‘Trigger Point’, C.A. Hawksmoor

Illustrations © 2015 Martin Hanford



 [ Fight, © 2015 Martin Hanford ] I duck under the guy’s fist and let the momentum carry him past me, then hook the toe of my boot over his knee and pull his legs out from under him. He goes down hard. It gives me the time to get my balance back. Shake the daze out of my head and focus through the roar of the crowd.

The fighting pits are three streets down from the docks, deep in the belly of the undercity where the light never touches. The waters of the North Atlantic churn a hundred feet below with a endless grinding hunger. The people who come down here to watch a fight aren’t much different. Aching to kill you the first moment that you give them the chance.

A bottle shatters at my feet and sprays me with wet and broken glass. The sound of it, even over the hum of the fighting pit, and my whole body is rigid. My lungs freeze and this guy cracks me clean in the temple while my mind is still flashing with blood and gunshots. Thoughts spasming out of control and flushing my body with adrenaline and cortisone. I’m on the floor by the time I regain any sort of control. If this fight was for real, or if this guy had the slightest idea of what he was doing, I’d be dead.

When did you get so bad at this?

I swing my legs around to bring my rebellious body back to its feet. For five years I fought a war in the Divided States, and spent five more at PsiSecurity HQ in Mumbai learning how to weaponise myself. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been any good for. Well that, drinking, and bedding guys I never learned the names of. Now I guess there’s just the bottle.

To emphasise that point, the asshole lands another blow. The first I know about it is the shear of dull pain in my gut as every atom of air is forced out of my lungs. I’m not entirely clear on what happens then. It’s like something gives way. I throw my whole body at him because it’s the only thing that I’ve got left. The pit, the dockworkers, the flying bottles, everything else just narrows out of existence. I hit him until my arms are on fire. There’s blood in my mouth. Running down my forehead. But most of it is on my hands. As sticky as sugar-water.

It takes two of Lyran’s thugs to pull me off and I spit and swear and fight them all the way. I’d tear at them with my teeth if they let me get close enough, but these guys know what they’re doing. They get my arms behind my back and one of them pushes my legs out from under me. I’m kneeling in the sand, gulping shuddering lungfuls of air down into myself. On the other side of the chain-link fence Lyran is watching me. And suddenly everything is very very still.

He’s ruler of this particular little corner of hell. A shock of blue hair shaved short at the sides to show off the scars of his implants. All the world over, Psikinetics teaches its Violets to hide their scars. To give their customers that satisfying feeling of dealing with a normal human being. Only in Babel could a Violet flaunt himself like that. A privilege bought when no one gives one single shit about you any more. Now Lyran sits up there on his shitty little throne. The king of precisely nothing at all.

“Let her go.”

The air rushes cold against the sweat and grit on my skin. Without the two goons to prop me up, I slump forwards onto my hands.

You should have seen the other guy.

The other guy isn’t moving. There’s a particular quality about something that’s gone from being a person to being a pile of meat and rags. I’ve seen enough of them to know. Big fat clots of blood are smeared up my arms. The dull ache in my winded stomach wrenches into nausea. I have nothing to bring up but bile and brackish water, but my body empties itself of those as best it can.

Lyran is laughing. Bastard is going to cut my earnings from this fight. Again. I’ll be lucky if he lets me walk away from the corpse with anything at all. I’ll be fighting every night for the next week for this.

My arms shake like someone’s hooked me up to a battery. Another bottle gunshot-smashes somewhere out there in the pit, beyond the narrowed-down edges of my world.

Zen, fall back! I said fall back. What the hell is wrong with you?

I have to get out of here.

Now.


I finally drag myself back to the apartment after two hours of wandering through the city like a rustbrain, drinking the money I have left to forget about what just happened. Ended up in a little dive in Pipetown where everyone wears respirators to stop themselves from catching whatever bug is hanging in the soup of fog this week. The people in the bar have to alternate between drinking and breathing, and they don’t have enough fight left in them to give me any trouble.

When I get home, Caelum is in the bathroom throwing his guts up—his skin gone from a warm olive-brown to the colour of sawn timber. It’s the last thing that I need.

You were stupid enough to hook up with a Violet, what the hell did you think was going to happen? Brainrot comes for all of them in the end.

I have to hold myself up on the door-frame, smearing it with dark blood. Caelum kneels in the antiseptic light with his back to me. Still in his nurse’s greens. I don’t know if he even realises I’m there.

“Caelum.”

He doesn’t look around, just raises a shaking hand to push it through his hair. Fingers ghosting over old scars.

“Just… Give me a minute, Fisher.”

Such a good little soldier. I kill the light for the sake of his migraine and head back into the main room to reboot the wireless. It won’t shut out the noise of any of the half a dozen other hubs in the building, but it’s the closest I can get to taking him offline until his body recovers. Until his implants can function like they’re meant to. Two tablets strong enough to tranquillise a guy twice his size, and a glass of water run through the filter twice until I can barely taste the salt in it. I head back into the bathroom, and lean on the edge of the sink.

His fingers are cold when he takes the tablets, and he sips the water until he’s sure he’s not going to throw it all back up again.

“Thanks.”

I pat him on the shoulder and turn to leave, but he catches my bloody fingers in his cold hand and needles of pain lance up through the half a bottle of whiskey in my bloodstream.

“It looks bad,” he says.

I smirk. “Not as bad as you.”

Caelum doesn’t quite manage to laugh and uses the sink to lever himself to his feet. The muscles across his shoulders come taut underneath the badly-fitted nurse greens. He deserves better than that shitty uniform. His body is still strong. Shaped by years of drills and training. He belongs on a battlefield, his implants sizzling like hot metal, hacking the tech of a dozen different guns and jamming them into hunks of dead and cooling steel.

“Let me take a look, Fisher.”

I snatch my hand away. Angry at him for letting himself get reduced to this. Angry at myself for allowing it. I guess all of it is easier than looking down and seeing how my own body is beginning to waste out.

Caelum smells the booze on my breath, and puts his hand on the small of my back.

“C’mon. I’ll pour you another. You look like you need it.”

I don’t know whether to punch him or just take him to bed and screw his brains out, so in the end I just follow along stupidly, sit down on the couch, and let him fetch the bourbon. Too much salt in the water here to make ice, but the glass is cold and a blessed relief to the aching heat in my hands. He pulls out a chair. Sits down right in front of me with a bowl of salty water between his knees. Starts to wash the dirt and blood out of the wounds. It hurts, but the pain feels far away. As though it’s happening to someone else.

My knuckles are a mess. I don’t notice how bad until he starts cleaning all the blood off. It turns red again in the salt water and drips down into the bowl. A knot of panic clutches at my throat and I press my eyes closed to smother it. Change the subject so that I don’t have to think. Take another sip of bourbon.

“How you holding up, soldier?”

The echo of years of discipline brings his spine a little straighter. “Better than I have been,” he says. “Only spent a couple of hours heaving up my stomach lining today.”

The corner of my mouth quirks. I reach out a bloodied hand to run it through his mess of black hair and white scars. “That’s a step up on last week.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” he says softly, leaning into my touch. And then: “I have something for you.”

The air snatches at my throat and I pull my hands away before he can feel them shaking. I try to force my voice to sound normal, but can’t quite erase the way it twists around the tightness in my body. “What is it?”

Caelum reaches under the coffee table and lays a handgun in my lap. It’s a big son of a bitch. Top of the line. Standard PsiSecurity gear for a unit commander. It would feel familiar as my own skin if I could bring myself to touch it. If it didn’t feel like a half a tonne of red hot lead pressing down into my thighs.

I glance up at Caelum just so that I don’t have to look at it. He looks about as unhappy with the damned thing as I am. How the hell did I let myself get backed into this corner? No escape now. Can’t let him know that I would rather fight a hundred more nights in the pits than pick that damned gun up.

“You took your time with it,” I say, and let him read my panic as aggression.

Caelum’s eyes harden and he pulls away. Looks out at the slick darkness running down the glass that closes in three sides of our apartment. A memory from when the sunlight used to reach in here and this place was filled with things that twist and grow and bear fruit in the autumn.

“It isn’t like it’s easy, Fisher.” He sounds angry now. Good. The more angry he gets, the less likely he is to stop and think. “Why does it matter what happens to the processor from Zahir’s sidearm? He’s dead.”

“You know damned well why. Mine was completely overloaded,” I say, neglecting to mention that it was me who overloaded it. “Zahir’s sidearm was the only other one of this model in the whole damned undercity. It was this, or keep it as an expensive paperweight.”

Of course it would have been much easier pick up another gun, and he knows it. Easier even to get another that was almost as good. But it’s best to let him think that I was holding onto it out of some kind of sentimentality. I’d even rather he believed that I was holding onto it because of what happened to Zahir.

Either way, I’ve bought as much time with the whole charade as I can now. If Caelum wasn’t so damned good at his job, both damned sidearms would have been bricked. Why can’t things ever be that simple?

“Fisher,” he says. “I don’t even know if it’ll work for long. They weren’t designed to be changed around like that.”

I don’t want to talk about this any more. Time to start looking for a way out. “I don’t pay you to think. I pay you to do your job.”

Caelum smirks. “Last time I checked, you didn’t pay me at all, sir.”

I grit my teeth. “Don’t I? Then I’d like to know what the hell I was doing in bed last night.”

That hits the nerve I’m looking for. His eyes are shot through with hurt, then he smothers it with anger.

“You know what?” he says. “I’m gonna go lie down like I should have done two hours ago instead of pushing myself to keep working on that thing. Why don’t you keep fighting that urge to thank me and sleep on the goddamned couch?”

He pulls the curtain around the bed closed so hard that the threadbare fabric tears a half an inch along the top. I sit back in my chair and close my eyes. Breathe in the sudden absence of everything. When I’ve steadied myself a little, I pick up a year-old newspaper from the coffee table and use it to push the gun out of my lap. The sound it makes when it hits the rug is a hundred times louder than it should be. It brings with it the smell of gunsmoke, burning metal, and screams.


Abjini Sengupta. Elected to the Psikinetics board in ’32. Responsible for the development and implementation of the V6 implants. Designed the framework for the V6 training program, also used as a basis for the V7’s. Noted for recommending the recruitment age for Violets be dropped from ten to six years old, to maximise neural plasticity and reducing the rejection rate amongst first-round implant subjects below 20% for the first time in Psikinetics’ history.

Divorced. No dependants on record. Absent from her post for six months just over two years ago. Underwent the company’s re-acclimatisation program upon return. Records show multiple instances of her refusing treatment. Psychiatric reports show the patient claiming to hear voices.


Deep in the bowl of the night and the bottom of a bottle, I listen to the sound of Caelum breathing and watch the lights of slow-moving traffic crawl up and down the neon ribbon of the Strip two hundred feet below. I’m sitting by the windows with my knees pulled to my chest, breathing fog onto cracked glass that once concentrated the weak North Atlantic sun to feed fresh vegetables to some rich executive upstairs.

I try to focus on the pressure of the gun, wrapped up in a towel and nestled in the crook between my stomach and my thighs. Stretch out my legs by degrees and run my fingers over the brittle towel until I can force myself to peel it back. When I finally manage to pick the gun up, it’s almost an anti-climax. The world doesn’t immediately end. The handgun doesn’t blow up in my hand. It just sits there, and waits to see what I’ll do next.

Once it’s booted up, I find myself thumbing through the two years’ worth of data logged in the substituted processing unit. Everything from the first moment that Zahir calibrated his sidearm to the last bullet he fired while blood poured out of a golf ball sized hole in his throat. I use the towel to wipe the sweat off of my palms. Thumb through the blue holographs until I find what I’m looking for. Until I’m looking at the stats for the fight that killed him.

Everything is logged in safe sterile numbers. The tiny little snags and misfires in his weapon’s tech. Snatches of time where he discharged the gun so many times that the processor had to step in to stop it from overheating. The increasingly erratic firing angle and sub-optimal grip on the stock which his gun logged as battle-fatigue or possible blood loss.

I scroll through the series of yellow and then red holographic triangles warning him to disengage. Informing him that he was fighting at the bleeding edge of his weapon’s capability. Then I hunt down the stupid smoky simulated voice he had set up, and take a moment’s satisfaction in deleting her into oblivion. Reconfiguring the voice output from the audio logs takes a little while longer, but now that I actually have the damned thing in my hand it’s like my body takes over and I just fall into the familiar rhythm of it all. The processor takes a guess at where the various emotional response sliders need to be, and by then I’m so impatient that I just agree and synch up my cochlear implants.

A series of tones are transmitted straight into my inner ear as the whole thing calibrates itself, and Zahir’s voice cuts through the thick and syrupy night-time hush. As clear as if he was sitting there right beside me.

Unit Commander Zenith Fisher. Long time no speak. Authorise. You know the drill.

I reel off my authorisation codes and hope that Caelum doesn’t hear. Listen to the silence for a couple of seconds before I hear his steady, quiet breathing. I slam back another finger of bourbon.

Who else is here?

I bite my tongue. “Just Caelum.”

Fernandez? The gun laughs. It isn’t a friendly sound. Figures. He always was sniffing around you like a coward, too frightened to do anything about it. Where’s Weston?

Down in the Strip a ribbon of white headlights is slipping past a ribbon of red tail-lights. Swirls and eddies in a river of liquid light.

I rest my temple against the glass. “I haven’t seen Khalil in four months. He flipped out after you… after former Unit Commander Zahir Sayed was killed in action.”

That’s the excuse that you’ve been giving yourself, is it? Wasn’t your fault you didn’t finish the mission. Without Khalil and Zahir you didn’t have a complete unit. C’mon, Fisher, you can do better than that.

Tell me, what did happen to the processor that used to be in this weapon? Those things are stress-tested to breaking point. They don’t just blow without someone fucking something up big time.

“You need to shut the hell up,” I tell him. “You’re dead now, and that means you don’t get to talk to me like that any more.”

Oh really. The gun sounds unconvinced. Then why am I here? Because you’re desperately lonely and you need me to hold your hand? Because you miss the sound of my voice so much that you’d let Fernandez get his hands all over you? You’re better than that, Fisher. And you need to get out there and finish what we started.

“I don’t give a shit about the mission.”

To hell with the mission. You think this was ever about them? That anyone gave a shit about what PsiSecurity wanted? This is about pride, Fisher. Or are you too scared and broken to remember what that is? Tucked away up here in the darkness drinking and screwing and whining like a little girl.

I know what it’s doing. All Psikinetics tech is programmed with Psikinetics priorities. Of course the damned gun wants me to shoot it. I’d have to be a first rate idiot to fall for it.

Go get Khalil.

“Tomorrow.”

What’s the matter with you? You can’t hold your liquor any more either? You not got legs to walk on? We go now, Fisher. It’s time to shit or get off the pot, and you know it.

And damn him, but I do.


It takes most of the rest of the night to figure out where Khalil is holed up. Five months of robbing every petty criminal in the undercity has made him paranoid, and he has the training to disappear into the fog whenever the hell he wants. But I’ve had the same training, and now I have Zahir nagging and yelling at me every step of the way. So when Khalil’s fences shrug their shoulders and protest their ignorance, I head straight on down to Hell’s.

The streets are almost empty. It doesn’t matter that this part of Babel hasn’t seen the sun since the boardwalk was bolted on above it years ago. Everything still ticks to the clock of the skyscrapers above us. The ones that most of us will never see.

I cross Hell’s palm with silver and he mutters something about an apartment building a couple streets along. I knock on the door of the most defensible room in the building, but don’t wait for an answer before I walk right in. At first I think that Hell’s led me on a ride. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the streetlight and the shadows. To see the heap of rags curled up in the corner with its head resting on its knees.

Jesus Christ. And I thought that you had let yourself go.

“Not now,” I mutter. “Let me handle this.” And then: “Khalil?”

For the longest time, I don’t think he’s even heard me. He used to get like this from time to time, even when we were back at head office in Mumbai. Always veering between a thousand miles an hour and nothing at all. I guess whatever drugs they pumped him full of to level him out ran out about the same time as our luck.

I come closer. “Get up, Weston,” I tell him. “Mission’s back on.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Bullshit,” I say. “On your feet, soldier. Eyes front.”

He doesn’t stand, but lifts his head slowly from his knees. I see for the first time how skinny he’s got. Dark brown skin snagging on the angles of his bones.

“How long have you been holed up in here?”

“Go to hell, Fisher.”

“I did. He sent me up here.” I crouch down. I’m not afraid of the stink of sweat and urine that’s seeped through his clothes and hair, but it burns in my eyes pretty bad. “We gotta finish what we started and get out of here. You coming?”

Khalil sighs. “It’s too late for that.”

I grab him by the arm and try to pull him to his feet. I don’t see his sidearm until it’s pressing right underneath my eye.

“I told you to get lost, Fisher. I still remember how to use this. You think you can say the same? Or will you just panic and freeze like when you let Zahir die?”

Something ignites in the bottom of my belly and all of a sudden every blood cell is burning a hole in me. I put my hand on Zahir’s stock, but there’s no strength in my hand. I can’t even make my finger wrap around the trigger.

Khalil gives me an empty smile.

“Thought so,” he said. “Now fuck off. If I see you here again, I’ll do what I should have done six months ago.”

I straighten up and let anger smother my humiliation. “Fine. Why don’t you call me in a month’s time when you’ve managed to wash the shit off of yourself and find some dignity. I can wait.”


Only it turns out that I can’t.

I did the best I could: wrapped the gun back up in that towel and stuffed it behind the shower. Tried to pretend the whole thing never happened. But I swear to God I could still hear the bastard railing at me every time I was in the apartment on my own. Zahir always knew how to get right under my skin. I guess being dead hasn’t changed that.

It’s only a matter of time before I have to tell Caelum we’re going back in. And when he storms out and heads down to the clinic to forget about me for a few hours, I take the towel out from behind the shower and let the gun boot up.

Fisher. Fisher. Shit. Don’t do that to me again, alright? Don’t leave me.

I press my teeth together and yank at the emotional response sliders so hard that the hologram glitches for a moment.

Fuck you. Stop messing with those and do what I say, or I swear to God I’ll jam and take your whole fucking hand off.

“Better,” I say, and slip him into the holster at my hip. Head out to buy some cheap plastic roses so I can convince Caelum to forgive me.

He loves all of that insipidly romantic shit.

It takes time to wear him down, but Caelum never has learned how to say ‘no’ to me. He’s spent too many years following whatever orders I gave him.

Is that why you’re screwing him? Because it’s easy? Because you know he can’t stand up to you?

The mission is back on, with or without Khalil.


Of course, it would have been easier if HQ in Mumbai granted us access to the Psikinetics tower. We could slip straight in and get to the target with no one raising an eyebrow. But the implications are too messy. The second anyone started looking into what happened, it would be too easy to find out that the company had sent its people in to take out one of its own. And we have to go on pretending to play nice.

That means the only way we’re getting up into the highrises is with some good old fashioned cunning. Handily, it turns out that being stranded in Babel for half a year isn’t entirely without merit. One of the plus points being that I’ve gotten to know people. More importantly, that Caelum has trespassed onto a few networks that he shouldn’t have and found out some interesting little bits of information that a lot of people would rather keep to themselves. That’s not the kind of stuff you pull in without suffering the consequences, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to be sticking around this dump for long enough to pay for it.

My first port of call is the docks. They’re the weak point in the armour of any place like this. The union guys keep close to one another, sure. But all of them sneak things into the city that they shouldn’t and take a little cut off of the top. Shit, if I lived in a shipping container down here in the dark and had to work seven-day, fifteen-hour shifts in a tiny crane-cab a hundred feet up in the air until I couldn’t even walk without something to support my wasting muscles, I’d want more than the pittance they were paying me too.

Crete has headed up the union for as long as I’ve been here. The kind of woman who has Babel writ large into every bone in her body. You can see most of them through her skin, too—not starved in the way that Khalil is, but limp with muscle death under ochre skin that’s only seen the sunlight a half a dozen times in all her life.

It doesn’t take long to track her down, but we have to wait around for a couple of hours while she comes down from her crane cab. Those things are beyond huge: sweeping through the thick black above the docks, yanking containers two at a time off ships hundreds of feet below. She spiders over to us with the help of a rickety old exoskeleton that the union men and women buy for anyone who needs one—because the company that runs the place is still adamant that their people get enough breaks, and have enough room to move. That the muscle wastage isn’t caused by the job.

For a second she almost looks pleased to see me, but when her eyes settle on Caelum she turns to beaten steel. I can’t blame her, it’s not like I’d trust the Violet who hacked into my business and filtered out all of my dirty little secrets. Probably best she never finds out it was me that asked him to do it.

“What do you want, Fisher?”

“I need you to get us in to Psikinetics One.”

Crete readjusts her bodyweight in the exoskeleton and scowls. “Right, like it’s all that easy.”

I shrug. “As easy as noticing the inconsistencies in your cargo logging system. Tough, but not impossible. If you know what you’re doing.”

I glance back at Caelum to make my point, and Crete rubs her fingers through her braids.

“Shit, Fisher, and I thought we were friends.”

“We are.” I push my hands into my pockets. “Which is why you’re going to get me into the tower, nice and quiet, I’m going to get up there and do what I have to do the same way. Then Caelum and I are going to disappear like we should have done six months ago. You can keep doing the good work here, and never see either of us again.”

“And how the hell do I even know that you won’t go over to the company the second that you don’t need me any more? Offer to sell them every piece of trash that you dragged out of our computers?”

“Come on, Crete, you know me better than that.” These union people are all about the loyalty. Pretend to be straight up every time and they’ll break their backs for you. Poor bastards. “Hell, I wouldn’t even be coming to you if the people paying me had given me what I need to do the job. But they didn’t, so now I’m stuck here. I ain’t got a choice but to come looking for you. You think I want to take any chances getting up there? If Psikinetics catch us then God only knows what they’ll pull out of Caelum’s black box trying to figure out who we are.”

She sighs and crosses her arms, her exoskeleton groaning like a garage door. She isn’t stupid. Chances are that she knows I’m playing her, but whichever way you cut it I’m still right: if Psikinetics catch us then she’ll be just as screwed as us.

I let the silence sit for a few seconds until she gives me what I want.

“Go wait at Dock Four.” Crete shakes her head. “If you get me into any shit with this, then you’d better count on us making you pay.”


 [ Sights, © 2015 Martin Hanford ] A few cold hours later and Crete’s people slip us into the back of a crate headed up the rails into the uppercity. I crack the first of a half a dozen light strips and Caelum and I strip down to our skin in the freezing shipping container. Change into something that won’t attract as much notice when we’re all the way upstairs. Just two more nameless suits who like to dress as though they have more money than braincells. Caelum pulls his black hair back carefully to cover as many of his implant scars as possible and hides the rest beneath the brim of his hat. He looks damned fine all dressed up like that. It gives me something to do besides fret and worry as we’re cranked up the ramp to the top of Babel’s spires.

Crete was meant to let her people know that we were coming, but when they crack the seals open and the two of us walk out the stevedore almost shits himself. Then he starts yelling at the woman inputting data into the a hand-held. Old fashioned tech. I guess that even the people working under Psikinetics’ nose don’t trust the Violets. Maybe that’s why they don’t trust them.

I try and bullshit our way through, but this guy does fingerprints and retina scans on both of us then shakes his head and grinds his teeth at what he gets back. Finally, he radios through to someone further up the chain.

“A PsiSecurity Section Eight and a wirehead,” he complains.

I feel Caelum tense up beside me. “You know, I prefer the term ‘human being’, and I am standing right here.”

“We both are.” I step in before things have the chance to turn nasty. “Who you talking to? Bring them down here. I’m pretty sure they’ll be interested in what I have to say.”

It takes a hell of a long time to talk my way out of the whole mess. To get the measure of the woman who comes down from the top brass, and to push her buttons until she’s convinced to let us go. She isn’t happy about it, and for all I know the second we walk out our cover is completely blown.

“We’re damned late too,” I complain. “Who knows where the hell the target is now.”

You’re so damned late they might as well have written you an epitaph. You should have been here six months ago.

As it turns out, Fate plays us the high card. There’s a big party going on in the main lobby of the building, which explains why Crete’s people didn’t meet us in the unloading bay. It’s all hands on deck up here. Every Psikinetics executive in Babel is in that tower. All we have to do is get in.

The sun is sinking down into the sea, catching on all the polished glass and metal. After six months of being stuck down in the darkness it’s amazing just how beautiful the rest of the world can look. The sky is painted in so many colours that it almost hurts my eyes—pink and gold azure, dustings of apricot warmth on the undersides of the clouds. Even the churning silver of the ocean is so glorious it aches.

“You still have that file on the target, Cae?”

His eyes go blank for a moment although I can’t help but notice the momentary flinch at the corner of his eye.

“If she’s here,” he says. “I’ll recognise her.”

It’s not much, but it’s a start. I get out onto the walkway and start to cut my way around, but Caelum hesitates behind me.

“Fisher, wait.” I pull up short and turn around to face him. He says, “I think… I think I know this woman.”

“And you didn’t think it was important to mention it before? How do you know her?”

“I haven’t looked at the damned file in seven months,” he protests. “And we were in Mumbai then. Following orders. It was… She was in charge of the V6 program, right? I think I remember her from when they were putting my implants in.”

He was damned young then. Most Violets I’ve met don’t remember back that far.

“We don’t have time for this,” I say, twisting around as someone walks out of the lobby a hundred yards away and leans against the railing to breathe in the sea air.

Caelum says, “Shit, Fisher, that’s her.”

That jolts me back into my body. Decades of training and drills bring my mind and body into perfect focus. She’s wearing an expensive sari embroidered with tiny stones that catch the fading light.

No choice now. Get to the target as quick as you can and finish the job.

As we come around the walkway, Abjini spares a cursory glance in my direction. “Unit Commander Fisher,” she says. “You’re look well for someone who’s been sectioned out.”

I put my hand on the stock of the gun and wrestle it from the holster. “You look well for someone who been run through the company’s reclamation program.”

She scoffs at that. “Yes, I would imagine you’ve been spared that particular blessing. Consider yourself fortunate. Few people enjoy being locked up in some antiseptic hospital while your brain is blasted clean with drugs. Grinding all the facets of yourself down until you can function just like every other part of their little perfect machine.

“I’ve heard about what happened to your unit,” she says. “Got yourselves into quite a mess in the undercity, as I understand. Terrible shame, that. But then Babel is a dangerous place. Although I would have expected more from you, V-6-912. You spent thirteen years in Babel’s Violet program. You should have known better.”

It’s time, Fisher. Put up or shut up.

I raise the gun and step in towards her. My footwork is still good, but I’m damned if I can stop my hands from shaking. I tighten my grip up on the stock.

“You’re a little unprotected for someone who knew that we were coming.”

“I knew you were coming a long time ago. I thought it likely that your whole unit was dead by now, and those of you that survived were beyond my concern. Seems like I was wrong. Or maybe not. Hasn’t all of that given you as much reason to resent the company as I do? Perhaps we could help each other out more than they have ever helped either of us.”

We don’t have time for this. Pull the goddamned trigger. Let me do the rest.

My palms are so slick I can barely hold onto the gun. My finger slides over the trigger and a bank of grinding nausea hits me so hard that I have to let it go.

“You had something in mind?”

Abjini rolls her shoulders into a shrug. The North Atlantic wind pulls at the glimmering folds of her sari. Makes her look like she’s fraying into the air. “You know that there are other companies just starting their own cybernetics programs. An offshoot of Hestia in Mexico City looks particularly promising. I’m sure they would be more understanding of my voices given how useful I could be to them.

“The same goes for both of you. Help me get out of here and there’ll be no more talk of reclamation before they let you back into the fold. And V-6-912 gets the best pair of hands to keep his implants functioning. There really hasn’t been much work done into refitting and reconditioning the V6s, but I have a few notes and ideas. It would be interesting to see what comes of them.”

Damn it, Fisher, what the hell have you been trained for? If you can’t do this, you won’t be of a single bit of use to this woman. And the second she works that out, you’re dead.

I glance at the gun, and ask the target: “Are these voices you hear that important?”

Abjini smiles like she’s having to explain something to a particularly stupid child. “I am in this job because I consider the human mind to be a wonderful, impossibly complex, and vastly misunderstood organ, unit commander. I have spent my life studying its capabilities. Its aberrations and abnormalities. I wouldn’t really be doing my job if, when confronted with quirks and deviations in my own mind, I responded be acquiescing to the company’s rigid and rather idiotic insistence that I must purge myself of it. Simply so that I can be made uniform. What leaps forward in our understanding of the the universe have ever come from that?”

“And so… what?” I ask.

“I listen to the voices,” she says. “I attempt to understand. To assess which parts of my brain are responsible for this unusual functioning and to begin thinking about potential ways they can be used. You have some very basic wirework yourself. Ocular and auditory implants. You see and hear things that aren’t part of the ‘normal’ functioning of your brain. Neither of us can ever really grasp the way V-6-912 perceives the world. What he feels when he accesses a network. Did you know that there are groups of unlicensed Violets in the undercity who claim to be able to develop entirely artificially-constructed memories?”

She sighs and leans over the brass railing in the last of the sunlight, staring out to sea. “At the moment, all of that is wasted. The Violet Program, all of Psikinetics other interests and explorations… they are ignorant to a whole world of possibilities just because they are afraid of anything that’s different. As afraid of ‘neural degeneration’ as some of those unlicensed Violets—chasing myths so they can avoid the inevitable implant decay. But what if the ‘brainrot’ they’re so afraid of has something it can teach us? What if our ideas of what is ‘normal’ and what’s ‘abnormal’ are holding us back from something wonderful?”

Zahir is still yelling at me. It’s like my head is filled with spitting wires and circuit-boards. I can barely even hear her.

“With the right opportunities, I could change all of that. V-6-912 has perhaps another five or six years, if he is lucky, before his implants begin to degrade. If I—”

The gunshot is so loud that I feel the ripples and echoes of it through every part of my body. The sudden spike of adrenaline makes the world slow to a whisper, and I watch from a thousand miles outside of myself as Abjini’s head blossoms by degrees into blood and bone and wind-caught hair. I don’t hear Zahir any more. Just the dull ringing in my ears as her body slumps over the brass railing and pinwheels smoothly over the edge to plummet a thousand feet down into the sea.

I stare at the gun in my hand. Nothing seems to make any sense. The readouts projected straight into the end of my optical nerve still say that the clip is full.

Caelum puts his hand on my shoulder. “We have to go, Fisher. Now.”

He’s right. The soundproofing in the glass will have deadened the shot and we should be obscured from most of the people inside by the setting sun, but it’s only a matter of time until someone comes looking for her. There’s a groove worn into me that knows that. But it seems distant now. Unimportant.

I turn to look at Caelum. He’s holding his sidearm, and only holsters it when he sees the look in my eyes. He nods in answer to a question that I haven’t asked.

“She couldn’t even bring herself to use my goddamned name.” He turns away and leans over the railing. “Or maybe she just didn’t care. People like her pulled me off the streets here when I was six years old, Fisher. She didn’t care about you, or me, or anyone.”

So that’s it, then. When it came right down to bare bone, you couldn’t do it. What the hell will you do now?

“I can’t go back to Mumbai,” I say blankly. “And I can’t spend another damned night in those pits.”

Caelum puts his hand on my arm. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s start by getting out. We’ll go from there.”

The sunlight shows lines in his face that I hadn’t noticed in the striplights of the undercity. Lines that that Babel has drawn onto him with a deft hand. He followed me down into the bottom of this pit. And all this time…

I turn Zahir over in my hands and power down the processor.

What are you doing?

I close my eyes. Then I take a breath and throw the gun out over the railing as hard and as far as I can.

You think it’s that easy to get rid of me?

“No,” I say under my breath.

And it doesn’t have to be. All I have to do is work out how to listen.

I take hold of Caelum’s hand. And we run.


© 2015, C.A. Hawksmoor

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