulsed long and slow – a memory being re-run.
Then Fi said: “I’m still channelling him too. I just can’t cut him off, can’t believe he’s gone. You’re going to have to give me time.”
“I’m not sure I can. Whoever sold him that face is going to disappear. And you’ll start to grieve and move on. We need to keep Buddy alive in your memory so you can help find who set him up. See?” Ingrid blinked, swallowed and gave in to Buddy’s ghost. Her feet shifted on the boards, her shoulders pulled back and Buddy’s uniform of dockers and t-shirt bloomed into view. She put on Buddy’s face, looked at Fi from under his fringe and held out a hand.
Fi stood, smiled for the first time that day, took the hand and they walked back inside.
Three sets to love against Josh. Nothing. Buying dress shoes for Hissy Pat’s wedding. Nothing. Re-stringing his favourite racket. Nothing. Boozy lunch with Brobdidnag. Nothing. Two sets to love against Brobdidnag. Nothing. Dinner with Fi. Dinner with Fi. Nothing. Lats and quads. Nothing. Tennis practice. Nothing. Mods check up with Dr Yes. Nothing. Mods check up with Dr Yes. Nothing. Town meeting with Privacy on Parade. Nothing. Movie. Nothing. Party. Nothing. Jerking off. Nothing. Fiddling with the clouds. Nothing. Picnic. Nothing. Tennis against Little Lord Corduroy. Nothing. Fucking Fi. Nothing. Therapy. Nothing. Sunset on a beach. Nothing. Tennis practice. Nothing.
Wait. Ingrid stopped flipping through Buddy’s shattered memories. A beach?
She ran it again. He was barefoot, toes rolling warm sand into gritty folds. Hands in pockets. White linen shirt flapping in the breeze, patting his back like he had been a good boy. Smiling into the blazing sunset. Why so happy? She froze the scene. Looked around but there was no detail beyond the foveal core. Maybe nothing after all.
Then, a figure in the distance. Who? Is it? Was that… Oh.
The beach dissolved into the back lawn, the burbling brook replaced the sea. Ingrid shuddered, shunting Buddy’s ghost into a holding pattern.
Another dupe. This one so crude it looked like a doll.
“How is it going?”
“How much of your attention am I getting, Haxel?”
The doll said nothing for a long time. Then: “Far too much, now. Keeping everyone’s America running isn’t easy you know. Sometimes I’m spread pretty thin. So again, how is it going?”
“You know lies, they’re wily. The truth is gregarious, easy to pick out. Lies are bachelors, they live by themselves, create their own space and unless you trip over them you might not know they were there.”
“So, you’re coming up blank.”
“We’re going to have to get lucky to crack this open.”
“Then get lucky, quick.”
A scream. From the house.
“Maybe later,” Haxel said to the back door snapping shut.
Ingrid slowed through the kitchen, grabbed a carving knife off the counter-top, then let it lead the way as she padded through the house. Another attack? She stopped outside the bedroom door, said a silent apology, and borrowed Fi’s view. It was blurred and gloomy. With the curtains drawn light was scarce. A hand loomed, Fi’s, then went away glistening. No blood. A big breath. Tears? She’d been asleep. A bad dream?
Ingrid dropped the knife point first into the floorboards. Then she let the ghost bubble up again so she had Buddy’s gait, clothes and manner but not his face.
She leaned on the jamb, pitched her voice low: “You okay?”
Fi sprang up, pulled the sheets around her. “No, no, I’m not. I was asleep. Almost. Then I had a dream about Buddy in bed with me. Dead. I dreamt he was next to me dead.” She got up and hurried away from the bed. Ingrid ducked into Buddy, put on the rest of him, caught Fi’s wrist and swung her into a hug.
“Come on,” she said in his voice. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Fi clung tight. Ingrid let the ghost do what Buddy always did, stroke Fi’s hair and hold her through the shakes and the worst of the weeping. Fi’s eyelashes painted tears on Ingrid’s neck and she stood unmoved as the cool drops slid past her tight collar and spread out beneath her uniform.
No-one had ever held Ingrid like this, not even on the long, long nights when the fibres of the mods were nosing their way along her bones, lighting her up with pain. Through the weeks of waking with her bed sheets stinking. Never then and never since, had anyone comforted her. Just been there. Just held her. For that moment, the gulf separating her from the rest of humanity had never seemed so wide and, for the first time, she wondered if she stood on the wrong side.
They approached the section of beach roped off for the party. Ingrid gazed out to sea where the setting sun paved the waves with scarlet and wondered how far she’d get before she slipped beneath the ocean.
Since arriving in the islands 18 hours earlier, Buddy’s ghost had been in charge and Ingrid felt smothered. She stumbled on the shifting sand and only Fi saved her from falling.
“You okay?” Fi said, stopping.
“You don’t seem as, ah, poised as usual.”
“It’s Buddy, he’s proving hard to get used to,” she said, hating the lie. It was Ingrid, not Buddy, who was scared. Maybe it was shedding the uniform for a surf bum t-shirt and board shorts. Or that she couldn’t move at 105 just to unsettle people. Or maybe it was all the time in the islands spent hanging out. Chatting. Having fun.
“Let Buddy handle it,” Fi said. “He knows what to do. We cut quite a dash, together.”
Ingrid took a deep breath. Here they were, being seen, to scare out whoever it was sold Buddy Blo-Fi’s face. She couldn’t do that standing in the shadows or running away.
“Okay.” Ingrid raised Fi’s hand to her lips and kissed the knuckle of her index finger. Just the way Buddy had. Fi returned the kiss with a squeeze that left Ingrid wincing. Maybe this was hard for Fi too. Hand-in-hand they strolled up to the velvet rope, showed their invites and plunged in to the music and dancing beyond.
In the early hours they were crammed on a Chris Craft runabout with too many other drunken party-goers. Squeals and screams rang out every time the hull slapped the swell. Ingrid couldn’t see Fi over the jostling bodies, but their hands found each other over the transom. The craft hit a big wave and threw everyone upward, at the top of the rise they caught each other’s glance and burst out laughing. Ingrid did not know why it was funny, it just was. She did not need Buddy’s help to enjoy it.
The horizon was lightening when the craft bumped into the driftwood jetty by the beach hut they had rented. Fi struggled free first and helped haul Ingrid on to the battered boards. Fi walked to the hut but Ingrid waited, waved and watched the little craft carve a jagged wake through the phosphorescent swell. When the sound of the surf outweighed the shrieks and laughter she turned away.
Ingrid sat by Fi at a wicker table set by the front door. Silent they shared the sun rise. A long-legged bar-bot stalked out of the hut and squatted by the table folding its legs underneath it like a cat. Ingrid tapped the lid to make it flip open then reached inside for glasses and water.
“Is that snow?”
“What?” Ingrid half-turned, saw a pinwheeling white flake then shouted “Shields!” as her fingers flicked through a crash code.
“I’m blind. I’m blind,” Fi screamed.
Ingrid pushed the chair backwards and vaulted into the beach hut. She stood, kicked the door shut then went blind to flush the fractal flake from her retinal buffer.
Snow was serious. Military serious. If she’d seen too many flakes she’d be blind while her eyes worked their way down the never-ending shapes. Was it Kents? Did someone have a private army of supermen to call on? Just what the fuck had Buddy got into?
She killed Buddy’s ghost, stretched and scrambled to the dim bedroom wishing it were darker. She grabbed the mauss gun from the night stand and lay on the rug to strap it on. Then she opened the wardrobe, took out her uniform on its hanger and hung it in the open doorway.
Ingrid duck-walked back to the main room of the hut, staying below the level of the window sills. She pinged the two bar-bots squatting by the fridge and both stood up. She stationed one underneath the window and the other beneath the hanging uniform.
Out on the beach against who knew how many Kents she would be an easy target. But, close to, anything could happen. They didn’t seem to want her dead, so calling the police was out. She would have to rely on her mods. She squatted by the front door and waited, ears cranked up to pick out any move by a Kent over the rush and retreat of the surf on the shingle.
A dark shape came through the window. It hesitated as the uniform swung thanks to the rising bar-bot. Ingrid threw herself on the figure, grabbing it round the waist and hurling it to the boards as it spun in her grip. She knelt on its shoulders and ramped the mods. Threw punches fast as a nail gun. But even pinioned it was too quick to hit. The black-clad figure tensed and then she was airborne, head down, towards the wall. She caught herself in a handstand and slapped her feet against the wall. The Kent on the floor stood as another kicked the door open. She pinged the other bar-bot which rose in the window making both Kents hesitate. Ingrid dipped on her arms, grunted, flung herself forward and planted both feet in the Kent’s face. It crumpled and Ingrid skidded down and elbowed it, twice, in the neck. She scrabbled to stand as another Kent landed on her back. It wrapped itself around her, arms under hers and palms braced behind her neck, legs inside hers with heels locked behind her knees. It hissed and she felt herself getting trapped as its bump suit stiffened. She landed on her back, but the Kent held on. She struggled in its grip as another Kent strolled in, bent down and stuck a syrette in her neck. Fade to black.
Ingrid awoke on a steamer chair beneath a beach umbrella. The sun was high in the sky and the deserted sand looked white-hot. She looked at the figure next to her and groaned.
Blo-fi. Then, as she watched, the face melted away.
“Just what the fuck is going on? Was Buddy working for…”
“Always so quick, Ingrid. Usually anyway.”
“You bastard…” She sat up and threw a punch.
“No,” Haxel said. “I don’t think so.”
Her arm froze.
Haxel stepped round the seat and stood over her paralysed figure. He looked out to sea and then back down. “There is a storm coming, Ingrid, a magnificent, transfiguring event that, frankly, you will just get in the way of. You and your old-fashioned sense of honour. And the way you were put together means you cannot be made to forget. So. So, here we are. And you are about to become Blo-fi’s last victim.”
He looked away and Ingrid collapsed back on the chair.
“But,” he said, “before I kill you I will grant you one last wish. I’ll turn you into the one thing you’ve wanted to be since the day they turned the mods on. An ordinary human being.”
Ingrid felt her arms and legs begin to simmer, shake and then at once she convulsed like an epileptic, limbs thrashing, too fast to see, running through every possible movement. The fit pushed her off the chair and she flailed and flopped on the sand, screaming as her body twisted like a rag. She closed her eyes and gave in to the thrumming rush. Wave after wave rolled over her but even in the maelstrom, memories rushed upon her triggered by a co-ordinated clench of muscle. On the gun range, in the dojo, running through the park, standing in the door of the lifter, dancing with Fi. Then she felt something snick within her right wrist and her hand was still on the end of her restless arm. Then her left foot, right thigh followed and soon she lay still on the sand. She swallowed and ran a check-up. Error messages made her teeth buzz. All gone. None of her mods answered. She just had the standard set. She was as ordinary as everyone else.
“Look at you,” Haxel spat. “The superwoman reduced to a palsied cripple. You could see more than 10,000 miles but you couldn’t see this coming. We are relics you and I, made rather than born.”
“I was always human,” Ingrid said, “more than you will ever be.”
“Human?” He looked at his arms, ran his hands along the lumps in the skin where the mods lay thick. “I left humanity behind a long while ago. But you’re more human now than you have been for a long, long time. I hope you enjoy the novelty. Perhaps it makes you think of your childhood. The choices you made and the life that forced on you.”
Voice soft from the screaming, she said: “How is Blo-fi going to kill me?”
“Perhaps a gun fight, or perhaps he beats you to death. I think at the end you may crack and beg for mercy. Just to dent your fame.”
“I’d never do that,” she said.
“I’ll always have something left.”
“What?” He bent low. “What will you save until the final moments. Insults? A slap in the face? A gypsy’s curse? What?”
She looked up, eyes blazing, and said: “Stop. Police.”
From a distance she saw him fall back. Too slow. The mauss gun found the soft skin under his jaw and then kicked, twice. The third shot pulled it from Ingrid’s hand. She hauled herself away from the gun and the twitching mess, staggered down the beach, knelt in the surf and washed the blood off.
“Hey, Fi? You okay?”
“I can see again but I’ve got a huge headache. Gah. Maybe an after-effect of whatever blinded me.”
“No,” Ingrid said, “It’s not. That headache might be my fault. I’m sure it is. It’s not just you, though. Everyone has it.”
“Everyone. We’re on our own now. But I think we can get used to it. I’ll send for the lifter and then we can go home.”
She blinked away tears and only suffered herself to rest when she saw a bright light rise in the east, hang high in the sky for a moment, and then dip toward her. “It’s not as if we have much choice,” she said.
Mark Ward lives in Surrey in the UK.