The Spells

A Science Fiction Detective Novel

Copyright by Gary L Morton, 2014


About this book: The Spells (83,500 words) is a sci-fi action novel. In the near future, detective Jack Michaels, accompanied by a fashion model, hunts for a missing teen girl in a case that explodes to mayhem, mutant gangsters and a freak doctor's mad plan for immortality. 

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Novels free online - Gary L Morton
Cult of the Comet 
The Spells
The Reaper Run
Pinnacle City
Indian Falls (Alien Invasion)
Channeling the Demon
Channeling the Vampire

Story Collections
Vampire Alley
The Rainmaker & Other Tales
Making Monsters
Fabulous Furry World
Walking Dead Man's Blog & Halloween Tales

Table of Contents


Chapter One: The Cabby

Chapter Two: Cupid’s Grotto

Chapter Three: The Underground

Chapter Four: Exiled

Chapter Five: The Warehouse

Chapter Six: The Institute

Chapter Seven: The Penthouse

Chapter Eight: The Dungeon

Chapter Nine: The Suit

Chapter Ten: End Spell


Chapter One: The Cabby


Heavy rain arrived at twilight and the city lights dimmed as I walked up to the lobby windows. The Spells were in town and the city grid was shifting into its chameleon mode to reduce blackouts and systems failures. The barrier transparency rose six meters from floor to ceiling at the lobby end and the rain swirled against it in water patterns so dense I could barely see the few people hurrying down the avenue below. Dark forms passed, their hats, coats and rain shields almost like flotsam flowing by in the downpour.

Considering recent events outside in the city, I felt that it was better to gaze higher at the immense blurred urban watercolor above the transparency. I could do without the new variety of human devils hidden somewhere in the details. Ideas of a cleansing effect from the rain remained a pleasant fantasy. In reality, I knew the runoff would probably wash more stinking corpses out of the alleys and into the public areas.

The Spells and another evil spell existed out there. The Spells being an unusual warming weather pattern established over forty years. Torrential rains a couple months before the end of the summer. Windstorms and sudden heat waves included until it tapered into an Indian summer in the fall. What I viewed as the evil spell wasn’t the weather but the sudden recent crash landing of law and order in the city. In reflection, perhaps things had changed slowly over a period. The Toronto city-state fragmented into a collection of vast neighborhoods, with the alterations showing that the place had become too big to contain through one local SSU police system.

In spite of growing decay and large crime-ridden areas, universal surprise had been the response when a strange reorganization of organized crime came about and turned the city into a security nightmare. It was crime morphed to a witch’s brew. The new ingredient in the pot being new bad guys called Blues with a hidden boss going by the street name the Doctor.

Forces of corruption and chaos too big for me to fight or realistically work with existed. Even standing at a beautiful window, my back was to the wall. It was now a city of various gangs and security forces, the hit on the economy also being a strike on individual players like me. Private investigators need cases. In the current scene, there would be no cases … no paid hunts for missing persons because anyone missing would be presumed dead or part of an open police case.

No one sane would go out there on a hunt, and that was always necessary if a communication trail didn’t appear. Fishing around on the back streets would mean picking through shadows for a corpse and getting erased by one gang or another.

The security market did remain strong as everyone wanted protection, but I didn’t want to work in a technical aspect or as a bodyguard or hired cop. That wasn’t my style, not that kind of security. In a hostile environment, it meant making brutal mistakes in screening, and beating or killing people just to save some wealthy client’s ass. That kind of work suited thugs that preferred beating up on the common man. I had no plans on surviving as a dirty rent-a-cop.

My remaining options were to retire from my current line of work or attempt to find cases down south in the USA. Both were reasonable propositions.

Turning, I glanced past the huge drop chandeliers at the crowd and uniformed guards in the busier section of the lobby. More people coming into a place already full past capacity. They were using the west lobby to search people. I knew the humiliating searches well. The rent-a-cops had eased up in my case, but it wasn’t an atmosphere of trust. There had been assassinations across the city and the war on crime remained a losing proposition. The best way to stay alive was to trust no one; not a new theory for a guy like me. There never was a time when I fully trusted anyone other than closest family and pets.

The city zone that held my old office and apartment had become a crime zone. Abandoning it put me in E-Towers in a new style of fortress. That was a matter of trust as well. I ditched the old digs because there was no sense gunning it out to hold a place where criminal snakes lurked in every shadowed corner. As soon as the good people take a pass on a neighborhood, it’s best to leave with them. Though there is an unless, and that would be unless you’re a vigilante and want to stay in there and kill some Blue goons. Some of my old friends were in there like the vigilantes, but not in hopeless neighborhoods. They were out on the edge of the inner core … a wealthy little area tagged as The Fortress. People planned to keep it secure, from the highest levels up at 135 storeys, to the lowest down in the connectors to Underground Alley.

Thinking about security came to be a bad-omen thing because my thoughts hadn’t yet passed when a commotion got underway at the checkpoint. A new arrival set off a weapons alert. A big shining-bald chunkster of a security guard started baton-whipping him so fast he had no time to draw it. It was messy, people gasped and fled. Blood flew in a big spatter from the black suspect’s broken nose and rained on another guard’s white shirt and face. The guard quickly took the young man down for a search. An SSU blue suit walked over to collect him but refused to touch him because of the blood. He did touch the illegal gun the man had been carrying, taking it from the guard and studying the patterns on the barrel. It was an expensive weapon – bullets and beams capable. The sort of gun a hit man might use for an in-close assassination or in a situation of general mayhem. So that’s probably what he was … a young black man cut loose from a gang and paid well to get inside E-Towers to nail a target.

Back at the window, I watched some emergency vehicles scream by below. Ambulances and police, and that meant killings but no fire. Possibly the man that had done some killing out there was the same one security just took down here. Key politicians, public officials and police were facing assassination. A takeover bid of sorts; if you weren’t corrupt, they killed you. Yet that would still leave higher officials alive. Especially police as the SSU police force had always been mostly corrupt. The Blues, as powerful new boys, were shifting themselves into the center to control the others, though small wars would be ongoing as various gangs, SSU and security forces jockeyed for control of neighbourhoods.

I’d taken a gut punch on the old office. I owned the place and took a loss in evacuating. Buying the small place at E-Towers burned through the last of my cash. In the Towers, you bought. It was easier that way because a renter might not be around tomorrow to pay the rent.

My emergency stash, money offshore, I refused to touch. I could decide to split at any time, as it would sure be easy to sell the place. One glance down at the street barricade showed the reason for the value. With the lobby a floor up and no access from the fortified street front, it was attractive. Battlements existed outside the main tower on its 125-story stretch up into the rainy night, and the bays for arriving aircars were as impervious as the huge lobby windows behind me. The walls of this place were sleek. The windows could withstand beam fire, rocket attacks and vehicle crashes. The secret to it was a super-hard transparent coating that formed a thick gloss over all. E-Towers glowed softly in the dark even when the lights were off. It featured the defenses to remain a safe residence in a dangerous city.

The huge news screen in the lobby common was on with a fashionable female news anchor standing under a marquee overhang as the downpour fell like a backdrop at the end of the camera view. The deputy mayor had been gunned down and I was watching those details when a call came in on my case line. I didn’t take the call; the lobby lacked privacy and I didn’t use plug-ins to connect my brain to the phone. Enhancement was sexy until it got your brain hacked and fried. I needed to go up to my place at floor 100 for security.

The call had a Pinnacle-City-in-the-Sky tag – wealthiest potential clients around. The place wasn’t in the city but nearby. It switched my interest away from the deputy mayor instantly. I was excited. A possible case and as far as the deputy mayor went, I wondered what his job entailed, if anything other than making media statements and collecting payoffs. Maybe his death meant someone with talent would replace him. Maybe, but more likely it created an opening for someone already chosen.

Emerging from the elevator, I went down the hall to my place and opened the triggered bolt lock. The biometric locks I’d already removed because there were too many devices on the market to crack them. The cat, Tigger was already there by the door waiting. I liked this place but it had an empty polished feel like it was still new. If anything, it was too picture perfect. The floor and furniture were antique hardwood while the walls were white rock panels with a 3D swirl pattern. Padded seating was also white and I sat on the chaise lounge and pulled a tablet from inside the cushion beside me. With it, I was able to mask a call to the outside. Technically, all calls went out encrypted, but spy agencies and gangsters could still record a call or its metadata. They couldn’t get into the mask I used as it hid the call completely by turning it into noise. No key waited at the other end as it unraveled at the specified location.

I used voice-call-only and it rang ten times before an answer. No one uses voice calls but there is more security when there are no facial images in the airwaves. It is hard to turn video into noise.

Someone picked up but said nothing, perhaps surprised to see no video feed. “Jack Michaels returning your call,” I said.

The reply was a male voice I recognized. “We have to meet. I don’t want to talk over any phone.”

The person was Wes Cameron, one of the security chiefs at Pinnacle City in the Sky, which was a gargantuan and isolated place at the edge of the Toronto megacity. It was also free of the current crime wave. The ultra-rich lived there and had little to do with this city. If he had a case it would pay well, but in general, almost no cases came from there. Outside detectives couldn’t get inside the place so the case would involve work down here somewhere.

“Do you want me to come there or meet you outside?”

“Outside, in the city. We need you for a job in your area, not here.”

“Okay. After you hang up your phone will ring again. The beeps will decode to a GPS location and a time. We’ll meet there. I can’t meet clients here, as it is not secure. Heavy intruder detection is on everywhere. You know what’s going on in the city.”

“Unfortunately I do,” he said. Then he clicked off.

Flicking the wall screen on, I let the television news play. I fed Tigger and opened a double-shot whiskey snap glass. Rain poured in rivulets on the window as if I were underwater and not a hundred storeys high. Looking around the place, I tried to envision a small security setup. My tools from my tablet to special badge and wrist screen were all I would use here or anywhere. I had to get them inside and secure this place from building scans. I’d spent decades on the portable technology and currently had it hidden in storage. It was my real office and it used to travel with me. With a level of trust now formed here, it was time to sneak my stuff inside.

A plan developed in my mind. The meeting with Wes Cameron would be first and the pickup of my portables tied to it. To go out I needed a weapon and that meant talking to Woody Robblee, the SSU police captain stationed in this building.

The SSU station took up half of the fiftieth floor, so after dressing for the outside in a proper hat and long waterproof coat, I headed down on the elevator and then took the float tube to the waiting area. I didn’t wait long; the SSU door cop recognized me and raised the thick plastic barrier. I’d been searched, warned and triple checked since moving to E-Towers, and the problem wasn’t really with the SSU police. It was with the private goons all over town that worked with the SSU and clients. They tended to take rough action on anyone that looked tough. They never took any chances with me; my being tall and formidable in appearance always sent them into hostile alert mode. I had a habit of shading my eyes with my hat because people said my eyes were too piercing and drew heat.

Woody was in. He emerged from an office with four other burly cops. Their faces were mysterious like the rain and twilight outside, and they were talking about something ugly that was going down. I could tell by the low voices and serious tones.

Only Woody remained, the other guys left. I could see the weapons bulging under their coats and guessed they were headed to that scene involving the deputy mayor or the other incident I’d seen the ambulances racing to.

I didn’t have to wait. Woody saw me and waved me over. I followed him into the office and he motioned for me to take a chair.

I remained standing, noting that the leather on his face was wearing deeper lines. His usually clear and intense eyes were bloodshot.

He spoke first. “It’s not a nice evening to be going out. Maybe you should think about staying inside.”

“Not an option. I have a possible job.”

“Job. I thought you were retiring from the business?”

“I need a weapon. I’ll pay you for it.”

“A weapon. If you’re doing bodyguard work your client will supply it.”

“It’s a case. Private work.”

Woody raised his thick eyebrows. Suspicion lit his eyes. “Did the client say what the job entails?”

“Haven’t met him yet. I need a weapon for standard protection. I’m not doing a run against gangs or Blues.”

“I can rent you a weapon, on condition.”

“What condition?”

“Information. If it’s someone trying to hire a hit man, I want the name.”

“I’ve never done that kind of work. No one would call me for that.”

“They might. There are many revenge deals going down. Just tip me to anything good you pick up. I need more eyes and ears out there on the street. No one talks to cops these days.”

“I can do that. If I hear about anything big, I’ll tip you. What do you have that’s a small carry weapon?”

Woody pulled the large bottom right door of his desk open and took out a gun. It was the weird Browning with the patterned barrel. The one they’d confiscated in the lobby.”

“Small world. I just saw that weapon seized in the lobby. I’ll take it.”

“We seized it but a check shows it hasn’t been fired recently. It’s going to be expensive and you have to check it in when you return. That’s the deal in here. Only cops can carry.”

He passed me the weapon and I looked it over. An expensive piece. One of the best portables on the market and customized. I had something better though, or would once I picked it up.

“You could knock down walls with that thing, Jack. Use it for scare shots if you get tight out there. We don’t need any more corpses.”

The only way out with a weapon was through the barrier below the big lobby windows. It was safer too because only cops went out that way. I paused and looked at the dirty rain racing in the gutter beyond heavy traffic pylons. Woody probably had a tracker on the weapon. He’d know my location if he wanted it. He wouldn’t know who I was meeting or why. I had a ground car in the underground – a Ford LT. My choice for the drive was a cab. They didn’t do pullovers here so I pulled up my collar and walked half a block in the rain before a cab sped up. It was a fast ground car. I didn’t need an aircar for this destination.

The cabby was an older black man with a prosthetic right hand and a cap down over his forehead. He smiled in the mirror and the force shield gave his teeth a gleam. He was big and I didn’t like his eyes; they crawled over me like he was a mortician fitting me for a casket when all I was doing was giving him a location.

“You a cop?” he said in an accusing tone of voice.


“I’ll leave the force shield on anyway. Yesterday one of those private guards came over the seat and clipped my ear while I was driving. It is too dangerous out here. I can’t even trust cops. With the Spells coming in, drone surveillance is down in many places. Those things don’t work well in the rain.”

“I don’t like them. They do work in the rain but they’re expensive equipment. The SSU can’t afford to replace downed drones nor have the bad guys steal and refurbish them.”

“Shit, there’s a roadblock ahead.”

“Pull over and wait.”

The cabby pulled over. We were in a dark rubbish-lined lane and the overhang of the lower shops caused the rain to pour like a strange waterfall on the south side. Dirty runoff poured over my shoes as I got out and the cabby waited while I walked up toward the roadblock. I stopped out front of a clothing store; men’s suits, and the night gating was bent and a section of the glass spider-webbed from blows. A red sports car was at the roadblock and the men surrounding it were all private security goons.

I got back in the cab. “Turn around and find another route. They’re robbers wearing security garb. Write this lane off for the present.”

“Motherfuckers,” the cabby said. He batted his cap against the wheel. “I should drive up and shoot them.”

“Don’t. Save your ammo for when you really need it.”

The cabby wheeled the car around with superb skill and tore off on another route to the destination. “I’m trying to figure how you fit,” he said, his edgy voice irritating me. “You aren’t a vigilante from the self-defence zones or a slacker from the martial-law areas either. Undercover cops have that brutal feel and security goons and bodyguards practically announce themselves with trumpets. Street punks and the Blues are the same way.”

“I’m from every zone. Do you have much experience with the Blues?”

“The new gangsters. They’re easy to figure. The complex drugs they boost on are new and illegal, so they’re gangsters gaining a special edge. Some of them are more dangerous. I heard they all come in from Miami and other hellholes … often older gangsters that were deteriorating on the old counterfeit Intel drugs before they got onto the blue pills. The pills change them in a big way; they look about half dead and mean. Whoever came up with those drugs needs hanging. The Blues let cabbies operate, but their kind of town isn’t my kind of town. The creepy thing about them is that they don’t seem alive in the way we are alive. It’s like they came up from the grave to take control. Control is their game and they don’t push the blue pills on people because no one wants them. Everyone wants power in this city, but your average punk out there fears any drug that makes powerful physical and mental changes like that stuff. They’re so altered physically they are practically mutants of some kind.”

I had no comment and I spotted something on the floor at my feet. I picked it up furtively. A wallet. I flipped through it with one hand then dropped it back to the floor. It was empty. I looked out the window at the flashing lights and the few people on the streets in the rain. We were at the edge of the Scarsdale Ringblock, an area with a surplus of liquor stores, sex shops, and sleazy bars with clutches of drug users and dealers out front. About fifty percent of them could be considered street people of indeterminate gender. The Blue gangsters didn’t even want this neighbourhood. They didn’t patrol it. They delivered the drugs and collected their money and that was about it.

The cab suddenly swerved as a leggy tranny hooker stumbled right in front of us. A shot winged the window as my cabby sped away. I saw the hooker fall in the gutter, not hit by the shot but bumped slightly by us as we went around her.

“They shooting at us or the sleazebag?” the cabby said as he glanced in the mirror.

I looked back. “I’m not sure. The shot came from the bar entrance. Keep driving.”

“I don’t recognize this address you gave me. I’ve never had a fare out there before. No one that can pay comes here either. If you hadn’t paid in advance credit I wouldn’t have believed it.”

“Believe it. You won’t miss it. It’s huge and it is the only thing out that road.”

An ugly conglomerate of public housing formed a dark hulk under the steely cloud cover. I could see vague forms behind the many tinted windows and scarier forms in the dim courtyards. The cab headed downhill. Water ran over the road in spills. He slowed, worried about hitting a deep sinkhole or suddenly running into floodwaters. He turned in on Borden Road and the grade leveled. Huge overgrown vacant lots appeared on both sides of the road. Deep pits were dug in one lot like they’d begun some sort of construction then abandoned it. A distant building showed in outline. No lights were on and the old factory structure had a haunted feel. Too out of the way and abandoned and it spooked the cabby. He stopped without pulling over, as there was no traffic.

“I’m not going down there,” he said. “It might be dangerous. I want to get up out of this neighbourhood before the rain gets worse. There are going to be major floods before morning. What in the hell is that place, anyway?”

“That’s the old Nestle Complex. It’s abandoned now.”

“You mean the people that make the Rush bars. Jeez, you can go talk to the ghosts in there on your own. What’s this about anyway - drug pickup?”

“It’s a deal but not drugs. You got your pay. Wait back up the road a ways. I’ll be back for the return trip in about an hour.”

“Sure. You want to pay me to sit around and smoke, it’s fine by me. But it’s just you. You’re not bringing anyone ugly back with you, right?”

“That’s right. It’ll be just me heading back to the E-Towers.”

At night in fragmented Toronto, it was easy to pick up on ugly dreams from the ozone of thunderstorms, and then wake to be in another bad dream. The abandoned Nestle factory was the embodiment of nightmares and a good location to meet in private, as there were no lights and no local inhabitants. Something about the contaminated soil twisted the trees on the lot and they arched over the path with the broad blighted leaves, giving some shielding from the driving rain. It poured through in random spots and the air misted, but at least the stony path remained solid. It went slightly downhill and a swollen stream sucked away the runoff. I could still smell the fragrance of ancient chocolate rising from the soil. The sound of the water rattling on leaves and pouring in the stream grew to a small roar in my ears. A rising miasma created a jungle feel. It was raining hard in the open clearing ahead so I jogged it to a huge portion of smashed wall. The complex looked like a cracked concrete egg there with the wall crumbled away and the rest of the building open like a dark maw. Reinforced steel beams hung in the opening like broken teeth. The ceiling was nine meters up. I got out of the rain and stood there in the vast pile of rubble, and then I took a tiny signal orb out of my pocket and flashed the light. Its thin beam went up into the dark sky and through the clouds. I was maybe ten minutes early so I repeated the signal once every few minutes for twenty then waited.

Suddenly there was no rain in an area of the clearing just outside the broken wall and I heard the rush of an air engine. Brilliant lights came on as the craft landed. I stared in surprise. Jeeze, I’d expected an aircar, a fast type from Pinnacle City, but this thing was a cruiser. It had built-in stealth because in the rain I could barely hear or see it coming. The Browning under my coat suddenly felt like a peashooter. I’d brought it for protection but could see I didn’t need it. Wes Cameron had arrived in a vehicle that could fight off a gangster army.

A wing door opened and Wes emerged with two other men. They were heavily armed and wearing uniforms with the Pinnacle City logo. They had already tracked my location because they came right across the clearing toward me.

The small area of wasteland around us lit up as they halted.

I didn’t waste time with small talk. “You said you had a case, Wes. It must be something big to sail in with that bird.”

Wes Cameron’s face had picked up some crags and crevices and his gray hair had thinned. His masculine looks and intelligent forehead worked well with hair loss. In spite of age, he was still imposing and strong. Anyone meeting him understood why he was a top security man at that wealthy place. “The client is big. We don’t take chances coming into the city now either. We don’t leave the scum any way of getting in at Pinnacle City.”

“Yeah, like with a stolen fly vehicle. Those creeps are not around this location yet. That’s why I picked it.”

Wes handed me a tiny package. “This is a data dot. It outlines the case, and the amount you’ll be paid. The client is an ultra-rich family, their daughter kidnapped. She’s a young teen. They want her back alive.”

“Damn, Wes. If she’s been taken and she’s in here in Blues territory, she’s likely already dead or has been sold off as a slave or something.”

“She isn’t dead and she’s in the city. We received some deep-cover information. They’ve been keeping her alive somewhere, but there’s no ransom demand. At least not yet. Our source went silent so now all we’ve got is the info that she’s here somewhere and alive.”

“What’s her name?”

“Marvel Sunbulian.”

“But she’s the heir to one of the biggest estates in the world. Why are you hiring me?”

“We’ve also hired others but we can’t trust them with full information. You worked with us before and this is your territory.”

“You mean it used to be.”

“Give it a try.”

“I can’t guarantee anything. I’ll start to work right away. If they don’t take her out of the city and if I find her … well, at that point I may need backup or firepower. Especially if it is gangsters like the Blues, and that’s who it probably would be here.”

“Don’t worry about backup. Find her. Contact me right away when you get even a rough location. What you’re being paid for is a location and her circumstances. Don’t make any rescue attempt against forces you can’t handle.”

Wes walked away; with their dark outfits, his men looked like alien shadows at the edge of the rain. The cruiser rose in the night with its lights off, and making no more noise than another rush of wind and rain. I remained standing in the wastes staring at the stony path running across the mud. The stream was rising and the water would soon go over the banks and flood the area.

The factory location was more than a secure place to meet; my lockbox was hidden inside the building. Moving into the gloom, I used a thin light beam and got through the large area beyond the collapsed wall. I opened a stiff door and went down a wide empty hallway. The sounds of leaking water and numerous strange creaks, cracks and bangs came to my ears. Odors of stagnant water rose from the many pools inside the structure.

A narrow weedy alley ran between the two main buildings and I dashed across and in a battered door. Stairs took me to the basement. It was filling with muddy water pouring through a split in the foundation wall. I had to throw a plank across to reach the hidden alcove. I nearly slipped as I reached behind an old decommissioned electrical box and grabbed the lockbox.

The plank flew away from my heel into the foamy water and I got out the door without falling into the filth. With the box under my coat and arm I made my way back and was about to cross to the main building when I heard a shout then a long scream.

It echoed in the empty complex and I wasn’t quite sure of the location but it was a woman that screamed. A shot followed, and a thump, like a heavy projectile hitting a wall. It was above so I moved in that direction to check it out. At least my feet did. My brain was screaming for me to move in the other direction and back to the cab. I remembered telling the cabby I wasn’t part of the vigilante crowd, so why was acting that way?

I supposed it was the private detective in me. I always had to follow a lead.

I came out of a cobwebbed stairwell and cracked open a door. A spooky open area showed. Nothing but empty floor space and huge support posts up to metal beams securing the ceiling. Rain drummed on a metal frame high up. There was a light beyond a far pillar and if it weren’t for it, I would not have been able see anything.

I heard voices but couldn’t hear what they were saying so I crept across the room post to post. Finally, I had a view; a startling one as I could see some people standing by a pit. A big man was near the edge and he was supporting another man. At least he was for a moment before he tossed him over. I heard a splash as he hit the water down in the pit. There was a gasp and momentary silence. The man had been dead weight, a murder victim most likely. Gangsters were now using this place as a disposal site. They’d just found it because there was no smell of death in the air from any previous dumps.

The big man’s profile caught the light as he turned. He was a Blue and a nasty one with a sunken and unshaven face partially hid by his upturned collar. His sinister eyes gleamed out of dark hollows. His gun glittered, a fast-reload sawed-off blaster. The sickly look of this guy was worse than others I’d seen. Blues always wore a diseased grey-blue cast. A dead look like the living dead but a strong specimen of that ilk.

The other two guys weren’t Blues but they were gangsters … long dark coats, hats obscuring their faces. One of them pushed a woman forward and she howled as the Blue caught her arm. She began to struggle; he butted her head with the gun. The other gangster laughed, and I began a test of my rented weapon. The cylinder adjustment was in bullet mode, rapid-fire, and it was a pulse trigger, meaning the longer the pull the more the projectiles.

It had a kick but I was ready for it as the cylinder made a quiet whirr and sent about fifteen bullet shots that ripped into the two human gangsters. I aimed for the heads because they were probably wearing vests. The effect was instant and grotesque. Their skulls exploded, dark blood spurted up and the bodies went down. The Blue swung his sawed-off and fired but I was already behind a post and felt it shake from the force of the blast. The air distorted from the heat of the shot.

“Come out or I’ll throw her in,” the Blue said.

“What makes you think I want her? Maybe I want you, and you’re in the open.”

He remained silent for a moment but I heard his feet shuffling. He was moving away from the pit, dragging her with him. Another blast hit the pillar. The Blue was trying to keep me in hiding.

Regret entered my mind. Why was I squaring off with a professional killer? He’d hit the woman hard on the head. She might already be dead and it was questionable as to her origin. Maybe she was in the same gang and had pulled a double cross.

My ears were everything. I needed to know what that guy was doing. The hammering rain and the creaking of the building filled my head. I could hear nothing of value so I waited and used smarts. An experienced killer would go on the offense and not defense, and this one thought he had me pinned down. He was sweating me, thinking I would panic, run and shoot. That meant he’d put the woman down and was approaching.

I crouched, and then I tossed the lockbox to my left. There was a roar as a blast hit it and sent it flying. Diving out the other way, I rolled and fired a horizontal line of bullets and I got him. I saw him tumble back in the gloom, but just barely. Then I pulled out my small glow light and tossed it in his direction. He wasn’t dead and he was rising fast. I could see the torn front of his coat and knew a vest or body suit had saved him. This time I aimed for the head and he fired a blast that hit the ceiling just as his skull became a flying liquid smear. He thumped to the mud. He was down for good.

Dust and cobwebs showered down from above and I flashed a light around and spotted the lockbox where it had landed. It was dented but intact. Moving back over by the pit I found the woman and shone the light on her. She was young and slim, maybe twenty-four, short copper hair and beautiful. Someone had ordered her hit or she wouldn’t be here. She was also alive with nothing more than a bump on her head and maybe some bruises from the manhandling. I cradled her head in my hands and rubbed her cheeks. After a few seconds, she woke and groaned. A moment later, she remembered where she was and made a startled leap to her feet.

I grabbed her. “Calm down. You aren’t going into the pit. The others are dead.”

She saw the bodies and the blood and gasped. I lifted the light to show her my face. “I’m not one of them. I don’t know what your story is but we’re getting out of here.”

“You’re not one of them. I can see that. They kidnapped me and brought me here. They killed two of my brothers. That’s my neighbour they threw in the pit.”

“What’s it about?”

“Blues and gangsters; they took over the small complex where we lived in the Free Zone. They were turning it into one of their dens. Some residents and my brothers decided to fight them. Fight them and they kill everyone.”

“Your brothers were vigilantes.”

“Yes, they became that. But it was also our property.”

“I’d be one too if I wanted to die quickly. You can’t fight them that way. Those kinds of criminals, you stay off their radar, hit them when they don’t expect it and get out of sight again. You can’t win a straight-out war with them. Too many people are dying because they don’t use proper guerilla tactics.”

“You got somewhere to go, mister?”

“Michaels is the name. Jack Michaels. I got a cab waiting outside of here. Let’s get to it and figure things out from there.”

“Lauren Farrington. That’s my name. If you have a place to stay, I can pay you. I have money in a special account.”

“For now, let’s get out of here.”

I searched the bodies. A set of car keys, no IDs, about a thousand in cash credits. Tearing away a clean section of a dead Blue’s raincoat, I used it to wrap the guns. That package I passed to Lauren.

“Carry these,” I said.

“What are you going to do with them?”

“Either use them or sell them.”

I did some adjustments on the Browning, changing it over from bullets to a fine kill-beam mode, and then we made our way out. Lauren didn’t know where they’d left their vehicle and I couldn’t find it so we headed for the cab. Water was already running over the stony path. The uphill walk was a hard slog against slashing rain. The cab was still there and the vacant lots on either side of it were fast becoming ponds. As we approached, the roof light came on and the cabby got out.

“You said you were coming alone. Who’s she?”

“She got lost down there.” I saw his eyes go to the lockbox under my arm then flick over to the package she had in her hand. He saw the barrel of the sawed-off protruding from the cloth and raised an eyebrow.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll put the lady in the front.”

He walked around the cab, opened the door and motioned for her to come up and get in. Lauren walked up but she didn’t get a chance to get in. The cabby suddenly raised his prosthetic hand and expanded the fingers as he seized her head. She choked out spittle as he pulled her to him, and at that moment, his face changed to an evil grin. “I can tear her head right off with this hand. I want that lockbox you’re carrying, and the package of weapons. Step up and put them in the back seat, then back off.”

My face showed genuine surprise at the power of the bizarre hand attachment. “Hey. Don’t kill her. I’ll do as you say.” He twisted her head some and she grimaced as I walked up. I opened the door and tossed in the lockbox. He pointed to the package she’d dropped. I moved like I was going to pick it up, but I didn’t do that. I did a fast draw of the Browning and hit him between the eyes with a fine kill beam. The shot must’ve hit nerves because his whole face twitched into an ugly mask. A small spurt of blood arced, his claw retracted away from Lauren’s head and he thumped to the soggy ground.

Lauren shook her head and then ran her fingers through her wet hair like she was trying to clean bugs out of it. We were standing in the rain facing each other. She glared at me, but even her glare was pretty.

“I saw you adjust that gun before we came up. You knew he was going to do that and you didn’t warn me.”

“I knew he’d try something, but didn’t expect that. He is no ordinary cabby. He just happened to be waiting when I came out, and he was sloppy. He left his last victim’s empty wallet on the floor in the back seat. The guy either was sent to hit me or works the buildings in that part of town. Picks up customers with some valuables and offs them.”

I walked over to the body and did another adjustment on the Browning.

“What are doing?” she said.

“I’m operating. That prosthetic hand is something new and valuable. I bet he stole it somewhere. I’m taking it.”

Lauren grimaced. She got in the car. A minute later, I got in too, but with the prosthetic neatly cut out and wrapped in a piece of the guy’s coat. She ducked away in disgust as I tossed it into the back seat. Then I started the car and raced away up into the Scarsdale Ringblock area.


Chapter Two: Cupid’s Grotto


Near the top of the hill, the neighbourhood lights turned the rainy mist into nauseating yellow haze. I was approaching the area of seedy public housing we passed on the way in. A dilapidated strip of abandoned stores was off to the left. Some of the stores had windows smashed and others boarded. It was a completely dead stretch. I pulled in and around back. One garage was open, a fallen metal slide door in the mud beside it. It looked about right so I drove inside and put on the cab roof light. Nothing showed but some ancient trash and tires, and a door into one of the closed stops. A faded sign revealed it as a former BodySHOCK super health store.

“Why are you stopping here?” Lauren said, her voice nervous like she still didn’t quite trust me.

“In case you didn’t notice, I just killed that cabby.”

“He deserved it.”

“Yes, but I paid the fare and have to do something about it.” That something was open the lockbox. Opening the car door, I eased away from the steering wheel and put the seat back. With the lockbox on my lap, I spun the code to open it. I put the contents carefully on the dash; three items – a badge, a small tablet and a gun.

Lauren watched me warily.

“So you’re a cop. What good is that stuff? Anyone can buy an obsolete tablet. You already have a better gun than that one. The way you do business you should keep the badge hidden.”

“There’s a reason for it.”

The badge began to glow when I touched it. Picking up the tablet, I powered it on and it lit up at my thumbprint. I opened a special program and started by reading the meter number of the cab.

“What are you doing?”

Rather than reply immediately, I finished the operation then put the contents back in the lockbox and closed it. She waited patiently for about fifteen minutes while I worked and said no more.

“I’m not a cop. I’m a private investigator. The badge is much more than a badge. I simply disguise it that way. I use it to send out a special form of off-spectrum signals. The tablet has custom software and only looks like an antique. The gun is also much more than it looks to be. I had to erase the fare transaction and change the grid number of this cab. The meter I took offline. When they find that body, I don’t want it traced to me. The gangsters don’t matter. Probably the smell will lead to their bodies being found, but the SSU police won’t investigate in any deep way.”

“If you did all that, and that easily, maybe you should rob banks for a living.”

“It wasn’t easy. The program I used took years to develop. I didn’t get the fare money back. I changed the data so it looks like someone else paid it. There is one more thing I have to do.”

“Hey. You just shut off my eyewear. I’m disconnected.”

“That’s right. I also deleted your history. You’re offline. At least until you get something more secure than that system. You can dispose of the contacts here.”

“I paid thousands for it.”

“Yes and those thugs were so stupid they forgot to remove it. You were recording your own death.”

“They didn’t see it because it’s supposed to be invisible. At least it was to them. They scanned me when they grabbed me.”

“The SSU and spy agencies can access all of that stuff as well as head plug-ins. The tablet I use is something special, not like eyewear. It gets around them all. I sent the SSU the clip of that Blue tossing your neighbor into the pit. The rest I took out.”

“Damn. You behave like a thug, but you’re trickier than most of them.”

“Don’t underestimate the thugs out there. They are smart, too.”

I turned in my seat and studied her. Her eyes were hazel and she trusted me – far too much now. I could see that. “You wouldn’t still be with me if you didn’t check out. You’ve been so deep in virtual worlds for the last few years no one in the real world knows you anymore. That’s why you’re so slim, too. You rarely eat. I guess the others pulled you out when things got desperate. Most women want to look as good as you do. You don’t have to live in a fantasy world.”

My compliment didn’t flatter her and her pale face switched from trust to defiance. “You had no permission to track my use of the Connect. You sound like an old dinosaur that thinks only losers need to connect. My brothers pulled me out into this real world, as you call it. I don’t like what I’m seeing. It’s ugly, the vast city out there; now the land of crime. Most of the people there, and that’s many millions, they don’t care who controls it as long as they aren’t disconnected from their personal playgrounds.”

“You think I don’t know that. Most of those people and you plunged into a personal abyss long ago … whether it’s drugs, Connections, or both. There is some ugly stuff around today, in what I call the real world. Ugly gangsters and all those street vegetables of indeterminate gender are fast replacing the beautiful people. At least half of the gangsters look like the dead but they live on thru the power of drugs and enhancements.”

“I see that you aren’t exactly brim full of tolerance. As far as gangsters go, who cares about them? You set a payout of monthly fees and they leave you alone.”

“It didn’t work for you.”

“I was unlucky. We were in the wrong neighbourhood. I have some hidden money. There are things about me you didn’t find online. I can set up in a new place. Start again.”

“This entire city is getting to be the wrong neighbourhood. Sorry, but your new start likely won’t happen. The Blues have your tag. They’ll find you and erase you. The only chance you have now is the real world and hiding from them.”

“Shit. This is turning uglier than death. I have a feeling that this real-world connection to you has put me on their most-wanted list. So where are we going?”

“To a cheap hotel.”

“It figures. This is the sleaziest romance I’ve ever been in.”

The cab proved to be a fine choice of vehicle as the pale blue-and-white bodies of SSU cop cars were all over the Free Zone with spinners flashing. They had numerous checkpoints on the go. With the cab, I was able to pass them. Cabs they often let go as they’d searched them so many times and I only had one female passenger. They focused more on male suspects.

Keeping to the lower streets with the most wheel roads, I drove right through the Gated Core and over near the perimeter roadblocks of the Fortress. We were in a neighbourhood where the city rose high yet had a deep underground. The effect of the rain on these streets was bizarre at ground. So many buildings towered high into the sky with more streets and platform levels that the water came down in unexpected ways. Narrower alleyways had streams running out of them, forcing detours on the way to my stop. At one place, I watched a fierce flow pouring across the road ahead. An assortment of litter and food containers raced with it like paper boats off to feed the rats. When I backed up and turned, a big man ran out of a dark alcove and started banging on the window. He was yelling some crazy shit and I saw him pulling a gun. I hit the gas. He slipped off the car and bounced off the wet street into gutter slime as I drove off. Then it was down into a pay lot under the Capitol Muse Complex.

My passenger gave me a troubled glance. “This neighbourhood is going downhill.”

“The freaks appear everywhere now.”

“I remember this Muse place. It’s as big as a town. I don’t recall a sleazy hotel being inside it.”

“Cupid’s Grotto. It’s twenty floors down and a small place.”

A flip of her hair covered the side of her face as she turned away from me and looked out the window. “You know what. Once you park, I think I’ll find my own way. I don’t need a new home in a black hole.”

“It’s not a romance thing,” I said, but as my eyes roamed over her legs, I found my own talk unconvincing. “The name is a cover. People use it as a spot to cool off. I have a data dot to view and I want to see if anyone is following us.”

“I thought you took care of that?”

“If they detected me somewhere along the way or still want you, they’ll put out a request and buy any current surveillance out there on either of us. I can’t cover every base. There is always the possibility of being a watched fly in somebody’s web.”

“Maybe Cupid’s web, too.”

“I know the owner. We won’t have to stay long to find out. I have a much better place but we’re not going there just yet.”

Cupid’s was a one-floor deal but the Muse was a monster complex and the underground floors were six meters tall and a full city block. The elevator down was from a spot marked Car Wash in the underground garage. You had to know the operating code and you didn’t get a wash, you got a lift down to the small lot on -20. My passenger didn’t seem surprised for once. She took it all in stride. In a society of brief relationships, many where the couples didn’t even meet in the flesh, perhaps we were already too familiar. She was starting with intimate glances and I was thinking that a divorce might not be far off once things went sour.

We got out of the car with her walking ahead toward the obvious and only entrance. The Marquee was an arranged glare of lights in a bizarre 3D Cupid Grotto design that Lukan Plens had run off a custom printer. On the other side of the marquee, we faced an imposing security-check vestibule and Lauren halted and started to look worried.

“How are we going to pass this carrying guns and stuff?”

“Easy. I know the owner, Lukan Plens. He’s like a wall fixture or permanent sculpture, meaning he’s always here in his little domain. The security check is whether he recognizes you. It’s not in what you’re bringing in. At least to a certain extent.”

A series of scary lights flashed followed by a mechanical hum, then the huge copper-shaded doors at the vestibule end swung inward and we walked into the next haze of lights. With greenery climbing out of numerous sculptured planters, Cupid’s lobby was closer in resemblance to a jungle than a grotto. The floor and front desk had an onyx-black design and it highlighted Lukan in his position behind the front desk, as he was also very black. About as black as a black man gets and his teeth about as white as white gets … and he had a big grin on as we walked up.

“Sure seems too quiet, Lukan,” I said.

He had his eyes on a security screen. “Place is mostly full, but not the sort of people who hangout in the lobby. Cyber players on the run, a few vigilantes and the odd guy like you that does some kind of legitimate work.”

Lauren’s expression led me to believe that she didn’t quite buy my line of work as legitimate.

“Who’s the lovely lady,” Lukan said.

“A new girlfriend of mine,” I said. “Not anyone that would be a regular here. More like the girl next door, but she had to move.”

“There are so many people on the move. A few of them find their way here. What’s the deal with all the guns you’re carrying?”

“Thought you might ask. Only one is actually mine. The others were confiscated from some bad guys.”

“So you want a suite?”

“Just for the night.”

“I’ll have to warn you, the price has gone up a lot.”

“I already know, because I know what’s going on out there. Any place free of those blue zombies is at a premium.”

Our suite was at the far end and we encountered only one person on the way down. He was leaving – thin blond man, a player and a Looper with the usual silver ring for the brain connection in the right lobe. I pulled Lauren close to me quickly before she could start a conversation with him. He shrank from us, turning his face away as he hurried off. He was probably here while he raised some cash to pay off gaming debts. A lot people hid at the Grotto until they could pay away the price on their head.

The lights came on in slow sequence as we entered. Cupid’s suites were much bigger than the usual hotel room, and mostly an open concept layout of the central portion with the bathroom and bedroom cubed off. Built-in cleaning systems and delivery systems for food and entertainment created convenience. Only Lukan and one security technician maintained the system. They never came to the door of any suite.

Lauren glanced around and I could see she was impressed. “I feel odd, having nothing to unpack. Can I order a solid change of clothes in this place?”

“For that it has full service of the automated sort in the bathroom. Clothing, cosmetics and prescription drugs come through the machine there. You’ll be billing it to me. I mean the false identity I’m using.”

“You actually have money?”

“I’ve got a data dot to review, so I will be finding out shortly how much new money I have.”

“Top secret, I suppose?”

“Not really. You can watch it. I need to find a missing girl. Maybe you’ll have an idea of where she is. I’ll be putting out the word to any contacts I have. It’s a rich-kid thing with freelancers and even cops trying to collect on the case. I’m the only person my contact gave full information. They’ll know around town that I’m working the case. There is no way I can hide that.”

“I’m not interested, so if you don’t mind, I’ll hit the washroom first and clean up. It’s like I prefer getting the stink of dead bodies off me over watching any data dot.”

I smelled a lot like a dead body myself, so as Lauren slammed and locked the bathroom door, I took my packages to the kitchen and used the nook to clean up my stuff and myself. I washed and toweled my face and cleaned the mud stains off my clothes and hat with spot-removing cloths. The weapons, lockbox and prosthetic hand I also scrubbed. Then I sterilized the hand, sealed it and the guns I’d grabbed from the gangsters in bubble shrink-wrap.

The lockbox had dents from the gunshot but was still in working order. I kept the badge in it as I didn’t need it out or even close to use it to power transmissions. The tablet and special gun I needed. A click-open panel in the side of the tablet held a thin bottle of blue liquid and the small piece of rectangular webbing that was my wrist screen. With a swab, I smoothed some of the liquid on the back of my wrist and counted out twenty seconds before placing the web on it. The nerve pain caused me to wince as the web disappeared under my skin. Small blood bubbles appeared on the rectangular area. Another minute then I wiped them clean. The tablet powered on automatically as did the engine hidden in my badge. A screen flash on the tablet told me all was in order so I locked the box back up with the tablet back inside with the badge.

Lauren was still in the restroom. I heard the hiss of the shower running. Placing the thumb and forefinger of my left hand over the now invisible rectangular area on my right wrist, I tapped them closed then opened them. The flash screen appeared above my wrist and I moved it in front of me and called up a keyboard. I now had a solid reading on everything in this hotel and around it. It looked intrusion-free so I ran through the code that would turn the screen transparent to a barely visible air screen and left it running. The complex program kept my portables out of detection from scans by reading all scan signals and lying to them. The screen had a third mode called ghost, which I rarely used. In that mode the screen would appear in the air above my wrist, but only my eyes would be able to see it.

With that setup done, I switched on the suite’s entertainment system and cracked the data dot in my pocket with an air-screen command. I didn’t want Lauren to know about the screen yet so I shut it down and used the system’s remote to run the rest.

I prefer a flat screen to real-life imagery so I put that on and watched the opening, which was a standard briefing from Wes Cameron. His voice was cold like he was announcing a funeral date. He got straight to the point and had numbers on the top right on what I was being paid per day and what the bonus would be if my help brought Marvel back alive. The figures were so high that I whistled like I was seeing a big lottery winner on the news. Ignition of the data dot meant the daily drop of the fee in one of my hidden accounts. With operating cash, I could begin to move.

Wes ran through twenty minutes of stuff on Marvel Sunbulian, including her character and where she might go if she escaped her captors. Included were shots of her dressed in numerous outfits and with many different make-up and hair changes. I scratched my head at some of it. For sure, the kidnappers would never let her get away. It wouldn’t be hard to identify her because some very bad people would kill anyone getting too close on her trail. I figured I might get close or a location, but on my own I would never actually get right in somewhere past heavy firepower to identify her via Wes’s data-dot info.

I would have to contact Wes directly if I did get anything definite on a location. Many of the security outfits providing bodyguards and goons also did detection, meaning in-office guys using every surveillance trick possible. Obviously, they hadn’t found her and usually they could find anyone. They would have already taken the next step and put outside men on it. Outside men are not really detectives and not always men. Work gets farmed to them because all agencies are licensed through the SSU police. An agency wouldn’t put a registered man on the street to endanger its license. So as well as the bad guys, who were probably Blues or Blue connected, I would have to worry about getting accidentally or not so accidentally, rubbed out by all the stumbling brutes out there on Marvel’s trail.

The info segment ended with a couple pieces of information released only to me. Marvel’s entire upbringing revolved around preparation for life in space. Specifically the moon and the space-station ring around it. The family made its original wealth by owning the patent to the core engine behind modern aircars, a patent so valuable that the United Nations had ended it and placed it in the public domain. Billions in royalties ended, but the Sunbulian family had already buried its wealth deep in the financial system, owning a piece or pieces of nearly everything tangible and intangible. Now it was the moon. The kid would be the family member who would mature to run their piece of that empire hands-on from a moon location.

Lauren emerged from the bathroom before the segment finished and her new clothing wasn’t anything skinned down or romantic. It was more a traveler’s outfit with flared pants and a jacket with wide sleeves. I wondered if she was using some enhancement because the tight top showed her breasts to be much larger than I originally thought. Her earrings were the drop variety, the makeup understated and her slippers form-fitting leather of the type that also served as shoes. Since the clothing was dark, I approved. Considering her circumstances anything that made her less visible to a shooter was a good thing.

“I see you have your show paused. Something exciting you want to show me?”

“Not really. I’m just finishing the info segment on my missing kid, Marvel Sunbulian.”

Lauren studied the image of her in the top right corner. “Very mature for that age. I recognize her and the name. I know little about her. That age group is not something I follow.”

I started the action rolling and we both watched as more of the special only-for-me info came from Wes. The final piece was a suspicion thing. Wes talked about an inside job to aid outside raiders in taking the girl. Marvel had been about to spend some time in Switzerland, for unnamed reasons, and then head for space. The kidnapping seemed too perfectly timed. Maybe someone wanted to keep her from reaching space.

I paused it again and thought that over.

Lauren walked over to the drink machine at the kitchen nook. “Double scotch on the rocks for me,” I said. “Make sure that thing doesn’t put a synthetic lemon slice on it.”

I was still thinking as she returned with the drinks and two fast slices of pizza. “Don’t fry your brain over that one,” Lauren said. “It’s about money. It always is. Because they’re a powerful family, all those other possible motives present themselves. They didn’t grab her to prevent her getting to space. But they likely had inside information and moved their plan ahead to get her before she blasted off to Switzerland then the moon.”

I sipped my drink. “Think so?”

“Yes. The people who did the job have brains and balls. There would be a history of other stuff they’ve done.”

“You’re right. Wes should have found something. I wonder why he didn’t find anything. I mean other than that he thinks she’s here in the city.”

“We haven’t seen it all. Play the rest.”

Next up was surveillance. It had all been taken out in the raid so there was definitely an inside facet to the job. Wes’s serious face appeared as pointers went over a map of Marvel’s private condominium, which was on the edge high up on the main pinnacle tower. The solarium ran out to edge. In size, her place was big. What Wes referred to as the solarium was more the size of a courtyard. The whole place had the latest surveillance and alarm systems and robot protection. I wondered how the kidnappers got through it. There was one piece of surveillance that Wes had gained. A rogue stealth drone had been successfully lurking near Pinnacle City in the higher air. It was very high up with a tag on the grid, marking it as a vehicle recording the impact of a recent solar flare. It wasn’t there as part of the operation to grab Marvel but was really a corporate spy deal, watching various happenings at the sky city. It accidentally grabbed surveillance on the kidnapping, which the Sunbulian family purchased, even though it was blurred and many enhancement programs worked out the picture.

Lauren swallowed the last half of her drink in one gulp and went to get us two more. “So your friend Wes has a little movie of the kidnapping. Grainy or not this will be the test. Let’s play a game and see which one of us can do a better interpretation of it.”

“That’s fine by me. I can use all the free analysis I can get.”

“It isn’t exactly free.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“It means my eyes are sharper than you think. I saw that tiny number box you tried to fade out when I came out of the bathroom. You’re earning a fortune to work on this case. If I’m along on any of it, I want a cut. That’s the way the real world works.”

“Like you said. It’s always about money, isn’t it?”

“Play the clip.”

I played the clip but rather than exciting action we got Wes again, noting that the stealth ship never became visible but the drone’s atmospheric read would present a likely image. That in fact much of the clip would be images painted in based on infrared, thermal, air composition and so forth. With those details presented, the enhanced surveillance began to play.

It showed a large sleek air vehicle drifting in toward Pinnacle City in the Sky. It was a custom craft or independent make and flagged as heavily shielded and armed. That sort of craft would carry about twenty men or some men with robots and equipment. That such a craft was approaching Pinnacle City would generally be nothing to worry about because the Bend would direct it away or outright prevent entry if forced entry was attempted. The Bend barrier protected the Sky City from the ground up and was an aura shield through a bend effect on charged air. Few places in the world had such protection because it took incredible power levels to run such a thing. Incredibly smart technology, it allowed genuine birds, insects, the air itself and registered craft to pass through. All else was blocked regardless of size.

In the enhanced clip, the rogue craft somehow slowed and drifted through the Bend barrier. Its image dematerialized and then showed on the other side. There detection tracked it immediately. Since Marvel’s huge condominium was part of a group owned by her family, all of their security systems detected it, as did the regular city systems. The city systems came on and shut off a second later, before disruptor beams released to the craft to destroy it. The invading aircar then fired a beam weapon of its own that opened a hole in the outer force shield of Marvel’s place. That shield had instantly powered on with detection of the upcoming intrusion.

With the shield compromised, the craft glided in to land on the open area of a patio right next to a sealed swimming pool. The only person actually out in the windy solarium was Marvel. A group of her friends waited just inside under the overhang. It was the sort of setup where a transparent shield would flash off then on when a person walked out to the solarium area. It would remain off if they set it that way. It was on, acting like a window to block the high winds, and because of the intrusion, it came on in secure mode, having the effect of locking Marvel’s friends inside and her outside. A security error where they had assumed Marvel would be inside during any raid.

The video used enhancement to display human forms. Marvel’s tiny form glowed like she was radioactive as she dashed across the solarium for the entry and escape. Her friends were shouting on the other side and pressing against the field. Two armed robots suddenly appeared near her, dropping down from somewhere above. Sleek silver forms moving in fast to prevent any hostile forces from reaching Marvel. They moved so fast their motion was a blur as they raced for the invading vehicle. Before they could reach it, something ejected and it flew straight in to engage the defenders. It was another robot with jets on hands and feet.

The robots collided and a battle began. It was a rough scrap where neither side used anywhere near full weapons capability. The lack of use of weapons arms and strong blasts indicated that both sides wanted the subject, Marvel Sunbulian, left unharmed. The frenzy of blows and tosses caused major destruction on that area of the solarium. In one super forearm blow, the invading robot sent one of the defenders flying off to shatter a fountain statue and bounce off a higher retaining wall. It flew back in but had an obviously damaged leg. Its partner, tired of getting the worst of the blows, chanced a vicious blast … a roar of silver energy and wind that sent the invader right off the solarium and out toward the Bend. There it slowed to a float then suddenly exploded to an expansion of burning shards.

The fight appeared to be over, though the ship was still there and Marvel remained locked out on the solarium. Sirens were blaring and my expectation was that a city defense ship would arrive very soon. The two silver defenders, one now with a limp, were cautiously approaching the ship. It did not attempt a takeoff; instead, another figure emerged from an opening hatch.

Bursts of thunder and lightning suddenly complicated things and clarified the time of the kidnapping. It had happened with the opening of the Spells. The brilliant flash also revealed the new raider to be a man. The sinister figure wore a long dark coat. His face was darkened. He wore dark glasses and was on the large side. Wind tore at his coat and more gusts were coming in and knocking over planters, sending things flying across the open solarium. He held a weapon and I figured he might be one of the Blue gangsters; though it was impossible tell as his image had been partially painted in like the rest. If anything, the effect was frightening and his actual appearance couldn’t have been anything cute judging by Marvel’s terrified scream.

It was an advanced weapon because a quick blast from it blew one of the robots into oblivion. It was impossible to tell what form of charge it fired. The hit was stronger than your usual blaster shot and in this case, it caused total disintegration. The clip showed the robot splinter to a vortex of spinning sparks. The sparks faded to a puff of smoke in the rain that was now pouring down on the scene.

The remaining robot suddenly moved with incredible speed, taking the man down in a rough tumble. As the gun skated over the stones, the two of them struggled. It is not possible for any human being to struggle with any robot of that caliber. The muscles that move them are tissue-like plastic and about ten times stronger than human muscles. Guard robots, in physical strength and design can out-muscle other robots, though in any fights in the open they use the weapons built into their arms, hands, mouths and eyes. Because robots carry so much power, human bodyguards remain as the protection travelling with the rich and elite. Robots and even humans with plug-ins can be brain hacked and are thus not reliable. Robots and the new androids are also prohibited entry to many places as they are extremely dangerous weapons. The tactic in battle is to disable them with special weapons, not struggle with them.

Lauren stared open-mouthed at this segment, because this man actually was wrestling with a robot and prevailing. After a long exchange of deadly blows, the man managed to seize and toss the robot for a roll across the transparent seal over the top of the outdoor pool. The robot came off the edge of that and picked up one of the huge stone blocks walling in soil on a raised portion of the garden. He threw that through the air at the man as he approached and rather than duck aside the guy jumped right up and over it … a better than Olympic jump that preceded another round of blows.

The robot decided to risk some fire; he blasted the man with beams from his eyes and mouth during a close exchange. That sent him stumbling back. Steadying the attack the robot lifted both arms and opened both hands to send two coarse energy beams right into the man. They set him on fire and sent him for a hard bang to the stone that continued as a rough slide over to crash into a metal portion of an arbor.

The man’s face and coat were in flames; in the enhancement, facial features hadn’t shown, as if he was wearing a mask or bandages on his face, along with protective glasses. The heavy rain transformed the fire to billows of smoke, and the robot was moving in for the kill. As it stepped up, the man jumped up and struck out with a spike or knife pulled from his coat. He used so much force that the blow pierced the robot’s breastplate. With his left hand, he punched the robot hard and it staggered back and lit up a moment before it exploded. Red liquid shot from its eyes as it fell.

The pouring rain drenched the man and cooled his smoking coat as he walked across the solarium to Marvel. She remained cowering by the force field. She was alone, as her friends on the other side had fled during the fight. Marvel shivered in terror as the man seized her and carried her back to the ship. Moments later they were gone, vanishing into the higher air outside the Bend of Pinnacle City.

As the clip ended, I turned to Lauren. “Here’s a chance for you to earn your wages. What in the hell was that?”

“I can’t believe it. I mean, I can’t believe they hired you to deal with that man. If he is a man. He took direct fire from a robot. His flesh should have been cooked even if that coat was fireproof.”

“Wes wouldn’t expect me to slug it out with him. He wants a location. They would already have experts attempting to figure out who or what he is and how to take him out.”

“I think he’s that guy they call the Doctor … the hidden leader of the Blues. No one sees him yet everyone fears him. If he is that strong, people have a reason to avoid him.”

“People that see him probably don’t live to talk about him. If the Blues are a drug creation, my guess is that he is tagged as the Doctor because he is the supplier of those drugs. Blues I’ve seen are extremely strong, but they have nowhere near the power this guy displays.”

Lauren’s eyes narrowed to a flutter of lashes. “That monster sure doesn’t look like a doctor. He uses advanced gangster technology. He used that air ship and special gun. I know the Blue drugs are body warping, but his strength and resilience were far beyond that. He withstood weapons blasts from the robot. He had to be wearing a protective body suit, though we could not see it. How would glasses and some minor mask block a blast to the head?”

“You forget about personal shields. I use one in tough situations. Very expensive but they aren’t invisible. If he was using one it should have showed as a halo.”

“Where would he buy that custom weapon?”

“I don’t know,” I said, lifting my gun off the table. “Speaking of weapons, I have to make an adjustment on this gun.”

“What’s so special about that gun that you keep it locked up?”

“Anyone smart keeps all weapons locked up.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Let’s stick to the Doctor. How would a man have so much power?”

“Well, the clip shows him as a man. Maybe he isn’t one. Special combat suits are easy to spot. This would be a new form of enhanced human. I’m assuming the image is as accurate as possible. He looked like a man and moved like one, only stronger and faster.”

“We are up against unknowns here and too many of them. Either that guy or someone else has made some technological advances. In the old days, they mastered the technology they developed. In this era, we usually see humans mastered by the technology that already exists. There is something old-style about that creep. His ship and even his body look specially developed for some personal mission. He is not out there to enrich a corporation or test some new gizmos. He is driven by some other motive that appears to be more than an organized crime deal. Organized crime is about money, power and sin. They take over sin city and live off the riches.”

“Marvel Sunbulian is still a target in that category. They can keep her alive, and make her family do things.”

“She was headed for the moon. I can’t imagine Blues on the moon or controlling anything there.”

“Maybe they want their own franchise up there. But you are right. The world powers they would be up against in taking a shot at the moon would be incredible. They can’t really control this city either. They can only be the big guys on the block. This place is high as the sky and deep as the ocean with too many hidden warrens for anyone to find let alone control.”

“Okay. We’re going to move ahead. We can stay here for the night. You’re going help me smuggle these few things back into my new place. I need to secure my portable office there and send out to my contacts across the city. I’m throwing a line in the pond for some Marvel fishing. Any lead that comes up we’re going to follow. Don’t count on traveling with me because if it involves Blues we may have to go into that territory.”

“I’m from that territory, remember.”

“Yeah and they’re hot for you. Think about changing your hair and face some. Right now I’m going to clean up before this booze hits me and I get drunk and tired.”

Units at Cupid’s Grotto at that time contained nearly everything a traveller could need. The set-up suited guests that often couldn’t go out for anything. At least not while hiding from all surveillance. The bathroom machines had several ad panels I went through, but I decided against ordering any of the selection designer men’s clothes. I was already wearing high quality clothing so I opted for a slow air cleaning of my own stuff while I took a shower. I was about finished when I thought of grabbing my overcoat from the rack and blasting the mud off it.

Exiting the bathroom, I heard the distinct rap of the lions-head doorknocker and saw Lauren strolling over to the door. She stopped, her eyes flicked to me and I waved her over to me. “See who it is and let me know. Don’t open the door.”

At the security panel, she hit the view button and the facial image of Lukan Plens appeared inside an oval screen. “Why didn’t you just call the room?” she said.

“I want to speak to Jack in private about something. Can you let me in?”

“Hang on.” She hurried over to me, a gleam of suspicion in her hazel eyes.

I spoke in a low voice. “Tell him I’m in the shower. Wait a few seconds and let him in when I wave to you. As the door opens, duck left.”

She did what I said and walked slowly back to the door. “Jack’s just coming out of the shower. Do you want to come back or wait in here?”

“I can wait inside. Open up.”

Lauren glanced back to me then down to the floor. I was lying there on my back with my gun at ready. She wrinkled her nose and frowned like she thought I’d gone totally weird, but as I waved my left hand, she opened up … or tried to open up … because as soon as she clicked the bolt back he forced the door. Whacked by it, Lauren stumbled off to the left. Lukan Plens, huge weapon in hand, burst into the room. He did not immediately see me lying on the floor just inside the door and he stumbled over my feet. He was falling right toward me when I fired. The shot came from my Shilo, the gun from the lockbox. It was set in kick-beam mode. A mode used for knocking holes through walls or knocking down doors. The force of the wide blast sent Lukan up in the air for a hard bounce against the ceiling.

I spun the cylinder left as I rolled away and hit him again as he tumbled down, knocking him back to the open entranceway. Stunned as he was he’d managed to hold on to his weapon, which he fired as he rose. It was a beam weapon and he had it set on a straightforward kill mode. He didn’t kill anyone. His shot went wild, missed us both and burned an ugly hole into one of the kitchen nook machines.

Before he could shoot again, I fired in sustained mode and a rattle of energy packets pounded him. Keeping my finger tight on the trigger, I shifted the blasts to his head, which ignited, expanded and exploded.

He spilled down on the floor, rolled onto his back then went limp. His head was still intact but it was no longer Lukan’s head, as that had been a shielded mask; one that didn’t quite withstand packet fire from my gun.

Lauren stepped over and stood beside me. She looked completely shaken, a quiver on her full lips. The guy’s scorched face wasn’t pretty. “Damn,” she said. “Lukan Plens is not the real Lukan Plens. He’s someone else.”

“That appears to be the case.”

“How did you know?”

“I figured if anyone was tracking me they’d try to hit me here. Since I’ve been here before I know Lukan never comes to the door. He rings from the desk and asks me to come out there if he wants something.”

“That mask was so real. Maybe it fooled you, too. If the guy was already here waiting, you talked to him at the desk and didn’t notice.”

“That’s possible. I didn’t expect it at all. I noticed the fire systems off when I ran a security scan. It didn’t hit me then. They were off so they wouldn’t alarm once the shooting started. I call this guy a smooth hit man. The vest absorbed the impact of the kick blast and the ceiling he hit. The mask took sustained fire for a second.”

“I’m getting sick of dead bodies,” she said as I reached down and pulled away a piece of his coat. Fragments of the mask were stuck to his hair so I examined one. I could make out some of his scorched face. He had rough facial features, heavy whiskers and a slightly crooked mouth. He registered as a gangster and on drugs for a long time. The deterioration that begins the slow transition to smelly body rot was well underway. He wore a light vest and bodysuit under his regular suit. The gun was a Wesson specialty weapon made for up-close kills and had narrow beams that suddenly expanded when finding flesh. It was a hit man’s gun so powerful that even without finding flesh it had drilled a deep hole into the kitchen nook.

“I guess we know why all Wes’s deep cover men went silent.”

“This has to do with the Marvel case?”

“Looks like it. This guy’s been hitting anyone who might talk or works the case. He got my number as fast as I got the case. He wore a mask built to take direct fire and had built-in chameleon technology. He came in here, talked to Lukan and the mask read his face and duplicated it. He didn’t get that mask at a novelty store or even on the black market. It’s secret-agent stuff. The Blues are now far ahead of other gangsters when it comes to equipment.”

“Yeah, but this hit man was on the old Intel drugs. If he was working with the Blues, the equipment probably came from the Doctor. The same guy that fights robots. But what about the real Lukan, what happened to him?”

“We can try to check that out. We should make an exit. This place is too hot.”


Chapter Three: Underground


Our exit wasn’t immediate. The suite had an option of calling in cleaning robots for any major spill or disaster and Lukan had them trained well. We used them to remove the body, which they did without hesitation, dumping it down a hidden disposal chute that opened in the wall. Lauren polished the hit man’s gun then I went into the bathroom and finished my cleanup. When I came out, she waved me over. She had the news on. She looked unhappy.

“You need to see this,” she said.

I looked at the action on the screen. It was the City Streets channel. City Streets was crime news more than anything else. The clip playing would appear on every media blast in some fashion. It showed a new military emplacement outside of the city and the talking head interviewing a general. General Cole by name and he outlined details of a military operation at the city perimeter. The federal government now had the Toronto City State sealed off and the military was using search and seizure powers for unspecified reasons. Split screens showed vehicles fleeing town through other corridors and I knew the city would still operate, though a larger segment of trade would be black market in spite of the action against smuggling. Gangsters received blame for drawing action from the feds. A screen segment flashed in showing a Blue gangster firing a gun in the air, but the clip wasn’t recent, as it wasn’t raining.

“Any idea what the motives are for this?” Lauren said.

“Politics. The feds are punishing the city government for letting this Blue gangster thing develop and get out of control. Since the Blues really only operate in numbers here and in Miami, they don’t really care. The action is mostly fake, and a way to raise prices and profit. It is also about martial law. The federal action gives the SSU martial law powers. They can arrest and do major assaults on the Blues. It would be a move to contain them in certain pockets. They are dividing the city. I know it is already divided into zones, but this way they are signalling the Blues that they can have certain areas, but will face heavy firepower if they don’t stay out of others.”

“This arrangement screws us. How can we work on a case in a martial law environment? We’ll be under fire or jailed.”

“We aren’t screwed. We simply face obstacles. All surveillance and manpower will have a focus on the situation with the Blues. The SSU knows who I am so they won’t bother us as long as we stay out of their way. Anyone out there on the books as connected with the Blues, and that is a lot of people, faces being quarantined in their areas if they don’t want to be shot or swept up for some special brutal treatment.”

Being so deep in the Muse and rock solid, Cupid’s was near sound proof and shut off from many forms of detection. The little episode in our suite hadn’t been loud enough to alert anyone in the other suites. We emerged in the hallway to find it empty with the whoosh of air circulation the only sound. The lobby was also ghostly, soft nature music playing through Lukan’s forest of potted greenery and not even one smelly body on the hoof. I left Lauren holding the packages at a marble side counter while I fished around in the little back cubbyhole of Lukan’s. A scan detected his equipment but it took a couple minutes to find a way to get inside to it. The lock was a simple fingerprint reader hidden in the base of a fake trophy. I didn’t have the fingerprint, but I did have a beam mode on the Shilo that varied in pattern and frequency so fast it tricked the reader. Fortunately, this time it took a short four minutes to work then the panel swung inward. Most of his security equipment was inside. Lukan was also there, his corpse on the floor partially propped against the far wall. The cause of death appeared to be strangulation, his complexion blue and his face puffed and puckered with a segment of tongue protruding. At that moment, I remembered the hit man’s gloves. I’d noticed them but had failed to check them out. Lukan’s state indicated they were more than protective and a design that increased hand and finger strength dramatically in close encounters of the crushing variety.

At that moment, I wondered if Lukan had royally pissed someone off. If not, someone wanted the hunt for Marvel ended and had brought in a pro to kill off everyone found investigating. Erasing their star hit man had likely bought us some free time because they wouldn’t expect it.

I decided to play dead, using Lukan’s equipment and my own memorized contact codes to send out for leads. That took a couple minutes and I rigged it so it would look like the message had been sent on arrival or before my supposed death. That way it would be tracked but the bad guys would think I was already dead while others getting it would know the offer of big money was out for any leads on Marvel.

Lukan had a few small but deadly items in a desk drawer and I pocketed a few of them. Lauren walked in and grimaced. She stared at Lukan’s body then covered her eyes like she wanted it to go away. I guessed that she hadn’t been lying about being tired of the taste of death.

“Is there anywhere safe to go right now?”

“Yes, the Fortress. But I need to do some thinking on the way, on how to get this stuff inside my suite at E-Towers.”

Nearly an hour later my thinking was something Lauren wished I hadn’t done. We were still deep underground but walking along a piece of abandoned Bullet tunnel toward what appeared to be a dead end ahead. I had the display light on my Shilo gun set to target mode and the packages containing the hand and weapons strapped under my coat. The only sounds were occasional deep rumbling and water that was trickling and dripping. A flow of water ran across the tunnel ahead so I stopped and flashed the beam around. Lauren was behind me and when I turned to face her, she looked weary and irritated, with her copper hair sticking like damp strings to her face.

“This is the last time I listen to you.”

“What can I say? The city map lists the Bullet train running through here. Except they forgot to list that this stretch has been decommissioned.”

“Decommissioned … try condemned. This place might collapse at any moment. That smell is the fragrance of stinking rats, and those damaged areas we passed back there looked like blast holes. There was shooting or fighting down here.”

“It appears so, but the newer Bullet line is around here somewhere, just above us according to the map.”

“Fuck,” she said as we stopped at the edge of the flow of water and faced a collapsed portion ahead.

“Nothing here,” I said, and then I flashed the light above and along the tunnel roof. I saw something and turned off the light. A glow showed above the area we had just passed. Lauren saw it too so we walked back and I flashed the light up.

Lauren sighed with relief as she saw some metal rungs just up out of reach on the wall. They were painted neon blue and new. “Someone installed them,” she said. “As a way of entering and exiting this old tunnel. Someone taller than us.”

“Maybe Blues and other gangsters, to hide down here when the heat is on. The path above definitely leads to a Bullet train stop.”

“Yeah, and maybe to a group of those creeps.”

“Probably not. No one’s been down here for a while. I’ll boost you up to that rung then when you’re up we’ll see if I can get up.”

Just as I was giving her a fast boost, a train rumbled nearby. I slipped and nearly fell, but she went up as I’d boosted her hard. The loud train was good news that meant we didn’t have far to go. Half a minute later, I was up and studying the tunnel. It was an underground service corridor and large enough to walk upright. The floor was smooth as steel or glass and obviously made for robots to run along during emergencies. The light came from small yellow button panels. We knew which way to go, towards the rumble. We didn’t get far along before we found a different sort of tunnel leading off. Tall and narrow and the floor was rough concrete. It was a crude construction for sure, and lit with the same lighting. It ran in twenty meters to a mechanical-room style of door.

“Stay out of there,” Lauren said as she saw me stepping inside the tunnel. “We have enough problems already. I don’t understand why you picked this route or how you expect to get into the Fortress and E-Towers carrying a sack of weapons.”

“You worry too much,” I said, not wanting to think of possible problems at E-Towers at that particular moment.

I walked toward the door and felt her tugging at my coat, trying to pull me back. She failed and I stepped forward, pulling out my weapon. One fine beam mode worked to pick locks so I did that setting lightning fast, hoping to get a fast unlock to open the door for a look before Lauren could get going with any major objections. I never did that unlock, because the door suddenly opened outward and I found myself facing a big mother of a Blue.

This guy was tall with spiky whisker stubble, a flattened nose, and tiny close-set dagger eyes. He was surprised like me and faster because he got his attack underway first, grabbing for my gun with his left hand while punching me in the stomach with his right. The weapons strapped under my coat spread the force of that blow up to my chest and spared me some pain. He hurt his hand and that broke the flow of his attack. I was able to keep hold of my gun but fell backwards as he lunged forward. Lauren screamed but she also caught me and stumbled back holding me.

I had to get out of the sandwich situation and he was still focusing on my right arm, not realizing the mode my gun was set on wouldn’t kill him or even hurt him. I let the gun go but flicked my wrist so it went down the corridor behind him.

He could have kept working on me, which would have been the smart thing to do. Instead, he shoved me hard into Lauren and moved back. He blocked my access to my fallen gun and moved to draw his own. I caught myself in the moment and moved forward fast. His gun was coming up for the kill shot so I threw my hand under and up, causing him to blast the ceiling.

The flash was blinding, the bang popped my ears, dust and debris immediately fell but I managed to keep his arm up. In that instant, I got my other hand in my coat and pulled out the gun I’d grabbed from the hit man. It I hadn’t wrapped. I got a shot into him at close range but since I hadn’t changed it from its original setting, the gathering force blew us apart. That mode needed a short distance for the shot to take so my action caused the force to balloon and dissipate.

He got the worst of it and went down. I staggered back. Lauren was pulling at me from behind again and saying, “Let’s get out of here.” But I didn’t leave. I waited for the dust to clear and stepped over the body. I went through the open door and studied the room he had emerged from, finding it to be dimly lit but quite large. It held some metal-frame furnishings, chairs and view screens. An attached room was probably a bedroom. No other Blues were inside and I didn’t see anything of interest so I went back out to the body.

Lauren remained standing on the other side of it, flustered as usual. She was starting to look witchy from the sweat and dust of the underground. “We’re getting out of here; just wait a moment while I search his coat.”

She snorted, her eyes searching me out, but she didn’t reply. I took the Blue’s gun then went through his coat. He carried nothing but car keys and a card. A blue card with a strange gold logo on it and I could tell by the feel that it was an access card. I kept it and tossed the keys, and then we walked away.

The main tunnel ended at a Bullet train stop, the mechanical area on the other side of it. We went through the door to the platform using the Blue’s access card, finding ourselves at the far end of it. Flashing billboards, signs, and a wide walkway out into a deep underground shopping and leisure area were at the other end. The train register said the next train was five minutes off. Eight people stood at the other end.

“Ever been down here?” Lauren said.

“Not this specific location. The newer underground is okay because they’ve made it bigger and brighter. The older areas are often slums. Warrens of crime … because it is so cheap to live down here and SSU cops have poor control.”

“Why was that Blue down here?”

“It would be part of their expanding control. They stationed him down here. There would be at least a few of them around. There are men on call in all areas they control. They have men in place from the underground to the sky tops, all spots that are hard to find. I see why the SSU can’t keep them down. Military enemies are defeated in major battles but the Blues don’t often come out that way. They are higher-level gangsters controlling other gangsters. That guy didn’t even carry money or credit with him. They take what they want.”

A bigger man suddenly appeared in the crowd we were approaching. He wore his wide hat brim low, full-length belted raincoat, thick-soled black boots. I immediately turned and stared at a large ad display and Lauren turned with me. It was a display of nearby real estate for sale. I had no interest in it but waited for the man to pass us.

He didn’t, not right away. He halted and I could feel his eyes burning into my back. A few moments later, he moved on. That was fortunate for him because I was ready to turn around fast and burn him. He was a Blue, high collar, dark glasses, and his face hidden due to shadows from the overhead lights. This one was young, so he wasn’t on the drug change for life extension. Blues carry a bad rubberlike odor and he wore big slaps of aftershave to try to hide it. The masking was partial. It had to be the body altering drugs. The fluids from their sweat glands were foul.

Lauren and I turned away from the billboard at the same time. He went through the service door we had used. The train was now rumbling into a distant stop and to my great irritation, it hung there as we nervously waited.

Five long minutes later, it roared through the tunnel mouth, only braking at mid-point to an air-cushioned stop, and we boarded the tail-end car. I was looking back as boarding finished and the train sprang away with a small jolt and big rushing roar. Back on the platform, the Blue burst through the service door with a weapon in hand. He’d found the body and visible anger showed on his apish face. He raised his weapon and fired, causing a sudden blinding flash. The train’s rear blast shields automatically absorbed the fire, so it was too late for the Blue as we were racing away from that crappy place.

I turned to Lauren but said nothing. My roundabout plan of escaping through the underground should have allowed us to avoid hit men and not search them out. I still believed other routes would have been worse.

“Let’s move to the front car,” I said. “In case that guy has someone ahead on the line he can contact.”

Flexible segments connected the cars and they were open so we moved ahead two cars then sat as the deceleration alert came on. A gang of teens was at the other end of the car. Gang was the right term as they had patches on their jackets and Loops in their ears.

“Looks like this ride goes through the bad side of the underground,” I said.

Lauren gave me a knowing glance. “Half of it is the bad side now. That’s why they call it Underground Alley. The kids already wear Loops by teen years.”

“You talk like they’re all bad, yet you were fully connected. They ride high on the Loops, but not all of the time. I’m surprised your brain didn’t get fried with all the time you were deep in the Connect.”

“They use worse stuff than Loops. I think they’d be better off doing it through the Connect. You are right about it being hard to come out, but my brain isn’t fried. Cheap Loops can fry your brain. You have no protection from online hostiles like you do on the Connect.”

“I don’t use either. I use reality.”

“You have no Loop scar in your ear. I don’t see you popping Intel drugs. You said you don’t Connect. So what gives? Only businessmen are like you.”

“Not really. They are conditioned in a certain way.”

“So what’s your reason? Why are you such a bore? You must be one of the only people who actually gets his rocks off living in that dirty city out there.”

“I might use anything if it’s needed on a case. But like Marvel, I was trained for space. Taken away before I could get into Loops, drugs or the Connect. My training was intense. She is to go up as a bureaucrat, working for the family. That would be minimal preparation, no dangerous situations. That’s why I don’t buy the idea of someone wanting to stop her from getting to the moon. The family could send anyone trusted up there or they could use an AI to run things remotely. Using Marvel would be just a preference.”

“My family had the same preference when it came to me. They sent me to a private school then some business courses. I never showed for work. My brothers did show. That’s all they were interested in until they got into vigilante revenge stuff. Now I have one older brother left running things. The other two are dead.”

“What’s the business?”


“You mean you’re from the Farrington family with all the designer clothing stores. That business has outlets everywhere. Why would your brothers fight over one stupid neighbourhood? They should have just abandoned it or sent others in to do some killing.”

“Some of the employees got killed at the beginning. It was a long dragged-out affair and involved extortion. They got personally involved. My younger brother Arthur was always on a power trip. He was like a gangster and had some affiliation with them. He had too much pride and I don’t think he realized what he was fighting. No one expected the Blues to gain so much power.”

“So you’re another little Marvel. The prep school girl the family was going to put in charge.”

“My mother is still alive, my father dead. She never liked or trusted any of my brothers. She was going to leave me the keys to it all, at least before I dropped out and failed her.”

“Yeah, and your brothers don’t sound like the type that would’ve handed things over to you. There would have been a power struggle.”

“Guess I’ll never find that out now. My remaining brother, Charles is running things. The family wouldn’t bring me in to work for the company now. They see me as compromised.”

“We all get compromised.”

“Is that what happened to you and space?”

“My family is also wealthy though I rarely see any of them. They aren’t in the city and they don’t supply me with any funding. The plan used to be to send your son off to be a space hero. The Crater, that’s what we called the moon back then. It was the top destination. I was up there for a while. I prefer having my feet on real ground and that’s why I’m back. Up in space, you can experience infinity, but it is through a window in a tin can or through the visor of a suit. Too many responsibilities create stress and it becomes your new gravity. That’s where I learned to stay in reality. You stay alive longer up there if you have a serious focus on everything going on around you.”

“Your body is normal. I see no special space development or enhancement.”

“They used mostly training then, starting at a young age. You can’t panic or develop sudden psychological problems on space missions. When I returned it took me a year to adapt. People they send up now don’t come back because they can’t adjust.”

“I’m having some difficulty here, trying to picture the violent Jack Michaels of this city on the Moon Belt. You can’t start blasting away, not up there.”

“That’s right, and there are no gangsters either, or punks like those ones over there. They have nice little communities on the Crater, and the Moon Belt, too. You may see me as violent. In my thinking it is a practical way of dealing with thugs.”

The train had slowed to a crawl while we were talking. Rows of pale yellow interior lights began blinking, and since we’d just left a stop, I wondered what was happening. Then we came to a halt in the dark tunnel. Considering how the day had gone so far it wasn’t something I considered positive. The youths up ahead of us were walking back toward us and I didn’t consider that thrilling either. The train was mostly empty and we were the only people on the car other than them. My urge was to somehow move ahead with the case, not get into a dust-up with punks … not armed ones that would definitely cause trouble. Veering down a violent sidetrack wasn’t in my plans.

“Lauren. Any news on who those alley knockers are?”

“The back of one guy’s jacket showed when he turned to talk to his girlfriend. His crest was of a stylized skull face with rings around it. They would be the Saturn Alley Gang. Some of them used to be in my neighbourhood, the Free Zone. They are originally from the underground Saturn Line Complex not far from here. These ones have a big presence on the Connect, too.”

“I’ve heard of them. The spin is they are a teen gang that victimize businessmen for sport. Don’t’ say anything to them. Wait and see if they pass.”

The train lingered and refused to move. Four members of the gang did stroll past, but unfortunately they were the smaller members and two of them were girls. Three bigger guys remained, loitered at the entrance across from us and stared at us. I knew the game. First spook us, get us to speak first, then diss anything we might say and move from there to hassle us.

We said nothing and they got tired of waiting. The middle guy, the one that I took for the leader, took a step forward. I studied all three. Their jackets were genuine leather and covered with the usual gang patches. They showed the wear that that life in the underground streets would cause. They also wore loose trousers and soft leather boots. Dark shirts and neck chains showed behind the open jackets. Like other gangs, they wore no logos or images other than their gang tags. The loose fit of their clothing was effective for hiding items or weapons. All three wore ear Loops that weren’t presently active. They sported no eyewear with tag-thrus to the Connect, so they were smart enough to know that stuff was easily tracked. Two had long hair with dyed licks and were mulatto, but the leader had his head shaved to a short brush and was white. All were in good condition and lithe. They could probably dance as well as they could fight.

Only the leader spoke. “You’re that Farrington woman, aren’t you?”

I glanced at the burn scar on his right cheek and then to Lauren. She appeared to think out her answer, which was a dumb mistake. “I just look like her, that’s all.”

“You’re her. I recognize you from the ads. You’re supposed to be dead. I know they shot your brother. You look like you just came out of the sewer.”

“My new boyfriend likes it down there.”

All eyes turned to me. The leader had intense blue eyes and a pinched and pissed way of looking me over. I could see he had no fear of me. Instead of feeling like socking him, I was pissed at Lauren. “So, your face is known all over town. Sure would’ve been nice if you would have told me that.”

“I did some ads, billboards and stuff. A lot of them showed in the underground. People don’t recognize me everywhere. They’d just think my face is familiar or that I’m the girl from some flashing style ads.”

The punk spoke again. “You’re more than the girl from the ads. You’re a Farrington with money. This is our territory and you’re a heat score. You can’t pass through here or hide here unless you pay us, and big time. Since you’re not dead, the Blues are probably looking for you right now and we don’t want more of them here.”

I looked him in the eye. “I didn’t see the toll booth and we’re just passing through. We ducked a nasty Blue back there.”

“Who are you, pal? You look like an uptown gambler or maybe an undercover cop … or something else that ain’t worth much.”

“My name is Jack. I do odd jobs. I’m an independent operator.”

All three of them snickered at that. “I’m Brett Mercurio,” the leader said. “One thing we know is there are no independent operators. Everyone ties in to some outfit. There is no other way to survive. I think you’re shitting us about Blues being nearby. They haven’t come in this far yet. Unless you drew them in … in which case, you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“I said we ducked one of them. A scout maybe. By independent I mean I work for clients.”

“What kind of clients?”

“Clients that can pay.”

“So, you’re just another slimy hit man. Well, take a close look. My pals over there already have you covered.”

“I’m not a hit man, Brett. I do private detective work. Right now I’m looking for someone.”

“Really. The lady you found is not someone we want to find right now. Two of her brothers shot it out with the Blues. They died. They were vigilantes with firepower. I suppose she didn’t mention that or that she’s supposed to be dead.”

“She told me, but it’s not her I’m looking for … it’s a girl. A young one. You guys like money. Maybe you heard something about her. Real information could mean a big payoff. Give me a drop number and if you find something I’ll pay out.”

That statement came across as too much for Brett’s paranoid brain. I glanced at the other four a ways down the car. It wasn’t news to me that they had a couple guns trained on us in an under-jacket way. Pulling his two close buddies aside, Brett got into a whispered conversation with them and a minute later stepped back up.

“Okay. You’re with a Farrington, so you must have access to money. Only we want a first payment. We’ll dig up some info if we don’t have some already. Who is it you’re looking for … what’s her name?”

“The name is Marvel Sunbulian.”

“Marvel Sunbulian.” He repeated it like he couldn’t believe he was saying it. “How could you be looking for her? She’s Pinnacle City elite. She’s only been in the city once ever.”

“She’s missing. The reward for her is big numbers. Any news is valuable. You say she was in the city once. That info is worth money. Give the when, where and why.”

“Hang on, hang on,” Brett said, then he waved to his friends down the car and I saw them ease their hands off their weapons. “This is going to take some negotiating. I’m not giving anything I have straight out. If you’re telling the truth many people might want to pay for that info.”

“Get me her location and you’ll be able to retire young. Her family is the payee.”

“Location? Is this a game? Pinnacle City people don’t come here. There’s nothing to track. She could be anywhere in the world.”

“Word is she’s here, somewhere in the city.”

Brett thought it over but before he could answer, a big jolt hit the train. It began to move, though slowly.

“Something’s not right,” Lauren said. “There have been no announcements. There are always announcements for any train delays.”

Brett suddenly looked around as if somebody was hunting him. “Fuck, she’s right. The driver has the full shields on … we can’t get off the damn train. I know what it is … next station is full of SSU cops. We’re cruising into a cop shakedown. Shit, you brought big heat on us.”

I felt a headache coming on. “Don’t panic,” I said. “Let’s all slowly walk to the front of the train.”

No one disagreed. No one said anything. Brett shook his head, throwing off a mix of disappointment and rage. I took the lead, followed by Lauren, Brett and the others. A few other frazzled passengers remained silent and stared with suspicion as we passed. They were all lower income Underground Alley people and not part of any fashionable crowd. The next stop up on the map was Maple Way. Not a fabulous neighbourhood, but old style with a core composed of one monster-big tacky mall that radiated off into the housing hives.

Rows of yellow emergency lights still flashed above the train’s interior windows and the light bars between the cars now shone yellow. In the absence of any announcements, I assumed yellow meant trouble but not enough to put the train out of service. The driver was likely coasting in for a stop.

Reaching the front car, we saw that the driver’s barrier was down. The thick shield of metal was impervious to beam and bullet fire and it protected the driver during emergencies. We halted on spotting that and Brett spoke. “Trouble all right. He’s sealed the train without announcing it. They do that when the SSU is waiting to board. They’ll be there at the next station. About that deal. We have a drop on the Connect. We’ll leave you a message and a price if we get a tip on the Marvel deal.”

Lauren pushed in between us. “Why are you guys talking business now? Screw Marvel. We have to escape this train?”

Nothing more was said because Brett suddenly turned. He shoved his friends aside and began a mad dash to the rear. We all followed, passing through ten big cars sparsely populated with stupefied onlookers. None of them followed us. They all shrank from us. On entering the last car, Brett and his gang began rousting the other passengers, ordering them to move ahead to other cars. No one disobeyed or put up any argument. They simply got up and left, almost as if it was some type of legitimate evacuation.

We were cruising in on a slow-moving bullet, almost like in a movie where they slow the scene before impact. I thought that way because the feel was all wrong. The front portion of the train was already coasting into the station. Brett and a guy he called Sandy moved all the way to the rear and stuffed something into edges on the sealed rear-end exit door. A moment later, they ran back up the car.

The train continued coasting in until our car emerged in the light. The station ahead was a long alley silhouetted by posts. I saw artwork on the walls and huge display ads up by the main exit. The waiting riders lurking by the posts weren’t your usual travelers about town and they were spaced along the whole tunnel. Telltale long shadows revealed the hats and overcoats of gangsters. Some of them had their guns out fully and farther along two men stood out in the open and appeared to be the leaders.

Brett’s mouth fell open at the sight. Lauren choked with surprise and couldn’t speak. This welcoming committee was not easy to swallow. I grabbed Brett’s shoulder and shook him, “What did you plant in the doorframe?”

“Burst putty, the most potent brand of it. It will blow any second, but only outward. Eats like acid first then explodes.”

Lauren came alive. “We can run down the tunnel, but they’ll follow.”

The train doors were about to open and the closest gangsters were hurrying back to our car. One was a Blue, the others creepy neighbourhood guys. The burst putty made a final fizz then blew off the rear door. The special flash also knocked out the rear energy shield as we dashed back and through the opening. Gunfire was already raking the car windows as we piled out. I was the last and thrown violently as the driver suddenly got the train’s rear shield to reactivate. I’d exited just in time to find myself kicked away from the train by it.

A smoothly executed roll brought me up in the dust beside the blasted door piece. I was shaken and likely bruised. The others were running ahead and Lauren had paused to look back. My gun was already out. I made a fast adjustment that allowed me to fire a wide heat beam. It blazed and flashed past the train end and brought the running gangsters to a halt. They continued firing but with the train end car, the wall and platform in the way, and the blinding flash, their shots couldn’t reach into the tunnel other than by ricochets.

I stumbled down the dim tunnel with Lauren. A quick glance back showed no gangsters down in the tunnel yet and I turned and fired another wide blast to stall them. A shot like that wouldn’t kill any of them but it could cook them some and it served to keep them out.

The Blues didn’t expect the blasts. It threw them off balance, wondering what I was firing at them. They didn’t have a portable weapon with the adaptability of mine. It was too expensive for an ordinary manufacturer to model, custom made and mostly self-programmed in the finer details. Weapons mode was only one feature of it. I called it a Shilo because the core came from an experimental development at a military base, Shilo Manitoba. Custom portable equipment a cut above what the enemy would have created an edge in the game. An edge I considered far superior to the unpalatable physical transformations gangsters enjoyed.

Brett’s gang had gone up on a partially camouflaged platform. A door was up there and I was down below with Lauren when it blew off and flew over our heads. The loud bang rang in the tunnel and when the noise subsided, we climbed up and followed the gang through.

The tunnel amplified another bang. It sounded like the gangsters had fired a cannon ball at us. A set of warning lights on a pole shattered. More shots hit the tunnel-side and shook it. The area below where we had just been standing burst into flames. Maybe my weapon wasn’t an edge.

We were in a power and control area. It was not the place to be if shots came through the door opening. Brett waited there for us. The others had moved on.

“There are two connected service tunnels. Robots use them mostly. The way out of them is through vents along them, and the endpoints. Don’t follow me. Take the second tunnel. Those bottom feeders are tracking you somehow. You’re a heat score.”

“You’re sure they’re not opening a turf war with you?”

Brett shook his head. “It must be about you and that case of yours. They don’t want you working it. They want you both dead.”

“A lot of people are nosing about on that case.”

“Yes, but it is you they are favouring at the moment. They must have orders to erase you. I’m getting out of here now. If we get anything, you’ll find it on the Connect. Be ready to pay, if you’re still alive to do that.”

Another power shot thumped on metal shielding nearby. Brett faded into the gloom of the robot tunnel. We didn’t wait. Lauren dashed ahead to the other tunnel and I followed her into the darkness.

I put on a glow beam. A long straight stretch loomed ahead so I turned it off and we ran blind as our eyes adjusted to the near total darkness. Ahead, some faint light salted down from the ceiling. On reaching the faint beams, we saw that it was a vent to an overhead area. We looked up but kept moving and a good distance farther on we came to a second vent. That one I burned loose and then leaned the fallen grate against the wall to use it as a ladder. The area above turned out to be a mechanical area. The rail underground had many areas, but this particular section was part of a thermal heating and cooling complex. It was robot maintained, which was why it was over the run.

The light was faint but we kept moving until we came to a chamber with ten squat repair robots parked near an elevator door. They paid no attention to our intrusion. The elevator opened automatically when we stepped up. Its scratched interior emitted chemical odors. Robots moving chemicals and heavy equipment were its regular passengers. The panel listed three other stops, one below and two higher up. My decision was the highest stop and we waited as the elevator crawled up. The door opened in a warehouse area. We found no humans but saw a few roller robots and towers of green plastic crates everywhere.

We crossed the dusty floor to an exit door that led to a stairwell. It took us up one floor and opened on a polished floor at the end of a stretch of shopping mall. All of the customers and employees were farther down but there was a bench there so we sat down for a minute.

The nearest shop outlet was a Turquoise Moon store near the mall sign at the dead end. The sign text said Treverton Mini Mall.

I pulled up a flash screen at my wrist. “Think they’ll find us?” Lauren said.

“Not easily. They don’t have a tracker on either of us. I just checked that. The card I took from the Blue is an access card without anything traceable from a distance. There are numerous exits leading out of that underground area so that will confuse them.”

“How far off are we?”

“We’re under the edge of the Fortress neighbourhood. E-Towers is three kilometers south of us and half a kilometer up. Those gang kids, Brett and the others. Do you think they can get any reliable info or even be trusted? Maybe they’ll try to collect with bogus stuff or even sell us out.”

“Selling people out isn’t in their moral code. Those kids are traders and they have to honor other traders. They trade everything on the Connect … material items, collector stuff, sex … anything to share or trade. Youth gangs are a defensive structure not one of true aggression. Some organizations exist only on the Connect. Other gangs are on both the street and the Connect.”

“Why are you glancing at me like I’m an idiot? I haven’t rubbed shoulders with teen gangs much. Gangsters have nothing but a power and profit code so I suppose the youth gangs haven’t been fully corrupted.”

“The kids go to detention centers if they’re busted, so they have something of themselves left. Sandpoint Prison and the Drop, anyone that does time there comes out warped or doesn’t come out at all.”

“There was a time when people thought there was a hell and devil under the earth. Our society decided to build it and created the Drop.”

“Not just it. Sandpoint is now the biggest prison on the planet. It’s a dumping ground for adult prisoners from across the nation. The tunnel to the Drop is supposed to be at its core. The bad boys that go down there still don’t come back up. The recent legal attempt to commute some life sentences failed.”

“Yeah, it’s a one-way ticket down. No one knows what is really down there. No one wants to find out.”


Chapter Four: Exiled


A celebration of fake plants, ferns, flowers, feathers beautified the mini mall. A false oval skylight glowed above a rock garden and fountain at its center. Shops and displays featured mostly the tacky sort of products sold to the swarms of low and middle-income people. Like other commercial areas deep underground, it was detached from time, meaning all hours and always open. There were no pricey robot or fur shops but many cheap pay-the-credits later places for gadgets, clothing and small furnishings. The place was clean right up to the ceiling lights, and gang and gangster free; at least it was for our stroll through. I glanced around, noting that most activity was at fast food outlets. There was no entertainment at our end and thus few people displaying any real glamour.

A connecting tunnel led into The Fortress and it was a long angled walk up. The gate was a sealed metal roll-wall with an access window, and we got through it via my tiny fob for E-Towers. The wall spun and opened a rather frightening turnstile segment. We eased through and headed down the empty marbled tunnel.

The guest feature on my fob allowed Lauren entry and I knew the walk up would remain quiet because no one from E-Towers came down this way. Neither would anyone be expected to arrive at the towers via our route. Only the odd resident like me that wanted to enter and exit E-Towers unseen would know the route.

The obscure entry was at Parking Level 10, the lowest level. It was more than a parking area and had storage lockers for vehicles and accessories just off the walkthru. My immediate plan was to pull my ground car out of its space and move it into a sealed storage cage.

We stopped at the entry door and I turned to Lauren. “What I did on the flash screen at the mall was start a masking program operating. I already had the read on the security systems for this parking area. I’ve changed my mind about setting up my mobile office in the condo. We’re going to set up reception and transmission in a built-in compartment in the car and then lock it up.”

“You can use that way?”

“Yes, the wrist screen modes, flash, air and ghost connect to it. I need my gun and I’m keeping that hand I stole from the cabby. The program I run will mask them even when I carry them inside.”

“Fancy talk, but you’re really saying that you expect trouble in your condo.”

“I expect trouble but not immediately. The forces shadowing me are too powerful for me to set up a portable office inside. Anyone that strong will eventually get an operative inside. At least they will if we remain there.”

“If we can’t stay long, where do we go?”

“We have to keep on the move and keep them guessing.”

Our entry went fine, we strolled across the carport without any alarms sounding or crippler beams firing, which is what would have happened had a weapon or intruder been detected. My ground car sat at the south end, the vehicle being a cream convertible of a special make, Ford LT, customized my way. I rarely used it. Cabs or leased aircars were my usual transport.

Lauren gave the car a nod of approval. We got in and she leaned back in the plush passenger seat while I snapped out a compartment hidden under the dash. It contained the click-ins for the badge engine and tablet. I set them up, checked the connection then closed it.

Hitting the ignition, I took Lauren for a spin around the lot then drove over to the lockers. All that showed outwardly was a white concrete wall; it was only when I used my fob that panel edges showed and segment of it pulled down to a ramp. I parked inside and we got out and watched the panel seal from the outside.

Lauren gave me an unhappy tweak of her nose. “It’s shame to lock a car like that away. We could use it on this case.”

“I’d rather not. It’s more for prestige, meeting customers on cases that aren’t scary like this one. We can get places with cabs and aircars. At least they don’t have my license plate on them.”

“So what’s next?”

“We call the building SSU chief, Woody Robblee.”

As it turned out, I didn’t have to make the call. At the turnstile out of the lot, we spotted three big men walking over from the elevator bank. They came through the glass door with weapons drawn. The center man was Woody Robblee. Woody’s usually perfect iron-gray hair was mussed, his suit showed as rumpled behind his open raincoat. He had his collar and necktie loosened like cops do when they’ve been sitting back going through surveillance and evidence. I had a feeling some of the surveillance was of me.

“I didn’t expect a welcoming committee,” I said.

Woody looked Lauren up and down. “It’s not exactly that. Who is this woman?”

“She’s a friend of mine. A fashion model. She’s visiting me.”

“Yeah. I recognize her from a few billboards. There is a problem in regards to your visits. You are drawing heat and I don’t plan to let this place get scorched. The tracker we hid on the Browning shows you present at three crime scenes. You’re lucky you haven’t been fried already.”

“We were the intended victims at those crime scenes.”

“Probably. That cabby either you or someone else offed wasn’t a cabby. The Blue burial hole was under our watch. Why you showed up there is something I’m afraid to find out.”

“Maybe you guys should do more than watch people get snuffed.”

“When we move, it’ll be big. Do you have anything for me? Remember the deal?”

“I have a package. Guns you’ll be able to tie to many crime scenes.”

“Okay, hand them over. This will be a short visit for you and your girlfriend. The Board has evicted you until such a time as you cool off. You are exiled from The Fortress area as well.”

“Did you get word that I’m hot?”

“Everybody in town got word. There are too many people gunning for you. That case … you were crazy to take it. That should be a police case and the only thing it’s done for you is dig you a grave. You can’t work it now. Pack up and find a place to hide. Wait for it to cool before you return. The bad guys don’t like you for some unknown reason, and that makes you too big of a security risk to be staying at E-Towers.”

“Okay, take the stuff, but I want to purchase the Browning. I need a weapon out there. We’ll only stay a few hours.”

“A few hours then duck out. The word will get out that you’re gone. You can’t take the Browning. I have another similar gun that I’ll deliver to your suite. Take the girl with you. Leave in something safe that flies because they’ll probably try to follow you.”

Woody escorted us up on the elevator, and we knew he was making sure we went nowhere else in the complex. In the hallway, I turned to face him. He seemed relaxed, one hand in his pocket and not at all like he felt us to be a terrible security risk.

“You must have the story as to why they see me as their feature target. Any number of agencies and shady characters are trying to collect on that case. Why target me?”

“There have been other missing persons recently in the young teen category. The agencies you mention didn’t solve any of those cases, at least not yet. I guess the word got out that you’re in the game. They likely think of you as a troublesome unknown factor they want quickly erased.”

“Troublesome unknown factor is how I describe them,” I said as he got back on the elevator. “I’m going to rest briefly, make a few calls, and then we’re out of here.”

Inside my suite Lauren lounged on a padded couch, looking small and delicate back-dropped by the huge dark art piece on the wall. The contrast caused me to notice how frail she really was … her legs like ivory with only a touch of pink and cream. Her face was pale as the moon on a clear night while her eyes were sexy craters. The only hair she had was on her head and it was unnaturally healthy for someone that had been glued to the Connect for such a long time. She was my opposite; my being weathered with a face that turned to sandpaper unless shaved twice a day was an inconvenience. Having unruly hair that fell naturally out of place meant regular haircuts were required to keep me from looking like a bum. Lauren’s hair bounced into shape with her every movement.

She had my cat cradled in her lap and he was pawing lovingly at her. That the little monster would take to her didn’t surprise me. He usually avoided me. I’m not what most people would call affectionate and the cat came from a past case involving illegal experiments on animals.

I went to work immediately, using the flash screen to send out messages to contacts I knew out in the city … people known as reliable sources for underground information. I barely got started when a tip came in from a contact under the tag Marty 1313. He said a body had been found and the location would soon be a crime scene. The victim was a teenage girl. If I wanted to buy a location, I had to pay over the wire.

It sounded like a solid lead so I paid. The scene was across town and higher up, just outside the Playground in a buffer ring bordering it with a residential area. It meant getting out of E-Towers fast. I wanted to be ahead of the pack so I asked Lauren if she knew anyone that could get us out right away.

“What?” she said. “We just got here. Don’t be spooked by that SSU guy.”

“I’m not spooked. I have a lead, but no one I know will pick me up because by now they’re spooked.”

“My cousin could do it, but I’d rather not use him. He’s always had a crush on me.”

“Who is he?”

“Alain Lalani.”

“The name rings a bell but I can’t quite place him.”

“He’s wealthy and involved in much more than the family business. He went off the radar years ago when he went oddball.”

“He’s eccentric, how so?”

“It’s a long story. He’s what you call a survivalist and one with too many resources to put into his madness.”

“Maybe he isn’t all that eccentric. Surviving in this city gets harder every day.”

“Not basic survival; he has strange phobias, like thinking the Earth will be hit by surprise by a black asteroid.”

“Black asteroid. We have them all mapped now. If exploiting his affection will get us out of here, then do it.”

“Can you set that screen so I can use it?”

I floated an expanded screen through the air to her and she went to work on it in her way, a direct Connect to her brainwaves. The sort of sketchy thing I wouldn’t chance. I caught the cat as he bounded away and carried him into the kitchen. The suite came with a robot pet feeding system. Deciding to use it, I scanned him then let him go. The feeder manager hummed as it calculated the exact nutrients and drugs the cat would need.

Lauren involved herself in animated chat back in the living room. She paced at the window, glancing out at the rain. She ended the talk when I stepped back in. “Twenty-five minutes. He’ll meet us in the upper exit bay. We’re lucky. He doesn’t know who you are. A paranoid guy like him, well, if he did we’d be out of luck.”

“What about you? He must know about your brothers and their misfortune?”

“He does, but he doesn’t know Blues are gunning for me.”

Twenty minutes later we’d picked up the gun from Woody and were stepping out into the foyer of the air bay. The big view facets beyond the exit doors showed a number of parked vehicles and a couple more floating out. Acoustic tiles failed to silence the noise. It channeled to ghostly sound effects of the whoosh of engines and the muffled howl and patter of wind and rain tearing at the air cushion at the exit mouths. Slot 21 was empty so we sat on the bench next to the entry tube to wait.

Lauren toyed with a lock of her hair. “Maybe you should forget this place.”

“I’ll be back. We’ll be back. I’ve had that problem all of my life. Some people get a hate on for me. You’ve heard of love at first sight. I get a lot of hate at first sight.”

“You know how to make enemies. You come across as a snoopy outsider and they move on the instinct to get you. Your eyes especially lead to that impression. Your gaze is probing, haunting even … you hypnotize people to hate you.”

Lauren knew how to help along a male inferiority complex. Fortunately, I didn’t have to reply. The discussion ended as a large silver-trimmed aircar floated in on Slot 21. It was a maxed-out affair and as large as allowed on standard air lanes. My guess was its gun ports were armed and its large cargo trunk mostly empty. Lauren had mentioned that her cousin Alain was paranoid. A vehicle stripped for speed and heavily armed would be his style.

Alain didn’t get out, as that would involve security checks. Instead, we walked in as soon the connecting tube clamped down. The damp air hit us in the bay, but that was momentary because we were in dry air conditioning as soon as the passenger door winged shut. I’d been wrong about the empty cargo bay as the cramped space near the rear indicated he had supplies in it, probably nothing heavy that would slow him down.

Alain seized Lauren forcefully and delivered an extra-strength hug, revealing himself as the sort that displays every emotion to excess. If he was infatuated with his cousin, it wasn’t a brand of pure love. A perverse glitter showed in his blue eyes. Perhaps some of his madness showed through. The general feeling I picked up was that he was too old for Lauren but would fit well with any plain and crass older sister she might have.

Before greeting me, he looked me over in the way a rival looks over a new competitor. His expression quickly slipped to jealousy and a crooked mouth. The thick shock of caramel-colored hair on the top of his head and his high forehead seemed to magnify his expressions. He was handsome in a technical way, yet the personality showing through seemed to kill that off. Eccentric, an oddball … he was that and his clothing, which was of the colorful and casual variety, amplified that. He wasn’t the brand of man a woman would love. Clearly, Lauren wasn’t the only babe in town who’d rejected his advances.

“Jack Michaels is the name,” I said, as he seemed to be at a loss for words.

His expression shifted to suspicion. “Not a common name these days, but it sounds familiar. I take it you are Lauren’s new boyfriend.”

“We’re friends, partners in a small venture.”

“A fashion deal?”

Lauren gave me a worried glance. “Ah, not exactly. We’re trying to collect a reward by finding a missing person.”

Alain paled. “Oh my God, Lauren! You’ll get yourself killed … or worse, captured by white slave traders.”

“There won’t be any slave traders involved. A body has been reported. We want to check it out.”

“It’s worse then, it’s murderers. You said you wanted a ride to a safe house. Stay away from this crime stuff. Bodies are being dumped everywhere. Missing person means dead person. What reward would you get for a body?”

Lauren didn’t answer him. Instead, she glanced to me.

“We wouldn’t get a reward for a body,” I said. “But it would end the hunt. We still need that safe place to stay.”

“I suppose you’ve done other things and have those Blue killers after you?”

Lauren squeezed his shoulder. “We haven’t done anything. I’m homeless, remember? The Blues took our Free Zone building”

“I haven’t forgotten. I had to transport the bodies to burial. It took a week to fumigate this car. I’m fed-up with bodies. So where is this body? I have no plans on doing body transports.”

“The SSU police will take the body. The GPS I have is a lot just off the edge of the Playground.”

Alain stared as if he couldn’t accept the location he was hearing. “The Playground … it will be rape or robbery. Let the SSU report the gruesome details to the family. Why break your heart looking at that stuff?”

“We want to be sure.”

Alain didn’t like it at all but he keyed in the location and made a broad turn in free air space. He had access to the higher lanes so he banked up and cruised toward the sunrise. The sun was coming up somewhere in the east, creating a huge bruised halo in the rainy sky. Fat raindrops splattered the windows and the way the distant rain caught the morning light it looked like it was snowing. I could see the bright air lanes weaving through the building tops below and a dull silver glow on the water of the lake to the south. We came down to the lower lanes at the Playground and headed through it toward our destination.

The lights weren’t off yet and the candlepower of the huge outdoor displays reflected off the gray wall of clouds and maintained a brilliant canopy over the area. Early morning stragglers loitered out front of garish establishments. Sleazy women, Loopers, gamblers, gangsters drank and smoked in groups. The younger they were the more indeterminate the sex and other orientations. It wasn’t my crowd; those sorts always saw me as a customer for whatever they were selling or someone to hit on.

A number of Blues were in the area. The difference was they didn’t congregate with the others. They spoke to them if they wanted something. In the cheap tints of the light, they put me in mind of demons, come up from somewhere low to make sure everyone had his vice and evilest desires maintained.

Alain glanced down in disgust and kicked up wind as we passed out of the area, headed toward the dim residential blocks. Then we got a visual on our destination. Emergency lights from a number of police vehicles and an ambulance flashed in a lot next to a rail storage area. The tip had been very fresh as it looked like the investigation into the find had just begun.

Alain circled the scene and hovered. “I don’t think we should land. What will we tell the SSU? Say anything at all and it could mean arrest and questioning.”

“The SSU know me. They won’t tell me anything though. Land well back in that small lot there. I will do the investigation. You two can stay in the ship.”

Alain did as asked, though his style of landing an aircar was unique, banking up high against the wind and doing a dip down to a near crash. Yet he managed to land softly next to a disconnected rail car. He kept the machine running, only powering down when he saw Lauren bail out after me.

I faced the flashing lights for a moment then selected a path to the crime scene that would allow me to walk on the asphalt. Other than surfaced roads weaving through the area there were large fields of long meadow grass, transformed by the rain into sodden ground with standing pools of water.

Wind and rain tore at my back. Lauren caught up to me. Alain followed, running up and trying catch Lauren’s arm to stop her from going ahead to the scene.

Because of the conditions, they didn’t have a perimeter marked off. I stopped before we got to the first emergency vehicle and forced them into a faceoff with me. “Look, we’ll be lucky if one of us gets in there for a look. I’d rather it be me so don’t go in past the vehicles.”

“But I’m your partner,” Lauren said, disappointment in her tone.

“Not if Alain comes with us you aren’t. No offense Alain, but you are too revealing in your mannerisms. You couldn’t tell a white lie without it showing on your face.”

There was no need for three of us and the police wouldn’t want us either. We came to an agreement and I left them waiting by a couple parked SSU cars. I glanced back at Alain. He stood there in a raincoat to his ankles, his hat askew. He was my height and his gaunt cheeks and jutting jaw created a strong aspect. He looked formidable from a distance, only mildly nasty close up. Lauren looked about as scary as a schoolgirl, but at least she was one that could use a weapon if necessary.

A group of cops and emergency people created a perimeter with their uniformed presence. The body was still there on a circle of pavement that marked the end of a path that transport vehicles of some variety used. More of the sodden meadow grass encircled it. Only one cop was in by the body and he was a big man and SSU undercover. I could tell by the hat. His coat hid his other clothing. He was smoking a cigarette and watching a blocky forensic robot trundle about taking readings near the body. If he smoked he was probably older and a homicide detective. Younger SSU and beat cops had vices other than smoking.

I walked out of the ugly morning into the group of cops. Three of them were drinking coffee from two-cup fast-Vacs. An ambulance attendant gave me a sour look. A female undercover cop spoke to me.

“You and your friends can pull out as fast as you pulled in. We don’t want rubberneckers gathering.”

“Not even media?”

“Our media statement is already out. Maybe your organization can’t read. This is a closed scene. It is a murder investigation. A teenage girl is dead. ID and cause of death will be released later when the next of kin is notified and the forensic robot finishes its report.”

“I’m not media. I’m a private detective. The Sunbulian family is looking for a missing teen girl. Marvel by name.”

“You’re wasting your time. Every freelancer in town fancies that he’ll find the Sunbulian girl. It’s like a gold rush, but this is not her. We have an ID but we’re not releasing it.”

“Who’s in charge here?”

“I am. Name is Natasha Lachance. I’m homicide out of The Fortress. That’s my partner over there.”

“The Fortress. What’s up? Why are you guys covering a Playground death?”

Natasha had a slightly upturned nose, and instead of cute, it made her appear arrogant. She began to show some of that attitude. “What’s up is none of your business. It’s time for you to leave, Michaels.”

“I’m leaving, and I know there has been more than one death recently. There are other teens missing or dead.”

“Stay out of open cases if you know what’s good for you. Tell the family to call us if Marvel isn’t found immediately. Keep in mind that that case will soon be an open one, too. They have to report her missing within a week. Once they do it will be police business.”

While she spoke, I saw the top section of the forensics robot do a half spin, then it rolled away from the body. Natasha pulled a secure cop phone from her pocket and checked the screen. Stepping away like I was about to leave I pretended to slip but ducked around and glanced at the screen.

She put the phone back in her pocket and glared at me. “You’re way out of line and you’re under arrest for interfering with an SSU investigation.”

I was about to answer; her partner was walking over and an ambulance was backing in to pick up the body. Then a flash lit the dim morning and a bang followed. It startled us all. The approaching detective fell to his knees, hit by some type of blast. It had come from the forensics robot, which was now rolling drunkenly toward him.

Detective Lachance drew her gun, so did the downed man, but they hesitated, not wanting to fire on the forensics robot, and that was a near fatal mistake. It fired two successive blasts. Heat rays of some kind and I felt part of a ray scorch past me and hit Detective Lachance. Her partner was also hit, his coat on fire.

The robot continued to roll clumsily forward, now emitting an ear-piercing sound almost like a mechanical scream. Cops ran off to my left and right. The ambulance driver switched to forward gear and spun the wet tires as he tried to escape. Unfortunately, I was the fool who hadn’t run and was next to the fallen Lachance. The robot closed in on me, the huge hand ending at three arm appendages shooting forward in attack mode … but not with fingers but drills and needles.

The berserk robot was going to cut me to pieces like a forensic specimen so I drew my weapon, clicked the cylinder left and hit it with a shock beam. That beam was standard for stunning guard robots, but it failed to stop this guy and I had to dive into the wet grass.

Apparently, it was hungry for cops. It swerved and halted, then spun back to get Detective Lachance. Her partner fired, I fired. His bullets hit first and raked its chest plate. My burst of energy packets crippled its right arm and it fell limp at its side. I fired again on the left arm and then its head unexpectedly burst loose and sent up a lick of flames and pungent smoke.

After rocking side to side for a few moments, the robot tumbled over into swampy grass and sent up more smoke and sizzle. The cops and ambulance attendants hurried to Natasha Lachance and her partner. Both were injured but not critically. The forensic robot was not a fighting robot so it hadn’t accomplished any quick kills. The big question, already at the top of my mind, was who had grabbed remote control of the robot. Someone at SSU headquarters had either done it or released technical specs that allowed the hack. With no forensics, the police case would be messed up.

I decided to ride the confusion and see if it would help my investigation. I hurried over to the body. Spotting a small shiny object in the grass there, I picked it up. I had time for a quick look before cops started shouting at me, and I returned, having seen enough.

Lauren and Alain were now up by the fallen detectives, but Alain quickly broke away and whispered in my ear. “Let’s get out of here fast, while we still can.”

He got his wish. Natasha Lachance rose to her feet, aided by another cop and an ambulance attendant. She glanced our way and said, “Get out of here, Michaels. Keep your mouth shut about what you saw. We’ll take care of this. Keep out of missing persons cases for the present or you’ll probably be killed. It’s police business, not yours.”

A sunbeam managed to fan through a split in the rain clouds. I took it as a sign to start the morning with a fast exit. Lauren and Alain certainly had no argument. We paced away quickly to Alain’s aircar, and as soon as the doors shut he had the engine breathing like a dragon. We went up over the scene and coasted off beyond the Playground.

Alain’s bony hands shook at the controls. He snapped his head right and the puff of hair at his crown added a ridiculous aspect to it. “What in Hades was that? What do you have poor Lauren and I into here? That SSU lady knew you. You must be in their bad books.”

“Everyone’s in their bad books,” Lauren said. “Just relax. We got away didn’t we?”

“I haven’t met her before,” I said. “The SSU has been on the missing teens stuff all along. They’ve probably been watching me. Problem with them is they often watch everything and do nothing. Then when it’s too late they come in.”

A low volume siren suddenly rang inside the aircar for a moment then shut off. The dash showed that all scanners and emergency systems were running.

“I’m taking steps,” Alain said. “In case we get shot down.”

“Ah, a defensive driver,” I said. “It’s never a good idea to take chances, but in this situation, no one seems to be pursuing us.”

Nerves pinched Alain’s mouth tight. “Don’t insult me. You almost got us killed back there.”

Lauren punched him on the shoulder. “Stop panicking. That had nothing to do with an attack on us. The bonkers robot went after the SSU detectives first.”

“Probably only because it spotted them first,” Alain said. “Shit. I was going to take you to my private condominium. I thought that was safe enough. Change of plans. We’re heading west of the Tumble and southeast of Pinnacle City.”

“What’s there for us?” I said.


“A safer place. My bunker in the sky. It’s deep inside the SkyReach Suburb.”

“We can go there,” Lauren said. “But we’re not going into permanent hiding. We’re working on the case.”

“Suit yourself, but I’m not going anywhere with you two.”

His place sounded like a solid temporary location. I decided to keep quiet and take in the view while Alain moved on with his quirky driving. It wasn’t much of a view; we were fighting wind gusts and rain. The aircar jumped lanes then he took a route way up above Air Freight Freeway 54 to a fast lane. The weather had left it mostly untraveled and we soon found out why. It felt like flying through a typhoon, as it was impossible to reach speed. Once the aircar skinned with rain, we saw nothing but a rush of water outside view ports. Alain didn’t stay in the lane long but raced down again and cruised over a huge conglomeration of building peaks that I knew was the Western Tumble. Pinnacle City was off toward the lake and buried in clouds. A long slow cruise over the Tumble took us to the Western Warehouses area then he turned and did the long fly around Pinnacle City, headed for SkyReach Suburb.

The suburb wore a dark cloak of cloud and mist. Leaden drizzle floated out of the heavens to leave it sodden like the rest of the city. We cruised down to the peaks, with a view of endless rows of residential towers, all based on the same city block design. SkyReach was like a huge snap-together puzzle; one block of condominium and shop neighbourhood duplicated many times and pieced together. The north end held one unique block with higher towers and Alain headed there.

His residence was the crown of the highest tower; he sent in the landing signal and fought the wind as he eased into his parking bay. My first impression was of a strange setup because where all of the rest of the towers had penthouses with fabulous window and balcony views, his didn’t look like an apartment at all. The huge metallic cap on the building top would lead everyone to believe the segment was an upper master mechanical room, controlling maybe a number of blocks of the conglomerate.

A series of lock plates slid shut behind us as Alain glided forward and dropped into the bay’s parking depression. Banks of droplights came on and a service robot rolled in to do checks on the aircar. Ahead, through the windshield, an exit chamber showed. It was secure and vaulted like the bays at E-Towers.

We got out but said nothing as the robot hummed next to us. It was only at the entry door that I spoke. “This is some place. It’s like a fortress in sky.”

“You mean safe house. As I said, it’s my bunker in the sky. I’ve been developing this place for years. I’m prepared for the end. This baby is more than living quarters; it’s blast proof and an air ship as well. In the event of absolute destruction it can lift right off the building and do a slow fly to land at a safer location.”

A series of beeps counted down. A huge embossed door whooshed open and snapped into lock position. A dim chamber was ahead and it had the airs of a death chamber.

“Decontamination chamber,” Alain said. “It’s not on, we can just walk through.”

Embedded robot eyes in the curved walls and ceiling followed us with their stony gaze as we moved to the end of the chamber to two rectangular doors. One door was blue, the other red. Each had a window slat at eye level, but they were scanners not windows.

“Close your eyes,” Alain said as we approached the blue door. “If it sees anyone else it won’t open. My, my … as bad it has been it is still a lucky day, because we’re going through the blue door.”

“Really,” I said as I closed my eyes. “What’s the red door?”

“The red door is for Armageddon, the end. No one gets in there but me and I’ll be sealed in and fully protected on that day.”

As I wondered what good Adam would be with no Eve, the blue door opened to a vestibule and Alain waved us back as he walked ahead. I waited, walked a few steps with Lauren then fell to my knees. She went down beside me, things became unreal like dream, and then everything went black. When I woke, I was in a reclining chair in a living area. My head was clear like nothing at all had happened. Lauren reclined on couch across from me. She was stirring as she was starting to wake.

Sitting up, I looked around the room. It was about 800 square feet and the set-up like one of those bachelor pads that provide everything in one small space. Furniture in the living room area was all silver-trimmed with white leather, the floor was flawless tile, and the kitchen/service nook automated, with rows of machines to the rear of a tinted glass kitchen table. He’d adorned one wall with a combined full screen and image generator. Other walls featured weird artwork, all set in window-like frames. The largest piece was a representation of a black asteroid, racing through space with a stylized comet tail.

Lauren awoke confused, her eyes fluttered as she looked around. She smiled at me but grimaced at Alain. He was walking in with a tall emerald drink in his hand.

“Ah, I see you’re awake. You are now in the guest suite.”

Lauren’s watery eyes came into focus. “What did you do to us?”

“Oh. I’m so sorry about that. It was an itsy-bitsy error. The chamber is set to gas everyone other than me. The gas is odorless and invisible. A feature I forgot to turn off when we entered.”

I doubted it was accidental. “You say this place can actually fly to a new location in an emergency. How big is it exactly?”

“Two thousand square feet in all and most of it is living space. All of the AI-powered stuff is quite compact. You saw the faceted exterior. The bottom is locked on to the top of this complex as a penthouse. However, it doesn’t look like a penthouse. Absolutely everything is lightweight and fixed in place. The built-in engine can lift and fly this place, though at agonizingly slow speed.”

Lauren didn’t seem surprised but she still looked somewhat pissed at being gassed. “What’s inside the red door?”

“That is super-secure quarters, supplies and necessary technology in an area that is only five hundred square feet. This segment can be jettisoned if needed, but it is secure, too. There are no windows but I can I create a full exterior view if you’d like. Here, take a look.”

Alain sauntered over to the screen and tapped some buttons on a panel. The east wall suddenly flashed to a window and we had a full exterior penthouse view of SkyReach Suburb. The view was an ugly one of the slashing rain and mist of a wet day. Aircars passed like dark birds in a nearby traffic lane.

“I can do without that fabulous view,” Lauren said.

Alain shrugged and shut it off. My robot will be out in moment with a full lunch. Perhaps we should discuss this case of yours. I think you should drop it and lay low.”

“It’s like a tar baby,” I said. “It is kind of stuck to us and hard to let go.”

Alain sat on a curvy chair; a transparent table rose from the floor and snapped in place. A robot resembling a cartoon ant brought a snacks tray from the kitchen nook and slid it neatly on the table. Once in place a drinks menu popped out like a flag from the tray. Picking it up, I flagged a drink then passed it to Lauren.

Alain took a dainty bite of a cracker. “Missing person, teen … doesn’t sound like something you couldn’t quickly dump.”

“It’s Marvel Sunbulian. We’re not the only people fishing for her,” Lauren said.

He paused, in thought. “Ah, I see. There would be money in that, but it would be excessively dangerous for you two. Anyone with the nerve to grab her would be daring in the extreme. Her family has corporate power, they could send in heavily armed ships and mercenaries. If everyone is looking for her the competition simply rules out any success on your part.”

“You may be right,” I said. “But we only have to get a location.”

“Well, then,” he said. “Maybe it should be done without going out. Anything out there we can find from home base. You don’t have to take risks.”

Lauren didn’t buy that idea. “There’s always danger, even here.” She did a knife slash with a slice of cheese. “Blues are whacking anyone that gets close.”

“Damn, maybe you should flee the city for a while.”

She grinned. “We are being paid to work not run.”

“What do you have to go on?”

“Not much,” she replied. “We’re fishing for some leads.”

“Hum,” Alain muttered. “That body out there, Jack. Who was it?”

“Not sure. A teen, and there have been a number of them missing. The SSU has been keeping it out of the news. I got a look. They cut the body open, the way a precision medical robot would do it. An organ or organs were removed.”

Alain toyed with a fork as he thought it over. “A dead end perhaps, but interesting. Aren’t organs, I mean the best quality and not cloned, harvested in poorer nations or from prisoners? Why would they be hitting teens here?”

“Urgent need,” Lauren said. “The organs could be for transplant or experiments. Teens are healthy specimens. It is the very old that prefer organs from living youth. They don’t want cloned stuff. That girl Jack viewed must have been murdered to save some old establishment vampire. The organs were taken and the operation was done somewhere nearby in the city. The elders are jaded; they replace organs early, as soon as the ones they have display medical problems. No one can apply for legal organs for replacements that aren’t medical necessities, so they have to be stolen.”

“We’re off track,” I said. “It’s not plausible that Marvel was grabbed for her organs, is it?”

Alain closed his eyes for a moment. “Likely not. The only case would be someone more than old, that burns through organs and needs young stuff regularly. People powerful enough to grab her could grab anyone, couldn’t they? So why pick her? She’d have to be rare in some needed way.”

“I found something at the site. Some type of control chip.”

Lauren frowned. Her eyes were chiding me for hiding things from her. “So let’s see it.”

I pulled it out of my pocket and tossed it to her. It was a flat silver metal chip with a tiny skull pattern on the front. The back was flat and clean. The actual working part would be no more than a speck buried inside. Lauren looked it over and tossed it to Alain.

He didn’t appear to make anything out of it either. “I can scan it at the entry chamber. I’ll put it inside and then enable the system. It will analyze the metal, and it will detect anything else inside it.”

As Alain left, Lauren I both nibbled on some food and received drinks from the antbot. The drinking didn’t sharpen my thinking, but swallowing hard liquor was traditional during the Spells. It eased depression and cramps.

“Let’s hope this fellow doesn’t go berserk,” she said, studying Alain’s cutesy robot ant.

“That had to be an inside job. No one can gain remote access to a forensics robot other than the police. It again points to corruption and the Blues. They must have people right inside the SSU. They didn’t want that case investigated. The robot attack was a warning to clean SSU agents. Stay out of the organ-theft murders.”

“It’s not good for us either. That forensics robot had eyes. Whoever seized it saw that you were there.”

Alain returned with the chip. He studied the readout on a rollout feather screen as he walked. “The chip is an ID tag. It fits into a prisoner’s bracelet, the kind they wear inside the Drop. The sort that can’t be removed. Here, take a look.”

He passed the feather screen to me; I glanced at it and passed it on to Lauren. She studied it for a few moments then Alain took it back, popped it shut to pencil size and put it in his shirt pocket. We had viewed a bracelet on the screen - a large affair that covered most of the wrist and with a chip affixed at it center. Since the chip would be about as difficult to remove as the bracelet, it was a mystery as to how it came out.

“I’ve even got the ID number of the chip. The killing must have been done by a convict or at least he is one of the people that were there at the scene.”

Something occurred to me. “I know how the chip came out. With the same programmed tools that removed the organs. I think someone did the kidnapping with a convict aiding him. Then it went bad. They got the organs but the convict must have managed to kill or overpower his partner. He used the tools to disable the bracelet and then escaped.”

“Interesting theory,” Lauren said. “But there was no other body found there.”

“They probably dropped down in an aircar to dump the body after delivering the organs,” Alain said. “A struggle took place then the victor took the aircar and the other body with him.”

The discussion and drinks had revived me. I was excited and wanted to move. “We have a solid lead. We need to find the identity of the prisoner. I have heard of prisoners escaping from upper Sandpoint Prison, but not the Drop. No one can escape from there. No one can come back up as there is an in but no out. The bracelet probably records whether the prisoner is still alive down there.”

“Maybe he never went down,” Lauren said. “If he got up from the Drop something weird is going on.”

Alain’s expression sobered. “The Drop is hell. The warden is an AI and robots. This is another strong reason for you guys to dump this case. You’re dealing with powers of evil bigger than you’ll ever be.”

Lauren looked anything but frightened. “There would be a simple explanation. Problem is we can’t investigate a prison or ask questions. We’d be arrested.”

“I did investigate that prison once,” Alain said. “That’s why I think staying away from the case is the best idea. My hobby has been documenting the evil powers of the planet. I fear many more things than a black asteroid. With the research capabilities I have here I can track just about anything in secret. Believe me, there are conspirators everywhere.”

I grinned at that statement while Lauren ate it up as if Alain had revealed a dark secret. “We need your help,” I said. “You can stay here and do whatever secure fishing is possible on that prison. You might get lucky and ID that prisoner. Lauren and I can do some leg work and with us gone you won’t have to worry about people tracing us here.”

Alain gave me a skeptical stare. “Surely you’re not planning on going back out?”

“Don’t look at me like that. Let’s use one of your Connect posts. I have work to do too. Contacts to check. I want to do some spying on the competition. There’ll be some buzz out there about this case.”

“I’ll authorize you for the post. For my research, I’m going to head over to the red door. The super secure stuff is there.”

As much as Alain pretended to hate our case, he had enthusiasm for it and we could tell he wanted to be doing some work on it. Morbid curiosity no doubt, because if there weren’t any black asteroids in it there were probably new forces of mayhem and murder he hadn’t yet discovered. Sitting around waiting for the end of the world would definitely cause one to start looking for some bad guys that might make it happen.

Alain left without finishing lunch, leaving Lauren and I to our own devices while he entered the red door. We engaged in casual discussion over snacks, and she put on some music. Any dreams I had of her sitting on my lap ended when she got up and walked over to Alain’s Connect area. She didn’t have the walk of a fashion model, but more the hot step of sexy high-school girl. She was sexy without taking aim at being so. I followed her over and saw right away that she planned to use the Connect.

“I hope you’re not using this case as an excuse to hook back up.”

“What about you … why do you need his screens when you have that flash screen and remote connection of yours?”

“I’ll connect through his screen but use my portable office via transfer. I don’t want Alain to know about the transfer or he’ll put things together and try to search out my office. He steals most of his tech. That is easy to see.”

“He pays for it. Someone else likely steals and delivers it. He’d probably pay you a lot for a setup like you have.”

“Maybe, but who knows what he’s got inside that red door. You said that guy has been working most of his adult life on that shit.”

“It isn’t shit. It’s valuable in ways, but not in the way intended. For one thing, we can fend off any attack here. I doubt this place would be any help in Armageddon, though.”

“You have that right. Any black asteroid strike would flatten us. Okay, let me check my contacts and you take a ride and see what the buzz is out there.”

We went to work. Numerous supposed leads had come in from all over the place and I had no choice but to parse all of the hooks to see if any of them were worth buying. I barely got started when Lauren went back for a jolt in her chair. I got up and looked her over. She was on the border of an epileptic seizure or a stroke. Definitely, she went too deep with her Connects. It was too late to do anything but wait so I went back to reading tips. The Marvel case was already creating havoc in the city because numerous locations had been reported, leading to raids by rogue SSU and assorted mercenary thugs. Other than doing damage and delivering shock beatings to innocent parties, they had turned up nothing. There were possible locations for sale and I decided not to buy into any of them.

Rather than continue with that dead end, I put out a tracker on all recently escaped prisoners and organ theft or murder cases. I pulled in murder files only; there were no escaped prisoners. Sifting through the murder files, I pulled out those that were teens and found twelve. All of them were unsolved and didn’t mention organ theft.

I ended up sitting back and at a dead end when Lauren suddenly disconnected completely. Her entire body shivered, her face was even paler than usual and her expression one of fright. It took me a few minutes to get coherent speech from her.

I wanted to know what she’d done in there. She gave a long and confused explanation. To summarize, she said it was something bad, but also something good. Brett’s gang was now on the run so hooking up with us hadn’t been lucky for them. She’d picked that up in buzz from others. Word out was they knew they were in serious shit but didn’t know exactly what it was about. Lauren found nothing for us on the gang’s hangouts on the Connect. Other buzz on the case was another ball of confusion. She went into it but I told her to drop it. We couldn’t possibly investigate all the stuff she was mentioning. Too many people were trying to profit from this for anything to be meaningful. I had grabbed about the same thing on my channels and from contacts. When I read into it, they all wanted to sell something or talk about something but didn’t have anything solid. Competitors were putting out bogus leads, too. It was noise more or less and I wasn’t going to pay for it or work it.

Stressed, I sat back on a couch with Lauren half asleep in my arm. She suddenly muttered something about Brett’s Mercurio’s personal hangout.

“Repeat that,” I said, coming alert with interest.

“I grabbed something at Brett Mercurio’s personal hangout; a hidden post called Dark Side of Mercury where he does strange or personal stuff not necessarily related to the gang. He won’t go anywhere near his post at present, but he planted something for us - the name of the clinic, the only place Marvel has been in the city in the past.”

“Okay, we’ll buy it.”

“We already did. I didn’t have any choice. I pulled the information in memory and deleted the trace. Someone was on my trail. That Mercury post of Brett’s is overwhelming. It was like landing on the real Mercury … in a deep crater there. I thought it was a fire planet, but the craters are cold. I was off guard and then saw a ghost tracking me, taking the form of ice mist. I’ve always gone in deep enough in to see who it is that’s tracking me. This time it was a blur, a malevolent force … it nearly got me. The years I spent on the Connect taught me escape routes, but it may have tracked this location. I was ahead of it when I disconnected.”

“It can’t enter this location through the Connect because Alain set up a loop that takes a pursuer to another location. It may have followed you but it didn’t get this final destination. We won’t be at this location long either. We’ll follow the lead. Keep in mind we’re covering territory the Sunbulians would have already covered, as they know about the clinic. We need to find something in there they missed.”

Lauren sat up and massaged her temples, the long conversation ended as Alain stumbled in from outside. He looked shaken, almost drunken. He was clearly upset, his shock of frontal hair spiked like he’d been electrified.

He stumbled over and sat down. His antbot rolled up and started to take medical readings on him. “Someone tried to hit me with a kill signal while I was doing my checks. It almost got through. I’m going to have to review all of my security here.”

“Hang on,” Lauren said. “Don’t forget what you were investigating. You may have been tracked by SSU, or prison security. Information about the Drop is buried and you were digging it up.”

Alain wheezed. He spoke slowly. “It wasn’t the SSU. I cracked into the Drop. I even got some visuals on the inside. There are rogue Connect posts in there. It’s not what I expected.”

After that statement he collapsed, a shot from the antbot revived him. He sat up and sopped his forehead with a moist towel. His speech grew slurred. He mumbled the name Thurber as the antbot did some acupuncture on him. I wanted to know who Thurber was but it turned out to be the name of the antbot. Alain’s mumbling slowly became speech and over some time, we got the info out of him.

According to Alain, the history of the place was that a drop to huge underground storage chambers had been in existence there. Decades passed after the owners abandoned the place. The oldest piece of the prison was built in the years when life sentences returned. That is when it became the Drop. There were no human guards at that time or any time. They put prisoners inside a transparent lockbox and sent them down the tube. They were discarded human beings, sent way down until the splash in the water and the pull away by the robots to the prison, torture or the torment of living there.

The Drop grew and became much more than that; the place expanded to a small city laid out in probably the deepest underground warren on the planet. Alain saw air filled with fumes, endless connecting corridors forming pseudo streets running in all directions and angles with the structures of populated areas congregated in expansions of huge stinking caverns. He said they have destroyed the robots. He saw none. But he believes the warden is still an AI. It supervises prison slave labour to run the joint and there is no internal security. There is the super security that prevents them from escaping to the surface. The prisoners govern themselves in the Drop. Inmates are males and transgender as genuine born women go to other prisons. Alain encountered no actual prison lockups of the classic variety. Visuals he found difficult because shades of hellish bacterial light lit everything. The things he experienced had an edge like semi hallucinations.

Even through the partial Connect, he felt sweltering heat. The command structure down there wasn’t anything clean either. Thugs, a prison version of Blues, and every sort of creep and mutant freak formed the prison population. The slaves were mostly freakish sorts, shaped by endless labour, drugged feed and other alterations done down below. Violence, ugly public sex, grotesque stuff existed everywhere. Alain tagged it as an unexpected hell, not anything like the classical myth. But it was hell and any view of it, even a partial Connect, confirmed it.

Lauren digested Alain’s choppy report, obviously irritated by it. “So the news angles they play about the Drop are BS. I mean the sims of the robots that run it, plus the attempted escapes, the captures, the heroic guard tales.”

“I checked the actual records in the AI library at the top of the prison chute. There is no release from there and there has never been an escape attempt on the books. The place is escape proof, so how our convict got out in the city to murder someone is another mystery.”

I answered him. “Forget about the news and the records, both of which are mostly faked. The story on the street has always been that there is no way out. We know some of those gangsters are getting out of there. Your evidence says our suspect did. That AI has been compromised by someone and there must be an escape route.”

Alain thought it over. “I tracked the bracelet our chip came from. The AI controlling those bracelets is the one down in the Drop. I was lucky and got visual access through a rogue Connect post. Our man was in the Drop. He is not in there now. I did not find out how he escaped or obtained release. There were too many freaks down there, too. I mean altered like mutants. Some strange medical stuff is happening there so it is more than a prison.”

“So where is this guy now? Do you have any idea?”

“Maybe. I have his name. I’d rather not pursue it or anything more about the Drop. They may be after us now. Someone or something in that place detected me. I was partially on the Connect. A ghost of some type got on my trail then the kill signal rode toward me. I barely escaped with a fast disconnect. I can’t figure out what pursued me. It was a fiery blur.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said. “Maybe it was just an AI detect and a security system guarding the prison came after you.”

“No way,” Lauren said. “The same kind of thing nearly got me. I was on a completely different trail.”

“You didn’t get killed so excellent work from both of you. We’re going to see if we can trace that escapee’s name and get to him, then we’ll do a check on that medical clinic.”


Chapter Five: The Warehouse


Alain got up and came back with the antbot Thurber buzzing beside him; he popped some nerve pills and sipped a drink. I was online with my system but using his screens, doing a trace on the name he had grabbed. That trace took less than ten minutes. I found our man, Kat Calhoun, in the Western Warehouse area, almost next door to our present location.

Alain raised an eyebrow. “What a stroke of luck to find him that way. And Jeeze, he is almost breathing down our necks.” He raised his eyebrow again and looked at me. “Say. You shouldn’t have been able to pick up data from that system. The AI mind running those warehouses is secure. I know because I tried to find stuff in it before. I have an account there and some items stored. You can see things publicly listed or on open corporate legers, but that’s all.”

“You’re right, but I wasn’t looking to loot goods or cracking in. I lightning-searched all accessible systems looking for a human being. His name came up on a public employee list there. The AI provides a lower level of security for them. Someone has tampered with that system, too. Or altered it, because I found him in a sector that is decommissioned for upcoming renovations … and he’s listed as a new employee there where there aren’t supposed to be any employees.”

“It’s organized crime, yup,” Lauren said confidently. “We can get in to check, easy, because Alain has an account.”

Alain slapped the table. “No, it doesn’t make it easy. I don’t want your actions traced to my account. All I have is an access fob that gets in a main entrance and my own personal storage space. Do you have any idea how big that place is? Corporations moving stuff east to west, north to south, into the city and out … all have massive depots there. In some ways, it is like a cooler with dry safe goods at ground, and the more perishable deeper where it is easy to cool. Hazardous materials are in the bottom vaults. There are yard sections that run for many levels above ground to many more below … probably thousands of robots, hundreds of workers. You would have to pinpoint this guy close and get to him. My access won’t get you there. The closed area he’s in is likely sealed off. And who knows what’s really in there.”

“We won’t know until we get inside,” I said. “I tried to access the camera system but couldn’t crack into it.”

Alain preferred that we not use one of his air vehicles and I decided we didn’t need one. The Western Warehouse Complex had a numerous entrances, the largest being at ground level and for the public. Large corporations had their own named exits and there were worker and special robot and equipment entrances. After going through the maps, I picked an obscure public entrance that wasn’t too far from the target’s reading. We could get there by ground. A taxi would be best but I didn’t trust them. Alain lent us a car that he kept in the residential garage and rarely used. It would return on its own if we didn’t drive it back.

We left him at the screens, checking some details on the medical center we planned to investigate later, and exited via another sealed entrance that took us to the main part of the complex and the elevators down.

We passed through a palatial lobby, then went down to an irritating robot-policed parking gate and waited there for the vehicle to arrive. I studied Lauren while we waited. Behind her open coat, she wore a double-layered body suit that highlighted her figure nicely. Boots to the knees, a wide fold-up hat and the pack she carried made the rest of the outfit. I was dressed roughly the same. Our suits actually rose right up to the chin though the collar portion was skin tone and not noticeable. It was all lightweight and we had invisible mesh toned into our faces. Hit men or Blues could possibly appear so the protection fit the situation.

Rain poured over a shield at the top of the ramp and the hissing noise of condensation burning off was loud. Other people strolled on the yellow exit ramp and a few left while we waited. I spotted no hostile forces, though that was difficult to check. Everyone wore long coats and hats. Most had luggage or briefcases. The coats were lightweight stuff to repel rain and protect inner clothing right down to the shoes. The rains of the Spells had a way of splashing mud through so people wore protection. In that guise, anyone could be hiding weapons. What I looked for were the telltale sharp eyes and evil glances that always marked both gangster and security types of men. In-house security in these places used many women; the SSU and gangsters were mostly males.

It wasn’t chilly weather, but more humid and trending to hot. Flash storms usually showed in that weather profile. Finally, our car popped out of the gate and tracked my key. Alain hadn’t delivered anything special. It was a small cream Fiat, two-seater. I hoped we could get there without being shot at, as it didn’t appear to be anything bullet or beam proof. Most cars would deflect shots if they weren’t powerful hits at close range.

It looked more like a gal’s car so I gave Lauren the key and went around to the passenger side. If anything, the vehicle had traction. Its power threw me back in the seat as Lauren raced up the ramp. The exit shield flashed off and we slashed through a waterfall of water into the downpour. Muddy water gushed in the gutters. It looked like we needed a boat not a car, but the Fiat had big wheels and handled well in the rain. The side street was clear of traffic. We passed a line of parked cars and at the first right I watched the mirror. In spite of the blur of raindrops and colors, I saw one black vehicle racing around from some parked vehicles. A tail, I was sure of it but wasn’t sure if Lauren had spotted it. I tapped her on the shoulder and she hit the accelerator.

Alain’s tiny car jolted forward and in a matter of moments zoomed up to a speed I couldn’t believe. Getting in an accident in that car was a scary option that immediately confronted me. Our tail was also accelerating behind us. Most frightening was Lauren’s driving as she did a hairpin turn and raced between two fixed pylons into series of pedestrian walkways, nearly taking my door off as it ripped against one of the pylons. An enormous blast exploded a parked car behind us. Lauren swerved, riding on two right wheels and then two left as she avoided a collision with pedestrians and turned into another long walkway.

The larger black car couldn’t follow and that was a good thing. I cursed but quietly. They were trying to take us out with heavy weapons. The downpour and Lauren’s crazy driving had caused the shot to track into another vehicle. It was close.

“Bastards,” Lauren muttered. Then I found myself holding the dash with both hands as she continued a dangerous run through pedestrian territory. She spotted a long laneway for service vehicle access to the complexes and raced down that. The water was a heavy skin on it but we were going with the flow and skated out with it onto Jameson Road. Lauren barely missed two passing vehicles there and the Fiat did a tail-end spin and came to a halt on the roadside.

She looked around; it appeared we had escaped so she again accelerated, heading in a roundabout way for the Western Warehouse area. There was an accident on the Promenade Road and we had to get one exit ahead. I felt like covering my eyes as Lauren drove right over a small barrier into oncoming lanes. She got to the roadside and continued driving the wrong way on it. I saw a traffic cop at the accident site give us a look like he couldn’t fathom it. Other cars started honking their horns, but we weren’t pursued. We made the exit. Only we were exiting on the wrong ramp and that ended with a drive over a muddy field.

She came to a brief stop, the car a sloppy mess. “Why in the hell did you do that? The police will be looking for this car now.”

“For safety’s sake, we don’t want that other guy to catch us and get another kill shot. Don’t worry about traffic police. If I know Alain, the plate will be registered under a phony name.”

“They tracked us so fast I can’t believe it. A facial or eye scan got us while we did the long wait in that parking lot. They had a contact in the area that was on us right away. They now know we were in that complex, but they wouldn’t know where and the place is huge, covering a number of buildings.”

She pulled up a dash map. The wheels churned in the mud, then we went forward slowly to a side road. From there she obeyed the traffic laws and followed the route. We found Madison Drive and the public entrance. She approached at slow speed in regular traffic. This was an automated entrance and Alain’s fob key got us past the slide gate into a mostly empty parking area. Across the lot, the brown warehouse walls rose to the wet sky like we’d arrived at the base of a mountain range. The assorted towers blotted out the heavens beyond and added more gloom to the day. The warehouse was another great force of darkness. It made me think of what a prison should look like and probably did before they built underground hells like Sandpoint and the Drop.

Lauren drove ahead to another vehicle gate and we went through and down an interior corridor with numerous numbered warehouse exit doors. She came to an abrupt halt at area 322 and we got out of the car. We were out of the rain now but could hear it drumming on the warehouses, that and the whistling of the wind. A loud bang startled us and more noise followed. We realized it was sounds of equipment or work somewhere in the complex. I pulled back my coat sleeve and pulled up a flash screen, which we both studied.

We were on site but there was no direct access to our location. The screen route showed a journey through warehouse areas. Signalling my portable office, I got a guesstimate on the entire door code structure of the warehouses. We would be able to open nearly all doors but we couldn’t blind surveillance more than a few cameras at a time. The program worked by guessing the master code or numerous possibilities and my device would send them in so fast the only thing we’d notice would be if the doors opened or not. The plan was to wear the airfly packs we’d brought for the horizontal trek. It wasn’t clear how we’d get down to lower levels. Elevators were dangerous because the security AI could detect us and decide to imprison us in one.

After we removed our coats and hats, Lauren clicked the return button and our car pulled out as we stepped away. The exterior lots were the new kind of asphalt, smooth as marble, pothole resistant. Raindrops carried in by the wind spattered on it and tended to fly back up and create a spray. We hurried ahead under the dark shadow of the overhang, passing a small group of customers just emerging.

The entrance had sliding doors of smoked plastic that led into a brightly lit vestibule. Alain’s fob took us into a huge lobby that had seating and food and drink machines. If it was an example, everything about the place was big. The ceilings were twenty feet high in the lobby; the customer service desk had no human or robot but was an automated video affair. A row of doors showed beyond an open arch from the lobby. The smart fob would open the door we were to pass through and succeeding doors until we reached the target storage unit. I registered our airfly packs as items for personal lockup at the desk before we went through. Otherwise a fly clamp would come in from the shaft and take them and fly them to the location.

As we entered, I set my flash screen to a popup air screen so I would see it any time I raised my wrist. I had the map on it. Ceiling light strips lit the corridor, its floor of glossy fake hardwood and long rows of corrugated metal doors. A white strip marked the center of each locker.

We walked a fair ways, finding the place confusing because everything looked the same. Lockers weren’t marked. It didn’t seem possible for anyone to find anything in such a place. I knew few people actually entered the public sections or any other areas. Those that did used the fob as a finder, opening doors as it directed the way to the locker. Corporate storage areas would be something else. We’d use the airfly packs and hope the crack I’d set on the fob would carry us through without being detected.

A door slid open ahead and we found ourselves in rows of cages, all of them filled with sealed brown boxes. The ceiling was higher here and Lauren suddenly ducked as two fast objects whizzed overhead. She halted and nearly drew her gun. I grabbed her arm and she watched as two flyclamps flew down into a cage, then boosted out with a box and disappeared deeper in the area. Farther along we saw more of the clamps zooming here and there. I checked the map and we made a right that took us to another section. Beyond it was an access terminal. My altered fob worked to get us through the door selected there, which opened on a huge hall. The first section was caging filled with laminated canisters, and we halted there and put on the airfly packs.

The packs were near silent, just a rushing noise from the jet as it powered them. I set the speed and flew in the lead along what seemed like the world’s biggest collection of monster vaults. I kept it in mind that this was still the minimum security section, and I wondered how people could keep so much stuff in storage … and consider it valuable enough to be behind the Western Warehouse’s hybrid version of vault doors. This area seemed too quiet, no flyclamps, robots or humans.

A left and a right and we came to a corporate vault door. It was marked with the butterfly logo of the SwiftMart Corporation, which was a huge corporate conglomerate that sold a grand assortment of items. The fob was working fine as the door timed open as we approached.

The abrupt scene change on the other side caused me to land. Lauren came to ground beside me and we studied the area. We were standing beside open bins the size of dump trucks. A vast open area was ahead with more huge bins and stacks with red pillar posts demarking various storage areas. A wagon-back transport robot rolled past right in front of us and we could see more of them moving in the distance.

The fragrance was musty and somewhat oily. Sounds of robot wheels, arms and pincers echoed. They worked in a clockwork fashion I found irritating. We decided to move ahead and flew up. None of the robots appeared to notice us as we travelled over a shopper’s paradise of loose goods. We swung left and finally soared down near another vault door.

We weren’t going through that vault door or any others as those areas were secure. Some of them belonged to banks and car companies. I didn’t want to mess with any hidden security planted inside.

Lauren gave me a glance, her eyes asking me where to go. I pointed to the huge cylindrical cap on the wall off to our left. It had a metal look but likely was mostly plastic. It was set into a wall of gray brick. A wide fly tube was beyond the cap. We had to get in and look for another tube down. It would involve some dangerous flying. Flyclamps and delivery drones flew through the tubes carrying items for storage and outside delivery.

Lauren appeared overcome by scepticism but she said nothing as I took out my Shilo and set it for a fine beam. It penetrated and triggered the cap to open, in the same way it would happen if a service robot entered by using its light key. As it was a time lock, we walked straight in before it could close.

The cap closed behind us into a seal that popped our ears. We were in darkness. There was faint light ahead. We walked forward to a yellow-tinted screen. It had a handle to slide it aside. On the other side, we walked a few meters to the drop-off where it ended at the fly tube. Faint white light lit the huge tube. It ran to our left and right and before we could pop our heads out for a look, a bright red drone flashed by at high speed. Moments later a group of flyclamps passed in formation, then another clamp carrying a package came the other way. They ran in two lanes and used most of the tunnel space. Lauren gave me a look that told me she already knew what we had to do, which was wait for a clear moment and blast out, turn and accelerate. I pointed right and she followed. A couple moments later, we were racing down the tube with a formation of clamps ahead of us. A drone carrying a huge object was behind us. I checked the map as I flew. We were already due to drop but no down tube had presented itself.

The tube took a dead-man’s curve ahead, and as we came out of it, we were at a junction. Both of us tumbled through the air as we tried to hit the down tube without passing it. I saw Lauren in a narrow miss with a clamp as I braked to avoid hitting the wall. Then we were flying down, but it was an up tube and we both made fast adjustments and flew along the wall as drones raced up past us, missing us by inches.

I had a feeling this way down was a bad idea. Red lights began to flash along the wall and I was certain we’d triggered a security alarm. A blue light marking a repair entrance winked ahead so I slowed and used a side jet to blast myself inside. Lauren followed and tumbled in on the floor of the tube.

She got up and looked shaken, obviously spooked by the nasty flyclamps. They’d spooked me too and I had no plans on doing it again on a return. We’d find another route out even it meant using the underground.

I could see that Lauren wanted to get going and get the job done. We’d be in trouble if we didn’t move. We’d set off an alert and it was certain to bring something after us.

We bundled the packs to compressed size and moved ahead. Using the beam, I opened the cap from the inside. It was a time lock again so we hurried out into total darkness. Lights suddenly detected us and flashed on. We could see another musty warehouse but this time there were hazardous-material signs everywhere. The stuff was all in drums and tanks so I judged it safe. The only problem was the map; it showed us to be close to our destination as it was just beyond the far wall. I saw no exits there and blasting through would be dangerous. I didn’t know what exactly was stored in the area or on the other side. The decommissioned area was supposed to be empty, but that wasn’t likely if our man was in there. He’d be there for a reason. There had to be a hideout or living quarters of some type.

We crossed the room. None of the drums or tanks had any writing on them. A look around showed no way in or out of this room like it had been sealed and was an area only a repair robot would get to by flying in and opening the cap like we did.

I turned to Lauren, thought of telling her something then thought better of it. I knew what the tanks were … the fuel the flyclamps, drones and probably the repair robots used. The feed tubes ran under the floor. I needed to blast through the wall and it would be dangerous. The explosion could spread and detection was likely, as human workers would not be authorized for the area.

I saw Lauren’s eyes widen. She’d guessed the danger. She also had no alternative so she waited while I read the thickness and set a slow beam. I tried to hone the calculation for disruption of the wall segment only.

My gun was out and I was setting the beam for disruptor mode when the tube across the room whooshed open. We both spun around and could see clearly down the aisle. A robot had entered and it had already spotted us. It was about the same size as me and built like a man. No clothing, but like a chunky manikin with a head similar to a helmet. The eyes were bright orange, its body dark copper. It carried no visible weapon but probably had built-in firepower. Its arms and hands were frighteningly large. The spiral W design that formed the Western Warehouse logo glowed on its breastplate and that confirmed my suspicion that it was a security robot.

A smart robot too, because it walked purposely across the room to us. I was pointing a gun at it and it showed no regard for it. Halting a few steps from us, it spoke; its voice was deep and reedy, almost human.

“For your safety,” it said. “Do not fire a weapon in here. This is a restricted area. Identify yourself, immediately.”

I stared at the thing’s burning eyes but was at a loss on how to answer. Lauren wasn’t. “We got lost in the warehouse,” she said. “That’s how we ended up here.”

“Very well. I will take you for interrogation by my superiors.”

“Uh, in case you didn’t notice,” I said. “There is no exit from this room other than the fly tube and it is not for human access.”

“How did you plan to exit?” it said.

“I planned to put a hole through this wall.”

“Illegal, illegal,” it said. “It is marked as boundary to a decommissioned area under structural repair.”

“Then it looks like we are stuck here,” Lauren said.

At that point, I felt I had no choice other than to blast the robot. It threw me off by suddenly going around me and up to the wall. It flashed light from its palm and used the fingers of its right hand to cut a small rectangle. Seizing the reinforced concrete, it pulled. A chunk the size of a brick came out. Using its fist, it punched through the rest of the way. Flashing its breast light, the robot peeked through.

“The structure is sound on the other side. Stand back,” it said. Then it simply ripped a hole in the wall large enough for us to walk through. It did that in two minutes. It had the strongest hands and arms of any robot I’d seen. Regular worker robots for heavy tasks rarely featured human-style arms and legs. This beast had copper bands of flexible muscle tissue on its limbs. It was new technology yet I’d seen no media releases on it.

“So now what?” I said as the dust settled.

The robot visibly frowned at me. “We will walk through the decommissioned area and locate an elevator. Follow me.”

I had no choice but to shoot it in the back and for some reason felt bad about it. My decision was not to shoot until I saw what was on the other side. Lauren immediately followed it through and got in my way, so I couldn’t shoot anyway.

What happened next made me glad I had my weapon drawn. Just as we were through Lauren halted and I brushed up against her. Over her shoulder, I saw the robot taking bold steps ahead and then spinning on its heel to face us. It never completed that spin. Instead, there was a loud blast and fiery distortion as a disruptor beam of some variety kicked the robot through the air. A hit of that power would have dismembered a human being and created a mass of steaming blast debris. The robot remained intact though incandescent as it flew into a huge metal container and bounced up and over it.

Then the robot was simply gone and Lauren and I immediately turned right to run down a clear aisle in the gloomy room. I heard shouts, turned and fired, and put a fist-size beam hole through a large man who’d been turning the corner after us. His dead body slammed the wall, his gun flew out of his hand, and a second man stumbled around behind him and managed to duck back before my second shot could connect with him.

We heard a number of excited voices and were fortunate that this decommissioned area provided cover. It was the most stacked area I’d seen in the complex and everything in it was helter skelter and piled to form aisles and mountains of goods on a wide-open floor without cages, lockers or vaults.

The sounds we heard indicated that we were running away from the others present. We kept ducking up left and moving farther away, finally stopping behind a mountain of piled boxes. A glance at some of the labels told me they were prescription drugs. We’d already dashed past stacks of liquor crates so it was easy to realize that this section was booming with activity; the smuggling of stolen and counterfeit goods. It made me feel like kicking myself; it should have occurred to me right away that an escaped con would gravitate to other criminals. For some reason my mind bought into the idea that he knew of an empty spot or hideout here.

You pay for your mistakes and I started paying as a stream of bullet packets exploded a pile of boxes next to me. Glass and wood fragments blew to our left. Lauren was already on one knee, firing through a flying spray of Styrofoam pellets as I dodged around the pile, caught sight of a big black man in blue overalls and fired at him. I was still using a fist-size burn beam and it hit his hand and gun. The weapon exploded and smacked him to the floor.

I saw more men running in our direction from just beyond the dead man, all of them wearing the same work overalls and armed with dual-fire guns in the oversize pistol model. Those deadly weapons could fire spin shots and multiple projectiles.

I moved behind a post with Lauren and adjusted my weapon for an arc shot, a type of shot few weapons do. Then I fired over the heaps of merchandise and a rain of packets came down on the running men. We heard a scream and then a death cry. We were about to move again but when we turned we found ourselves facing a Blue zombie type with a raised blaster. He was a revolting specimen with a face full of scar trenches; his eyes expanded black ovals with no whites.

It was too late; he was about to fire. He didn’t get the shot off. A brilliant flash blew him off his feet as a ball of fire. The flames roared and his remains extinguished with a steaming hiss in a pile of shattering bottled goods.

The shooter was the warehouse robot. He wasn’t vaporized or dead. He barely showed a scratch and the weapon was a device that had unhinged from his shoulder.

Four men came around a big pile nearby. They wore Western Warehouse work uniforms, but the clothing did not camouflage their criminal looks or their weapons. We ended up with the robot facing us from one end and the men from the other.

Since the robot wasn’t shooting yet, I turned to the men and spoke to them. “That robot means business. Your Blue boss’s cannon didn’t even hurt it. You start shooting and it’ll frag us all.”

The robot moved forward, creating a tense moment as it seemed to be assessing us and making a decision.

One of the men, a tall mulatto guy spoke. “Call your robot off. We’re ready to deal.”

A glance told me the robot was scanning us as his eyes brightened and changed colors rapidly. As far as the four men went, I still don’t know what the robot saw, but I saw four armed hoods. One was of shorter stature with a blond brush and drugged appearance. There was a seedy white-guy type with foam-enhanced upper body musculature. The other two were big guys - a blocky oriental and the tall mulatto. My reading was that they would start shooting at any moment. The one white guy I didn’t want killed because I was sure he was our man, Kat Calhoun. His mouth was slightly crooked, his eyes cruel and his manner slippery. He never stood completely still but shifted ever so slightly on his feet, prepared for defensive or offensive action.

“I wish I could call him off. Unfortunately, the lady and I aren’t security. We’re as illegal as you in this place.”

Finished his scan the robot spoke. “Illegal activity and trespassing has been detected. Surrender your weapons or be disabled.”

I nodded to Lauren and we faced the robot, slowly placing our weapons on the floor. Putting my hand on her shoulder, I guided her down to one knee with me. I did that because I’d caught the look in the mulatto guy’s eyes. He had no plans on surrendering and that meant he’d open fire. He did, the beam going over our heads. Two of the others also fired but the man that had my interest didn’t. He ducked away on the run.

One of the shots had been a spin shot, cooking a lock of my hair as it sizzled overhead. The dumb robot obviously hadn’t made the same assessment as me and all three blasts nailed him. The first one spinning him around, the second setting his back on fire and the spin shot whacking him like a giant hammer. He flew into a heavy vertical post, sending off a shower of sparks as he bounced and skated down the aisle out of sight.

Knowing the next shots would be on us, Lauren jumped left and I went right. A beam missed Lauren and I saw her swimming through a pile of flaming boxes trying to escape. Our guns were still sitting in the centre of the aisle where we’d dropped them and the short guy was taking aim for the kill shot on Lauren while the Oriental guy was swinging his gun for a fix on me.

A section of the wall suddenly blew out a few meters to their left and another robot appeared. It stood there in disintegrating concrete and whirling dust and the aims of the three hoods switched to it. As it came clear in the dust cloud, I knew it wasn’t a warehouse robot like the first guy, though it was similar. It was fiercer in facial appearance and with a well-known symbol on its breast. It was the hammer-and-flame symbol of Sandpoint prison. It had to be a guard robot of the type that watched the upper exits as a final level of security to insure there would be no escape.

Its presence meant our man was certainly here and was likely the one I had already marked. He was already on the run, and I wanted to pursue him but in this fix couldn’t do so. Fortunately, the three rogues had already nixed the idea of instantly shooting Lauren and me, because they were targeting the robot.

A spin shot distorted the air but the robot had a form of auto shield that raised and caused the energy to stream around it and tear up more of the wall. Concrete crumbled like cookies and the blast hole grew exponentially as all three hoods fired. Then the robot fired a jagged charge from a cylinder that emerged on its wrist. Blue lightning gave the shorter man a sizzle and felled him. A second shot incapacitated the mulatto man but the oriental managed to run off. I hurried over and got both my gun and Lauren’s. She followed me and we saw the robot fire a tracker shot that went around a heap. A crash followed so we knew the robot had scored another hit.

I had no plans on it scoring a hit on us. We ran back near the spot we’d entered. With no alternative, I waved Lauren to follow, as she was a ways behind me and somewhat out of breath. We headed for the opening we’d just come through, and I ended up colliding with our suspect. Apparently, in his hurry to escape, he’d gone through that opening and then found he could get no farther without a flypack or down tube.

The collision was hard and sudden but I had the weight and speed advantage and deflected him into a pile of crates while I bounced off the edge of the opening. Crates and bottles smashed down on him. I gained a very sore left shoulder while Lauren went around me with her gun drawn. Our quarry crawled out from the pile of smashed crates and bottles. He’d been stunned and he’d dropped his gun and was raising his hands. Lauren didn’t fire.

The prison robot suddenly jetted over a pile of goods and came down nearby. The three of us stared but didn’t move or fire. It was turning our way when the warehouse robot also appeared. It was between us and the other robot. Its eyes flashed at us then it decided to confront the other robot.

The robots exchanged no words but ran straight to each other and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. As that struggle began, I seized both the moment and our suspect. With Lauren’s help, we forced him along an aisle towards territory we hadn’t yet investigated.

It was like a demolition derby behind us as the two incredibly strong robots battled among the clutter of tumbled stacks of goods. My money was on the rougher prison robot but I also had hopes of escaping without finding out which one was the winner.

Our suspect began to struggle. I had plastic cuffs I’d brought in case of a capture and managed to clip them on. He still struggled so I seized his upper body while Lauren lifted his legs. We ran forward with him and we didn’t get far before ducking the flying warehouse robot. He’d been thrown, and he arced down to bounce on the floor right next to us. Then the prison robot appeared on jets and we hurried away as the fight began again.

Lauren dropped the guy’s feet. I pushed him up against a metal post. His hot gasp was a weapon that nearly drove me back, but I spoke. “I know you’re Kat Calhoun. If you know any fast way out of here you better show it to us before those robots finish and one of them comes for us.”

“I, I,” he stuttered. “Know a … keep moving this way. There is a far exit to a secure area … the observation room where we watch this section.”

We carried him again, at a run and reached a smooth gray metal door, tightly embedded in an opening with an arched top. It had a simple number panel and our prisoner opened it with his free fingers, allowing us entry. Only it was a harsh entry for him because I shoved him forward then moved in panning the room with my weapon. No one else was present.

He’d been truthful; it was a sealed room with a huge wall surveillance screen divided into camera images. There was some seating, machines and a washroom. Lauren was doing a check of the room so I held the prisoner and studied the screens. The two robots were wrestling the middle of the area. I expanded a few other views and got close-ups on dead bodies. No other hostile forces showed.

Lauren bit a fingernail as she watched the robots exchange a series of blows. Both appeared programmed to use mainly force and not built-in weapons. Likely as safety feature to reduce damage to valuable items. The prison robot had to bring people back alive if possible and powerful weapons spelled mostly death.

Two huge towers of supplies suddenly came down and buried the robots. I had Lauren spin a chair around and I pushed our prisoner into it. A fast interrogation seemed like the best idea. We’d probably end up running from one robot or the other. I stepped back then noticed Lauren remaining too close to the prisoner. I reached over and pulled her away. He made lunge for her as I did.

Kat was attempting shiv her with a blade he’d pulled from his trousers. He didn’t succeed; I booted him in the face. The knife went flying and I quietly decided never to handcuff a man’s hands at the front again.

I put him back in the chair. “I figured you’d try something like that. If you were good enough to escape your masters you’re not someone to be trusted up close.”

He was groggy from the kick. He spat at me and missed. We all checked the screens again as the robots had emerged from the debris and again confronted one another. This the time the grappling match turned deadly. The prison robot managed to seize the other robot’s head and used a lock in an attempt to crush it. The battle appeared to be over. Our warehouse robot’s neck cracked, but it suddenly used great strength and threw the other robot off. Its head lolling, it met the other robot again and they took each other’s hands in a test of strength. The warehouse robot won out on this as it tore an arm loose from the other robot. In spite its damaged head it took the prison robot down and pummeled its chest.

Sparks flew then the prison robot’s shoulder weapons fired, blasting the warehouse robot off into the stacks. One of its arms tore off and flew down an aisle. The prison robot tried to get up, but the cavity pounded into its chest caught fire and exploded to a smoking hole. Then it was over with both robots the newest decommissioned items of the decommissioned area.

Lauren turned to me. “Prison robots are supposed to be the strongest there are, but that warehouse robot won out on a test of arm strength with it.”

I nodded then turned to our man. He sneered at me. “I’m not telling you anything. The last time I talked, it got me condemned. You guys promised a deal and stabbed me in the back.”

“Huh,” I said. “We didn’t promise anything. I take it you think we’re undercover SSU cops. We’re not. We are private detectives. I need to know how you got out of prison and what you wanted with that teen girl’s organs.”

“Not cops, eh. You ask questions like cops. Why should I deal with you? What’s your offer?”

“My offer … well. By about now they know their prison robot failed. They’ll send another or they’ll send men. They’ll track your location just like we did. If we don’t free you, it means you’ll go back in or be tortured and killed by them. My offer is this - we’ll let you loose, to make a run for it … only if you give us a couple pieces of information. You have about a minute to talk or we’ll split and leave you here.”

“Remove the cuffs first.”

“No way.”

“What exactly do you want to know?”

“The organ theft – why?”

“They didn’t tell me exactly why. There was something special about the girl’s organs. Maybe she was a rare blood type. They just wanted her and someone really wealthy or powerful was paying. They are in that sort of creepy business. They kill people, cut them up. Their medical people are like mutants or freaks. I saw the same sort of stuff down in the Drop. But down there everything is legal.”

“Why use you?”

“Manual labor. Blues don’t usually do any real work. They are enforcers.”

“Are there many Blues in the Drop?”

“You kidding me? Where do you think they come from? Oh, I get it. You wouldn’t know on the outside. Experiments on prisoners created the body-warping drugs that create the Blues. They were testing life extension stuff and the effects weren’t what was expected but of use to them. Blues are nearly all former prisoners. They boss the slave labour in the Drop, work as gangsters up here. The Blue pills are really a whole host of drugs in one pill, with special bacteria that direct their work to change the body.”

“No one is supposed to come out of the Drop. There isn’t even a warden, just that super security system that was supposed to keep you boys in there.”

“Things changed a long time ago. There’s a guy in control of the Drop. If you can call him a guy. He gets people out if he wants. You wouldn’t want to meet him, believe me.”

“What’s his name?”

“We call him the Doctor, nothing else. You don’t meet him unless you’re about to be experimented on or die. That’s what the Drop is now. It’s not a real prison any more but a joint where that guy directs horrible experiments.”

“Did you hear any talk about another teen girl they’re holding? One named Marvel.”

“Nothing. I heard little. They took me out for that job. The Blue was going to kill me when it was finished. I killed him, escaped.”

“How did you know to come here?”

“This place has always been riddled with smuggling dens. I worked it before I was arrested.”

“You know a fast way out?”

“I won’t tell it. Let me loose and I’ll show you.”

“I’m keeping this gun on you. She’s going to free you … when she does, run and keep running.”

The cuffs were a simple bust code; Lauren used it and stepped back. He didn’t try any tricks, but he showed us one when he took off because he exited through another door we hadn’t known was there.

Lauren gave me a puzzled glance. “Why’d you do that? Why let a creep like him free? We should have killed him.”

“I don’t do the dirty work for prisons or cops, and he wasn’t the brains behind any murders other than he killed a Blue. He still has a tracker on him. That’s how the robot found him. I have a read on it now. We’re going to follow him out. Where he goes after that, I don’t care. His survival chances are zero with them on his trail.”

I had Lauren wait a long minute while I went back into the trashed smuggler’s depot. When I returned with the severed arm of the warehouse robot, she glared at me.

“You are weird. You took that cabby’s prosthetic hand and now that robot’s arm. You’re like a serial killer, taking trophies.”

“There may be money in this stuff. I’ll run a check on it. I think that cabby hit man stole that prosthetic hand. Like this robot arm, there is nothing like it on the market. The arm won a test of strength with that prison beastie so it must be a new model. Maybe it is a test model.”

“They could have had the robot here for a while. It makes sense to have a super robot, considering how dangerous anyone attempting to burgle this place might be.”

“There’s one more thing then we’re on our way.”

“What’s that?”

“This,” I said, pulling a small gold bottle from my pocket. I popped the cap and drank it straight down. “Ah, good stuff. Tastes almost like the real Lightning Five.”

Lauren kicked me in the shin. “You idiot! This isn’t the time to quaff five ounces of that hooch. We have to get out of here.”

A siren suddenly blared. I pulled up my wrist and read the pop-up flash-screen map. “Follow me,” I said, and then ran through the door and on the trail of Kat Calhoun.

The door opened on a big empty area and it was so dusty we could see Kat’s footprints in it. It wasn’t a usual exit but a way out the smugglers used in emergency. The footprints ended at a wall, which I blasted. A hidden door blew apart and inside we found a long narrow corridor running between walls. It ran about a quarter of a kilometer and at its end, we found one of the old flash elevator tubes. The up tubes were scary things that were only a round platform blasted up by compressed air and used mostly in construction work.

It zoomed us up to ground level and a door out. It wasn’t sealed on the interior so I opened it and looked out. Long grass, weeds and litter showed. We stepped out and saw that we were in a tiny alley space between two towers of the complex. Walls shot up sky high to a blur of cloud light at the top. We moved ahead to a turn and saw that the next portion opened on a small inner court. Two aircars were parked there and it was a no go because Kat had reached it and found men waiting for him. They already had him down so his getaway by aircar wouldn’t be happening.

We ducked back around the corner and ran back to the door exit. There we took out our airfly packs and released the compression. As soon as they were fly-ready, we rose straight up between the two towers. We were out of sight of the courtyard so I hoped for a clean escape.

Luck wasn’t with us. Higher up fierce wind gusts sailed into us and took our flight east. We both did as much as we could with the palm control and avoided being slammed into the walls and protrusions from the peaks higher up. The area immediately above that central location was not a fly zone, which left us exposed and tipped us off when we spotted an aircar rising nearby.

It wasn’t raining but the sky was very dark to the south. We both knew that when the Spells stopped delivering the heavy rain it meant the windstorm phase was probably beginning. The gusts would rise and if we didn’t get out of the sky soon we’d get carried off.

There was no flat roofing near us and we didn’t want to land in the warehouse complex so we took the drift east and a long slow curve as the air channel shifted north. The aircar pursued us, racing through mist. In moments, it would be close enough to open fire. We got out of the warehouse area and over a Ring-block industrial area. The aircar swung down to dog us as we rode down at forty-five degrees toward the flat roofs. It didn’t look like we’d make it. A beam burst lit the air to my right like a sudden sunbeam as a blast from the aircar’s hood gun narrowly missed us. Then we both dodged down to a deeper descent as a dark missile rose straight toward us from below. It was another aircar and its wake sent us both into a tumble as it passed. I heard an explosion but had no time to look as we both tumbled toward the rooftops. I got back in control and saw Lauren already soaring to a landing ahead of me. She braked and stumbled across a windy rooftop garden. A moment later, I followed. I did a successful series of rolls, got up and looked about for Lauren. She was ahead of me, sprawled over a portion of an air vent. I reached her and rolled her over, finding her unconscious and not breathing. Some quick work and I had air in her lungs then I turned and faced the roar of a descending aircar. It wasn’t firing on me so I knew it was friendly.


Chapter Six: The Institute


The aircar landed nearby and I watched as Alain emerged. I had Lauren propped up but she didn’t look well. Alain shielded his face as he walked over. Dust was blowing on the rooftop and blinding us. Fallen leaves tumbled by and rose like a flock of birds on the wind. It felt like we were about to be sucked off the roof.

Alain wore a military-style flight suit like he was going to war. “Get her in the car,” he said. “I’ve got a booster pack inside.”

I did as he said and carried her over. It wasn’t the same aircar but a smaller one, though not lacking in extra features. Most of which were weapons.

He tossed me the red-striped pack. “We’re getting out of here fast. There’ll be a police sweep soon. I shot that other aircar down. It had a read decoy like my cars have. It listed as a taxi but it had to be organized crime. Decoy technology installation costs big money nowadays. You pay to get the real thing.”

“I’m sure you spent the most. The operation in the warehouse was smugglers. That aircar had to come from either them or the prison. The prison sent a robot out to erase Kat Calhoun.”

“I guess that lead is a dead end now.”

“No. He talked. We have a big arrow pointing at that prison. Kat’s information paints an interesting picture. The Blues are a product of body-altering prison drug experiments. The media on the Blue drugs never mentioned prison development of the medicine combo. Kat confirmed that the drugs theoretically extend life. No one respectable would want the hideous physical alterations or addiction to them.”

“I know. The drugs slow the metabolism in strange ways. Blues are like cold lizards. Their cellular reproduction altered, causing undesirable physical changes. By that stage, they can’t stop taking the drugs or they die from formation of cancer cells. Once a Blue, a person stays that way.”

“Yeah, and they aren’t from Miami as advertised. Kat killed a Blue in that organ theft deal. That means all the teen organ murders and Marvel’s kidnapping are related.”

“How so? I mean, if they wanted Marvel’s organs her remains likely would have turned up. To me it still has to be about more than organs. There may be technology or special medical facilities her family controls that the Blues need or want.”

“It’s possible. The Sunbulians are tied to multinational drug companies too, including drugs for space. They may well have something the Blues want. Some drug we don’t know about that they need.”

Lauren was now alert and listening. “All of this is interesting speculation. The plot thickens and does us little good unless somehow out of it we guess where they are hiding her.”

“Lauren’s right,” I said. “We don’t have to know everything about the case. To win the jackpot we only need to find her. So what about that prison? Could she be in there?”

“Jeeze, I hope not,” Lauren said. “Who could get her out of there? Who could prove she’s in there?”

Alain banked; he was flying far afield of SkyReach Suburb. He glanced at Lauren. “She wouldn’t be in there. They obviously have many secure locations up here. My bet is a medical center. Maybe not the one you guys are going to investigate as it would be too obvious. They seem to be treating her like a prize so they’d have her in a location where they could look after all of her needs. Now a medical center may be kind words. With the sort of operations and experiments they’ve been doing - criminal actions - perhaps high-tech torture facility would be more accurate.”

“Okay. We stopover for a quick review on that medical center she was in then we go in for a tour.”

“I need to do some more digging on that institute. Lauren’s name was the Reyes Institute. It’s on the west waterfront. Not a place you would expect to be under any criminal control. The immediate specialty that comes up is gerontology and bio gerontology. I have no idea why she would have been there. Bio gerontology is the study of the aging process. She’s only a kid.”

Alain took the long way around but returned to his place in SkyReach Suburb. High winds shook us as he passed over the lakeshore. Dark blue waves rushed the shore below. The sky was now completely darkened and the gale blowing in with force. Rising humidity, heat and winds as the Spells moved fully into the second phase.

Alain feared more vehicles would be lying in wait on the usual route. We came in from the west without problem and headed inside once he was satisfied with the security reads. Lauren was exhausted and immediately fell asleep on a couch, her weariness being partly a rebound from the booster drugs.

Alain looked in need of his medications. He was nervous, a hunted expression on his face. I didn’t say anything because he had reasons for it that were more than paranoia. He left me there with Lauren, saying he wanted to freshen up and run a deep check on the Reyes Institute before we paid any visit to it.

With some free time, I went straight to work using his system and my flash screen to create a work-thru so I could use my own portable office in tune with his system. That worked out so I set up his Connect area and then did some surveillance on his system. Specifically the last search he’d done from his secure area. It didn’t turn out to be all that secure because I got into it easily through his basic system. I found the feed he’d cracked to get into the prison earlier and patched it into my Connect pattern.

Once hooked in I was underway, travelling there in the same mode he’d used.

At the beginning, it was a visual-images-only experience. He’d entered initially by sending a probe through and it had slowly bypassed numerous security checks and webs. The probe slipped in almost too easily for me and that aroused suspicion in my thoughts, like perhaps someone or something wanted me to get in past Sandpoint’s systems and reach the Drop to trap me there. Alain had mentioned pursuit so it was possible.

The probe took his image in my view, which I found irritating. The numerous ways he’d come up with for bypassing checks were ingenious and I figured he was either a much better cracker than advertised or he’d simply spent money over time to acquire chimeras with the capability of fooling just about any security system. Of course getting in and out wasn’t the only concern because with most systems any detection at all would lead to a person’s eventual arrest. It would be a key reason people would simply not try to crack into the prison system. Then again, no one knew there was a Connect post inside it, or any way in at all. If I was trying it, the reason was we’d discovered that the deal was corrupt. The authorities, whoever they were, couldn’t admit to any of the stuff we already knew. Only those in the know would be aware that people got in and out via Connect, and physically too.

The probe had to pass through upper Sandpoint Prison first and the general impression of it was ugly robot-sanitized prison, so at least it hadn’t changed. The pass was through all common areas during a time of lockup, then along a tricky hidden route. Eventually, the probe flashed down and reached into the Drop. It sped along a crazy tube with sides ribbed like an intestine and aglow with dangerous-looking red haze. The landing was in an interior courtyard made of molded lava flow. It was similar to greeting areas existing with more conservative Connect posts in the outside world … except that the greeting was a sense of impending doom amid the hellish haze of light and scorching heat. The wind machines and natural air currents below picked up dust that created a blur. Some immense structures were farther off and some beings I couldn’t quite make out were moving at the perimeter. They were large and sinister.

I moved away from the post and in an instant, the Alain probe swelled and flamed to a fire balloon and distortion. As that ended, I was suddenly locked into a deep Connect though I had not enabled it at my end. A hostile ghost finger had got through Alain’s security and my own security and triggered it. The immediate effect was shock. I felt every joint in the body I’d left behind suddenly liquefy. I received the full mental transfer into that hell as I replaced the Alain probe. It was not in the smooth manner that one is usually put into an alternate environment but a hallucinatory mode. I shot into darkness or blindness then had the sense of traveling in a burning wind. Sight came as a slow red blur and vertigo as I looked down on bleak canyons. Long hideous faces formed in the images, flashed in and stabbed at my brain. The pain unfolded to scenes and tableaus of evil pulled from some primitive part of my mind. I heard tormented screams. Steam rose and shifted to burning demons. The searing pain became haunting possession.

As I fought the possession, a lighting flash brought on a confusing experience and pins and needles pain. A blurry vision of a Connect post appeared and a shadowy group of men waited by it. Their evil whispers and distorted faces suddenly swam up at me like out of a nightmare.

The scene broadened and I saw a large crowd amid foul rising smoke. Leering faces attached to shadowy indistinct bodies surrounded me. Others, Blues but distorted in form, were approaching. Their real power was apparent in their natural environment. This was their home, their hell. They were demons no matter how they had come about. The earth above, where they were on the streets like gangsters or zombies wasn’t a natural environment for them.

They were pulling an iron bed or platform and striking out at me with tails of fire that took the appearance of burning whips and felt the same. They reached me and seized me, pulling me choking toward the platform. Close up it took the form of a burning web. I was thrown on it and I gasped as I spun down into a vortex I was certain was real. It both stank like death and burned like hell. The choking smoke was foul beyond experience. I fought and turned, more fire whips lashed me and the crowd of hideous faces stared down at me. I was going under with the feeling that I was about to explode just as Alain’s probe had … then in that instant, I saw Lauren’s face and consuming darkness.

I stumbled up from the chair, my open hands swinging wildly as I pulled free of the Connect. I felt myself hit the floor and I remained there unable to move. Burning thirst was like fire in my throat. A few minutes later, I was able to see Lauren’s face as she soothed my throat with some water. Alain stared down at me, his face full of fire and distortion like he one of the beings from my hellish Connect.

An hour passed, the three of us were having drinks and Thurber the antbot was buzzing in with booster and healing drugs. Since Lauren and I were in less than top shape, we decided on an evening and night of rest. A review of what we knew meant we’d move ahead and investigate the medical center. On the chance of Marvel being hidden inside the Drop, Lauren said there was no possibility of that. She’d seen enough on the brief Connect she used to pull me out of the place. A teen girl wouldn’t survive in such a hellish place so they had her somewhere else.

After my Connect experience of the prison and booster drugs, the drinks hit me like a hammer. I awoke startled, having a weird dream of Blues riding the back of a flying serpent and pursuing me. I was in bed with Lauren though I had no memory of getting in with her. She was still asleep, a grid pattern from the nightlight enhancing her exposed breasts and belly. I checked the time – almost morning. I didn’t want to get up.

Neither did she, because she suddenly turned and embraced me, whispering something about doing what we should have done before passing out.

I didn’t disagree and soon discovered that her time on the Connect hadn’t eliminated her female instincts. Her body felt as if it had gotten softer, younger. She had the most beautiful legs and breasts that I have seen. Connecting with her was heaven compared to the Connect to the Drop I had just gone through.

We didn’t get up until noon. Alain and Thurber were waiting with breakfast. Lauren emerged from the shower naked and blow-dried. She grimaced when she noticed I was carrying two items she found foul. One was the robotic hand I’d taken from the cabby and the other was the arm blasted from the warehouse robot. The hand was probably the scarier of the two. It looked designed for murder.

I decided to put the items aside until after we finished eating. One reason being that Alain seemed anxious to talk about something else.

Lauren joined us wearing a flowing Chinese robe. I saw her glance around to see if I still had the mechanical hand. Alain had already eaten and was fully dressed in a dark business suit.

I sipped coffee and ate apple cookies while waiting for Alain to start talking. He had a folder in his hands.

“Well,” he said, bright-eyed. “Isn’t anyone going to ask me why I’m holding this folder?”

Lauren looked up from her piece of pie. “Okay, why?”

“Because I know who is controlling that prison. I have unearthed it. Actually, it is more than that … it is all rather surprising.”

My cup clattered to the saucer as I nearly spilled my coffee. “So, who is it?”

“You want me to tell you, just like that, after I spent the time while you were sleeping doing hours of research. I say we make a little guessing game of it. What guesses would you two come up with?”

Lauren came close to snarling at him. “This isn’t a game. Out with it, who is it?”

“Well, it is not someone you would have ever heard of … not likely.”

“Really,” I said. “But you want me to guess who it is?”

“Why not? I did it by guesswork. Here’s the game. My guess was that any person that could be behind the bizarre and illegal experiments that created the Blues would be someone that went down there for attempting similar illegal work up above.”

“Not necessarily. Someone else could be in control of such a person or persons.”

“I would say no, because the work was extremely focused. I went to work and searched for a disgraced medical expert that could do that sort of experimentation. It was a long search but I came up with a name. His name is Doctor Marin Gold. He’s the only one that could do it and the only one that went down there.”

“Never heard of him,” Lauren said.

I went back to sipping my coffee. “Neither have I. You sure you have this square.”

“Yes, but there is one difficult detail … that being the man’s age. You see, he was sentenced seventy-five years ago, and he was sixty-five years of age at that time.”

“One hundred and forty years old,” I said. “No wonder we had the feeling of being chased by a ghost.”

“Oh, he’s worse than a ghost. He really is a demon or devil. He ran a center outside of the city back when the medical focus shifted towards life extension. All of the funding was in life extension then. Of course, it still is that way, but it is more subtle now. He killed numerous people by transplanting altered animal organs into them. He developed a method of drug therapy for cloned organs that remains in use today. He did a lot more of the nasty stuff. It’s in the file. He was ahead of his time even then and in a strange way. The science of today has taken a different track. His illegal style and skill wouldn’t be something he could pass on to someone else down there, that is why I think he is still alive.”

Lauren’s eyes were smiling at me like she was certain Alain had taken too many of his own meds. “Alain. You saw what that prison is like. Hell or Hades are the only accurate descriptions of it. Do you really believe someone could live that long down there?”

“Yes, because there is no other suspect. Elite professionals simply aren’t sent there anymore. They use legal means to avoid it. There are records of every person ever sentenced to that place. It has to be him even though that is not possible. He went down to hell and worked on keeping people alive to burn forever in it. He extended his own life to do it.”

Lauren remained confused. “If it is him, we know he gets out or is always out now. Yet it is impossible to get out. Since there is no access out in the design of the Drop, someone must have built a way in.”

“Of course,” Alain said confidently. “We live in a world where the ultra-wealthy elders value beauty and long life above all else. They brought him out because they’ll do absolutely anything to gain more years of life. I don’t know exactly how. Word of his continuing and illegal life extension work must have reached some powerful people on the surface. Either that or they sought him out because they knew about it already. From there the situation evolved to where we are today with these Blue gangsters invading the city.”

I nodded. “If so, the move back above ground must have been recent. The Blues haven’t been around long. They took over fast once they showed on the scene. The story was they came from out of town like most of the other gangsters and everybody bought it. Today we visit the Reyes Institute. We can check for any institute connection with this Doctor Marin Gold. If he does exist, Marvel is probably at his aboveground location. Considering how evolved this Blue thing is he would have a hidden clinic on the outside. We keep moving quietly now, too. Making sure we aren’t watched. If any others are tipped, they’ll swarm us trying to track our lead. Maybe this Marin Gold thing will amount to nothing. Maybe he doesn’t exist, but something should be revealed to us at the institute.”

Getting access to the institute required a bit of fakery. Alain went to work creating an online identity for Lauren while I gathered as much information as possible about the clinic, its location, and the grounds. We tracked it easily online. Numerous people of the rich and famous category had been there for treatment. Most of that info showed in news articles that didn’t always note the exact reasons for the visits. Some did have personal pictures, videos and thank-you notes at personal Connect sites. Common reasons to visit were anti-aging treatments, plastic surgery, extreme scar repair after accidents and organ repair or replacement. Organ repair could be from children on up to those very old. The institute highlighted child patients for funding purposes though nearly all patients were elders. Most interesting was the funding model. Eighty percent of funds came from a hidden source and not government payments or general fundraising. A mysterious person backed the Reyes Institute. The name of this person was never mentioned but there had been a number of directors.

I studied interior shots to plan a walkabout. Lauren looked too young and that was a problem because she’d be playing a person much older. There again, without specific tests, they wouldn’t know. The bulk of their clients were people very old and still managing to look a natural twenty-five to forty plus. It depended on the age and the resilience of the person. Lauren could easily be someone much older but maxed out with treatments an extremely wealthy person would be able to afford.

I had a talk with Lauren and we passed the word to Alain to make her new identity the proper age, but not in a listed way. We would allow the clinic to track it on a deep search. Considering the state of the world at large, anyone could be put through a serious dig and would be by any interested party. Too many organizations collected information and that made Alain’s job all the harder. Fortunately, the man was a total paranoid and regularly used false identities. He had every program and method available and when he was finished, he claimed he had a new persona right down to how Lauren would dress. He created a shallower identity for me to use and another for himself.

The discussion moved to how we would arrive. Alain, already dressed in business attire and somewhat older via make-up, had the facts. His info was that we couldn’t enter by aircar because security wouldn’t let us in for a surprise visit that way. We would need an appointment. Many people did visit without appointments to avoid being traced. To do that we would have to arrive the way a top client would arrive, at the dock by boat.

The disguises would also allow us to avoid being tracked or followed by other troublesome parties.

“They will understand that sort of visit as it isn’t unusual,” Alain said. “The weather is calm now or at least somewhat calm. There is no heavy rain, just a mild windstorm. The lake is useable.”

“That’s great,” I said. “I hope you know where to get a yacht at a moment’s notice … or for that matter, how we will put a complexion on Lauren. She’s too pale.”

Alain grinned and lit a cigarette with a very irritating fragrance. Apparently, smoking bad cigarettes came with his new identity. “Complexion is all put on by older women. They are as pale as death without makeup. Lauren is readymade for us. We just need her to be someone else. The yacht is easy. Lauren and I have access to family boats, and we’re taking the boat of the person she is impersonating. That person happens to be her own aunt, a wealthy fashion model and industry spokesperson. She is perfect because she resembles Lauren. The identity is solid, as she spends money like water. For the online identity, what I did is put up a mask so there is no information available on where she is this week. When they track or search for her from that area they’ll get my planted information.”

“Uh huh,” I said. “That could be a problem. The Blues are searching for Lauren. They may put two and two together if she impersonates her aunt.”

“Her aunt changed her name long ago. She hasn’t had any public contact with the family. Her wing of the fashion empire isn’t connected in an open way. We are in the clear on that.”

Lauren seemed pleased as she studied stills of her aunt on the screen. The job appeared doable. I was also satisfied but my mood quickly soured when Alain’s door buzzer rang and a screen lit up showing an aircar requesting permission to land.

The vehicle was a neon-blue air cab with the stylized lightning bolt of an independent operator on the hood. The request screen flashed to the occupant of the cab calling in the request. It wasn’t the passenger but the driver. The interior camera showed a person wearing shades and a cowboy hat. He was outfitted in a cabby jumpsuit of the sort they wear during the Spells or other wet weather.

“Permission denied, please leave,” Alain huffed. Then the cabby took off his hat and shades and his face came clear. It was Brett Mercurio, disguised as a cabby.

“It’s Brett,” Lauren said.

“Who?” Alain asked.

“The guy who gave us the lead,” I said, and then I spoke to Brett. “What are you doing here? You received your pay.”

“Maybe so, but I can’t go anywhere with it. Blues and gangsters are chasing me everywhere. I don’t even know why.”

“Who’s that with you?”

Brett panned the interior camera. The other passenger was a teenage girl sitting next to him in the front. “My girlfriend, Jewel is with me. Don’t worry, no one followed us, I boosted the cab.”

That statement upset Alain. His face flushed. “Get out of here now! We’ll shoot you down!”

“Hang on,” I said and leaned over and whispered to Alain. “He found us here. We can’t let them leave or the Blues will get them and use them to track our location.”

Alain gave me a worried glance, and then hit the access button to open the entry doors. “Be warned. You’ll be scanned for weapons and bugs as soon as you land.”

Brett did have weapons, which he left in the cab. He entered with his girlfriend while Alain continued with a full scan on the aircar. That only took a minute.

“At least he was bright enough to disable the hidden trackers,” Alain said.

Brett deadpanned Alain then looked at me. “Is this guy for real?”

“He’s as real as the trouble we’re in, if uninvited guests are on your tail.”

“I told you I wasn’t followed.”

“Why did you bring the girl?” Alain asked.

“This is Jewel, my girlfriend. A couple Blues raided her house while I was hiding-out there. She can’t go home now.”

Lauren studied Jewel … a skinny blond, wearing drop earrings, no makeup, running shoes and a slick air suit. “Not being able to go home again is getting to be a real problem these days.”

Alain didn’t find it funny. “I have no plans on it happening to me.”

“It will,” I said. “I mean it will if we don’t get moving on the case. We’re going to press ahead on that lead. Once we get a location on Marvel, I can notify Wes Cameron. When he sends the big guns in, it will end the hunt on us because the hunters will become the hunted.”

“Great,” Brett said. “So what’s lead?”

Alain wrinkled his forehead, developed a worried look. He turned to Brett. “You came up with the lead. The medical center, remember? Don’t get any ideas about tagging along. You are not part of this deal.” Alain then turned back to me. “I can lock them in the car port until we get back.”

“You might as well allow them to wait inside. They have no access to your secure area.”

Alain passed a condescending glance to Brett then Jewel. “Can you wait here, without touching anything?”

They both nodded.

“Okay, it’s settled,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”

We took some time getting dressed and Lauren’s skill on machines made it easier to order the clothing designs as instant articles. I never would have figured out how to do it myself because designing with a pencil tip on the tiny screen wasn’t one of my talents. A simple smooth shave and offbeat hat style altered my own appearance to a degree. The foppish suit style Alain selected for me had me staring in the mirror and wondering if it was really me.

I considered flying out on Brett’s stolen air cab but Alain would have none of it. He figured there would be a report out on it by now so he released a small car that would get us to the yacht. Its slot was at the Shell Beach dock to the east of our target.

The boat had a trip scheduled for next week and was ready for use. The small windstorm Alain had mentioned was fierce higher up with strange currents and gusts that buffeted our car. The temperature was also rising fast and over the city, I could see dust swirling through a Ringblock neighbourhood below. The Spells were shifting fast to the switch between windstorms, heat-wave humidity and both combined.

Surprisingly things got much calmer over the water. Our target beach and dock were still very quiet. There was no activity visible from above other than one large speedboat cruising out. A crowd of people were active on the sand of a public beach just to the west.

Alain parked the aircar and we walked through ruffled sand laced with tall blue-belled weeds. Pale green water splashed the shore in the cloud-filtered light and even on the ground we could hear the whistle of the wind out deeper in the lake. A paved path took us past a fast-food stand at the edge of the public beach. The wind carried odors of fries mingled with a rank fish fragrance from the water. Alain practically minced as we stepped into blowing dust and soft weedy ground. Once we were on the boardwalk it was an easy lakeside stroll the rest of the way out on the dock to the boat.

Alain was our captain and he tapped in the auto pilot parameters and route, handing the boat over to the onboard AI. It was a better way of handling the frustration of rough waters. They were choppy off shore with ocean-like effects. Since the windstorms had been blowing so long, even in the calmer periods swells populated deeper waters.

This boat was torpedo shaped and hung low to the water, being small and unusual for a luxury yacht. The decor inside was a new at-sea style we quickly got used to as the set-up was nice. The boat had semi-circular white couches, a round glass table and all needed amenities set into buff cabinets. The water bubbling and splashing outside the long rectangular windows gave me the sense of being underwater in a submarine that continually bobbed to the surface.

Alain opened the bar and we dimmed the lights and viewed screen images of the Reyes institute. He poured expensive scotch for me, gin for Lauren, and I figured some quality booze on our breath would add to realism. Lauren was now Liz Neilson and Alain her personal steward Jerome McGlyn. I was traveling as her security man, Nigil King, though in the suit Alain had dreamed up, I felt more like a gay male model.

On the screen, an aerial shot showed an enclosure of brownstone buildings with roofs also capped in brown shingles. The buildings were long on the north and south side and all of them were five storeys high. Numerous connected segments in the same style created a complex inner court. The buildings and interior grounds were bigger than a city block though it wasn’t in the city. A fringe of scrub and trees surrounded its perimeter. Open grassy meadowland showed beyond the trees on three sides and the south side stretched down to the lakeshore and small dock next to another of the brownstone buildings. There was a ramp to the underground inside the court and it could only be reached by driving through an imposing gate. Since the location was remote, the underground portion was likely exclusive with no connection to the city nearby. Perhaps the road to hell and the Drop existed below it. The maximum-security prison was deep underground and thought to be partly under the lake but its exact location wasn’t public information any more. The entrance to the tube for prisoners going down was at Sandpoint Prison to the North West. No information on the underground portion of the structure was available via the city archives. There were traditional rumoured locations. Some people thought the Drop was right under the core of the city as a second underground below the city underground.

The Reyes Institute was classic in outward design but I knew the interior would be better than state of the art. At the city’s edge, with grounds, and not eighty storeys high … that meant money, a lot of it. I decided to check into past land ownership as I had a program to fish into city systems. There was no listed current owner so I connected via my portable office and went back in time until I found an owner. It wasn’t a corporation but a person. A woman named Ginette Wandsley. I recognized the name. Ultra-rich and quite dead. At least I assumed her so. Her movie-star daughter had died quite old twenty years back. The Wandsley family estate’s group of companies came up as a Pinnacle City office address. That was certainly interesting as it meant the money behind the institute and Marvel hailed from the same place.

I thought it over. Did the bizarre new information mean anything? The boat started rocking, and then its special engines roared on and took us first left then in reverse. Alain ran to the universal display to check the video screens. An alarm came on and he silenced it via a touch button. Lauren grabbed a handhold and looked out a window rather than look at the screen. “We almost collided with a huge platform in the water,” she said.

Alain had the wireless control in hand was now guiding the boat manually. “We’re moving clear of it now. It wasn’t on the maps and for some reason the sensors didn’t pick it up until the last second. We’re also almost at our destination. It’s ten minutes off.”

I got up and looked out. The water wasn’t very rough and the platform came clear as we backed off and started to circle. Six strong buoys held a landing bay of some type and it was a new construction. It had nothing parked on it; it was completely empty with a boxlike building fixed at its center. A huge core ran down into the water there. The advanced bridge AI in our boat should have seen it so maybe stealth technology hid it until close up. It looked like a cutesy version of an oilrig on the underside. I decided to look it up later and see what function it had.

There were three boats in the dock area when we came in but none was in the class of our yacht. My guess was they all belonged to the institute as they were secured for storms. The harbour building beside the dock was closed and no one was around other than a claw-footed dock robot that moved toward us to secure the landing. Alain let the boat’s AI look after landing details and we exited on the dock and looked around. Foam caps came in along the beach. Seagulls wheeled in gusts overhead.

The road up from the dock was closed and the gate sealed. They weren’t using the water entrance during the Spells. So much for Alain’s talk of the super-rich popping by for surprise visits. An asphalt path led through meadow grass to the front so we took that route. A number of ground cars were parked over in the circular lot. Ahead, the entry façade was about fifteen meters high and brown brick. It had a huge arch cut into its left side and rows of square windows and arched windows were above it. A flower-lined walkway took us to a bank of shallow steps. For some reason I had the feeling of being watched. I felt hairs prickle. It wasn’t the paranoid sort of feeling thoughts of hidden surveillance bring, but more the fear factor of being watched by something evil, unseen and malevolent.

We ascended the steps. I didn’t see anyone about though I glanced everywhere. The ghosts-in-the-daytime spooky atmosphere was an undercurrent. On the surface, it was breezy with occasional gusts … butterflies, doves flying over the grounds and dust devils out in the lot. Big cloud shadows passed over us with an ominous feel as though some big change in the weather was soon to come. From the top of the steps, we could see the fringe of trees surrounding the institute. The trees formed a ring of forest with open fields beyond. Except for the immediate grounds close up, all was wild and natural, and that wasn’t surprising as foliage grew out of control everywhere by the time of the arrival of the Spells. They tended to promote strong growth then decay during heat waves, with wind-torn leaves blowing about like autumn in the summertime.

The tree fringe struck me as a type of protective moat and perhaps it did have hidden security devices in it. I still had that creepy feeling, like something nasty was out there. I expected a killer guard dog to burst out from the bushes at any moment. Then again, I had a shaky feeling about the whole place, though I had no explanation for it.

The pedestrian gate was closed and we couldn’t see much beyond the bars. The place seemed strangely out of business or in business with everything buried and sealed in the interior, as if we were entering a mental institution and the crazy people weren’t going to start screaming before luring us inside. There was an entry panel there by the gate and Lauren scrolled through a list on it and called the main desk.

A dot appeared on the screen and expanded to a man. We could see his upper body and profile. He wore a styled gray suit, open collar. His hair was also longish and styled in a rise. He turned to face us and on close-up, his features didn’t match the classy attire. His forehead had furrows of thick skin, his eyes were bug-like in protrusion and stare and his complexion deathly pale. Not Lauren-style pale but with a sickly tint that I was sure was more than a defect in the screen image quality.

He was informal and asked only Lauren’s name and whom she was seeing. When she identified herself as Liz Neilson, here for a tour, he said nothing. She then introduced Alain and me, by our aliases and got no reply again.

The screen went suddenly blank and the gate slid aside. We walked inside to a short entry walk lined with sculptures and trimmed shrubbery. It led to a wide set of heavy wooden doors so we walked over and inside. The public desk was set into the wall to the right. A long hall with pale brown marble benches was beyond it.

The man we had spoken to emerged from a nearly invisible door next to the desk area and approached us. He identified himself by the first name Simon and gave his title as Manager of Patient Safety. No other patients or staff were visible, only him. Simon wore a suit hand-tailored by a designer. The fit was impeccable and in cloth too warm for the season.

“I’d like a brochure listing all services the institute can provide,” Lauren said. “Of course I’d prefer a tour before considering doing a stay here.”

“I used to be in charge of tours,” Simon said. “We stopped giving tours more than a year ago. Our services are very specialized now. Tours were in vogue back when we did high volume business with the public. I can print out brochures but they are custom, according to what the patient wants done. Usually I simply let the customer know if the service needed is available. Most services can be home delivered. Nearly all the healing chambers are portable and we now have secure methods of transport. Blocking the theft of priceless equipment was always the main reason for institute stays in the past. You would have to be buying an advanced service to be talking about staying here.”

Lauren put on an unhappy face. “No full list of services or prices. That’s not much of a business model. I heard you were the best at certain organ and other enhancements for the aging.”

“We do much more than that and we don’t advertise, of course. B…ut, we can do a walkabout and talk about your specific needs.”

“That would be fine,” Alain said.

Simon looked to Lauren. “Generally a client’s needs are a personal thing. Are you sure you want Mr. McGlyn along?”

“He is my personal assistant.”

“Very well,” Simon said then he turned to me.

“Mr. King. You can wait here in Visitors Hall while we do a small tour.”

“Do you mind if I take a walk around on my own?”

“No, not personally. Nevertheless, you won’t be able to go far. As a security man, I’m sure you understand. You can’t leave this area or enter any other without special access.”

Simon had moved to isolate me so I simply bought into it and strolled about while he engaged in more conversation with Lauren and Alain. From what we’d seen so far, this interior area was more of the facade. It looked like the lobby area of a medical center yet revealed absolutely nothing else. There were no patients, doctors, nurses, medical robots or equipment in view. Sitting on a bench by the public desk, I calculated angles and figured out where cameras would be. By the time they walked off, I knew where to go and headed over to another bench that was blocked by a column and a huge cactus in a planter.

The three of them disappeared into an elevator near the end of Visitors Hall and when I was sure they were gone, I opened an air screen. The picture I got as I flashed through the maps generated was fantastic, meaning the security system displayed was much more than I expected. In Visitors Hall and other nearby areas that would be public, there was almost no security or surveillance. Many other areas showed in outline as shielded by an advanced system. I could not see inside or pick up the make of the interior security system. Everything underground received camouflage from the system.

Thinking it over it did fit with what Simon said. The Reyes Institute had undergone change a year back. That alteration was to equipment and treatments that were so high-end the level of protection was extreme. In spite of Simon’s other words, there was no way most services could be obtained with homecare delivery of healing chambers. There was no secure way of regularly moving such equipment about the city. The institute was running on a home-care public model and hiding the advanced stuff in its bowels somewhere.

Marvel had been a patient before this stage. If the clinic was top notch and superior to what Pinnacle City had back then, it was for sure something grand now.

I could at least walk about the public areas as the fob locks would be easy to crack. Since Simon had no objection to me walking about, other than that it wouldn’t be possible, I considered that authorization.

I strolled off to the right and got through to a long hall with numerous paintings, all realism with famous doctors as the subjects. A bust set on a square dais attracted my interest. It was another doctor type, his face as hard as the stone composing it. The nameplate had been removed from the dais and a small square showed there.

The hall ended at an inner court where it expanded to a circle with Doric columns lining the walls. A man was strolling there and he was wearing the baggy style of pale mauve jumpsuit hospital inpatients wear. I looked around, stepped beyond a small fountain and some large falls of vines but saw no one else. I wanted a chat with this man so I walked up to him and said hello.

It startled him; he turned with a jolt but relaxed when he saw me. He looked a natural sixty-five and was very frail. His hair was short trimmed and silver. He had a sophisticated manner, almost as if he was doctor that had become a patient.

He studied me closely. “Who are you?”

“A visitor,” I replied. “A friend, my employer is on a tour of the institute at present. She may be coming here for a stay.”

“A stay. If it is a woman she must be very wealthy.”

“The prices for women are higher?”

“Oh yes. I mean if it is serious youth or anti-aging treatment.”

“Why so expensive for women?”

“Women don’t want life extension only. They want to look perfect with it, like a young movie star and yet be very old. Men tend to compromise and accept the newer life extension technologies. They cost less. You live longer. You just don’t look very wonderful. Especially if you are too old and aiming to live on indefinitely.”

“Really. I’m way behind on this science … or should I say, not up to date. I’m not very old myself.”

“I can see that. I’d know if you were.”

“Sixth sense?”

“Not at all. I’m a hundred and twenty years old, you see. I know how to tell.”

“What are the signs you spot?”

“None if it is done properly. To look as perfect as you and be quite old, a person would be in the unbelievably wealthy category. I would know who you are if that was the case. Since I don’t know who you are, you are younger than someone with pricey life extension.”

“You got it. I’m Nigil King, a security man. I couldn’t afford even the cheap stuff as far regeneration to youth goes.”

He began to stroll about the circle, stopping here and there at various columns. His blue eyes lost in thought, like maybe his mind was in a fog. I strolled along with him. “You wouldn’t want it at all. I mean the cheap stuff they have for men these days. They’re freaks, you know. Especially the ones living the longest that way. The imperfections are there from the beginning but underneath. The wealthier clients can polish the surface. Too old or don’t have the money, you look like a freak. Women prefer death to it; they only buy the best and that means very few get it. I’m getting the best myself. I’m in for a new month of treatment. There’ll be no imperfections when it is finished.”

“You must have a lot of money.”

“I don’t pay. I’m Palmer Wandsley. My family has been financial backers of this institute for as long as I can remember. I have nothing to do with clinic operation personally. I just use the services.”

“You look good already.”

“I will be much stronger and younger in a month.”

“The cheap jobs. What do they look like?”

“Were you at the front desk with your client?”


“Then you spoke to Simon. He’s one of them. One of the better ones. Come with me. I’ll show you more. This whole clinic is staffed with them. All men and all of them would have been better off dying in their time then living on as they do. They’re ugly freaks, but you get used to them.”

I followed as Palmer Wandsley walked behind a column to a door that looked like part of the wall. It opened inward and we stepped into a patient lounge. A large orb light hung like a radiant moon at its center and other patients were present. I counted nine; three sitting, two at a table reading and four others standing at a long counter drinking beverages from tall glasses. Five of them were white males, one was black and the others oriental extraction. They were dressed the same as Palmer and were in a thin and frail state like him.

A member of the medical staff, a doctor, walked into the room. He was in dim light but his white coat showed clearly. He wore the coat over a shirt and tie, gray dress pants and black leather shoes without laces. A second medical person emerged and followed the doctor. He wore a loose white shirt to his hips, black pants and white shoes. An orderly or other staffer, I figured.

The two medical staffers went through the area and nodded to a couple of the men. They didn’t spot me there with Palmer. It was only when they were directly under the orb light that I noticed something strange. The doctor’s blond hair had an unnatural plastic look, and his eyes were too close-set and large. The skin on his face was pasty and lumpy. The orderly was carrying the usual instrument pad, but the hand holding it was too large and the fingers gnarled. His facial features also showed distortion like wax that had partially melted.

They disappeared through a far door and Palmer beckoned me to follow him, but not in the same direction. He took me through a room with heavy wooden desks and counters and stopped at its end facing a large wood panel with a giant copper coin set into it. Palmer pushed a hidden button there and the coin became a round window. It looked into another part of the institute containing some of the medical equipment. It was a large treatment area. A door was open on the far side and medical staff walked by in the hallway there.

I studied the room, knowing the aluminum medical cocoons set into the west wall were healing and restoration chambers. In modern medicine, varieties of cocoons were in use, but surgical brands were the most feared. The control bank for them was on the north wall. They did not look in any way portable but fixed right into the walls. Two orderlies appeared from the hall, wheeling in a patient in a special chair. This was a super geriatric case; an old bluing man and he looked more dead than alive. He was not conscious either. They opened one of the cocoons and fixed him inside, let it seal then drew up a number of screens at the control bank. I found the images grotesque and detected an odor of death underlying the antiseptic odors of this portion of the hospital.

The two medical characters appeared to be walking and talking like two healthy professionals, but they had something seriously wrong with them. One was a black man and his heavy features - thick lips, wide nose and heavy brows were accentuated to swollen freakishness. The other guy had a veined face like a hatchet. He could cut wood with his nose. His veins were a lot like thick fibers. If the cosmetic surgery they had at this institute could not clear such conditions as Palmer said, the issues had to be in cellular regeneration that had gone screwy.

Similar anomalies showed on the entire medical staff passing in the hall; everything from legs and arms too short or long to fat heads – mutation, distortion. They were much like circus freaks, and probably would be circus freaks if in costume. Whatever treatments they had received over the years kept them living, though slowly mutating them to death that would arrive at some point … and probably be obscene. So much for dying gracefully, appropriately, peacefully – but why do that when it could be made late and completely horrid.

I turned to Palmer Wandsley. “I think I see what you are showing me, but I don’t know what you are trying to tell me.”

“All of the people running this clinic are of great age. They are already older than I am and will continue to live on. They will never look fully human and normal like I do. They lost that through too many treatments and cheap treatments too. I am receiving the most expensive work. Few can get it or tolerate it. We look like perfect elders. The other patients you saw back in that room are some of the very few who will extend their lives and remain fully human.”

“If not fully human, what are the others?”

“I call them the dead though they actually live the longest. They undergo a life extension technique pioneered by a doctor named Marin Gold. In it, their key organs are really outliving most of the rest of the body. Hence the distortion. Marin Gold used many techniques and one is based on the idea that if you can keep the organs alive the person lives. But a person is not just organs, as you know.”

“Yeah. I wouldn’t want it. Not to die eventually, looking like a funhouse mirror view of myself. I have heard of that doctor. He got into serious trouble and should be long dead now.”

“Should be?”

“Why do you call those others dead?”

“Like I just said, half of the body cells are nearly dead but the organs live. There are many creepy types. The elders you see in the media or in public are people like me. The others you never really see much. Eventually a human being dies. If you want to live on endlessly, you do so as a freak. They have their organs repaired, get transplants from convicts or wherever, use a new regimen of the drugs … but the brain and the rest of the body tissues rebel. Skin for example is an organ you can’t continually transplant or repair. Eventually it looks dead, freakish. When the underlying tissue and fine vascular system goes freak, your body distorts in unpredictable ways. The brain operates in a state of mild shock that is closer to death than life.”

“Isn’t that something like the Blues? I’m talking about the new boys we’ve seeing around this city. I hear they are a mistaken product of life extension.”

“Those characters are around here, at the lower levels. I’ve never been down there. They are security and they are something a bit different. Their only treatment is a weird knockoff of some failed life extension drugs. The pill complex slows the metabolism. They are reptiles.”

“How did it start?”

“It began with some aging men trying gain low-cost life extension. They tested the early drugs and the experiments failed. Illegal development began; men applying a Frankenstein drug. Blues are as cold as the dead but physically strong. It is easy to see why some people would choose that as an option. They have more stamina. Men have been using various treatments to gain an edge for centuries. Since all they have to take is pills, no wonder so many shady types buy into it. They are also addicts. Without the pills they die.”

“You said you haven’t been below. I take it the place is sealed off.”

“There is an entrance from the center courtyard. I now know that most of the activity at this place is down there because most of the staff is usually there. The orderlies call it the R&D area. It is research I really don’t want to know about.”

“I think I’ve heard enough scary stuff. I can’t imagine my client wanting what they offer here.”

“She will buy. If they gave her a tour, they know she has the money. As I said, it is a different game for women. They take what they can get that will extend life and keep them beautiful. None of them ever gets into the freak game. Men choose that. Women prefer death to it. Men will live on as monsters but I certainly won’t be doing it. I’ve an extension treatment or two left. Once my body fails to fully respond I will end things.”

We strolled back out and stepped into an area of flowering shrubbery. The space-age statue of an angel in the garden fountain had normal proportions that healed my eyes. Palmer stayed with me, walking me back to the public desk, though by a different route. I could see the area I had started from on the other side of a hedge.

“You mention Doctor Marin Gold. They sent him down to the Drop long years ago because of his illegal medical work. Any chance he is still around now?”

“I heard a rumour to that effect last week when I came in to start treatment. If so, he is a life extension genius. A magician too. It would take magic to get out of there. I do know that some of his work continued through others when my family invested in this institute, so it really doesn’t matter. He let the genie out of the bottle, so they buried him too late. My advice to you is not to broach the subject, especially if you’re going to be around here. Asking prying questions is not a formula for life extension. Whatever secrets they have, don’t look into them. All of these sorts of places put a premium on privacy.”

Palmer took me in a roundabout way, back to our meeting point near the main desk. I needed to get back before Alain and Lauren returned with their guide. I had hopes of keeping my own small tour secret. We crossed a bridge passage between two buildings, and from there could see out one-way glass – first to a small area below with a few more patients and freakish medical staff. Two of the men in orderly outfits were close to midget size and I wondered how that could be unless it was another bizarre side effect. Midgets were a rare, mostly foreign thing, or else specially bred for certain space operations.

The remainder of the passage allowed a view down into the large inner area the buildings and passages enclosed. There were gardens and courts; the sun emerged briefly from dark clouds and created strange light effects on misted foliage. The huge ramp down at the very center was visible, and it did not fit with the rest of the design. Blocked off by a garden that allowed no vehicle access, it seemed out of place. Unless, and the thought hit me, the large ramp wasn’t for large vehicles or robots going down, but perhaps for air lifts coming out when the huge bottom doors were fully open.

I left Palmer and reached the main desk; they weren’t back so I breathed easier. It saved me from explaining how I got out of the area. Twenty more minutes passed then I saw the three of them emerge from the elevator and approach. Lauren was deep in conversation with Simon; it appeared she had done a better con job on him than Alain as he was walking behind them looking somewhat depressed. An attack of his paranoia perhaps, and no doubt he’d seen some ugly things to trigger its onset.

Alain sat beside me and gave me a sour glance while Lauren and Simon continued their talk. I tuned into enough of it to gather that Lauren had convinced clinic staff she had a heart defect she wanted corrected. Once that was complete, she was interested in other anti-aging treatments. Simon said finding an opening within the next few months would be difficult. Few women used the clinic and they had to be slotted in; it was mostly a male playground.

Lauren finally broke away, having arranged nothing other than a call back, which was what I wanted. Then we were on way back out the huge entry façade. The gate closed behind us and we faced the wind from the top of the steps. It was one of those strange winds of the Spells. There was no direct blow and numerous odd noises. Wind chimes tinkling, the odd bang of something loose inside the institute grounds, gusts racing quickly across the tops of the surrounding trees, sudden ripples in the grass. It was lonely, empty out there. I blinked my eyes as dust blew in then I thought I saw something running in the meadow grass below, movement that disappeared in shadows under the trees.

Something shivered and faded. I blinked again. If it was anything, it was invisible. Lauren and Alain hadn’t seen it as neither of them were saying anything.

They were loitering on the steps as if they weren’t sure what to say about their tour. Alain took a deep breath then spoke. “I’ll be glad to get away from here. This place gives me a serious case of nerves. The medical staff is more like a gang of patients deformed by mysterious diseases, and the patients look like they should be the doctors.”

I ignored that and looked to Lauren. “Did you get anything … any sense of what this leads to?”

“Yes. I found out many things. Perhaps most important, he admitted that Marvel received treatment here. He didn’t seem to know anything about her recent disappearance though. I didn’t bring it up either.”

“Why was she here?”

“A heart defect called aortic valve stenosis caused extensive damage. He didn’t say exactly how it was treated. The impression I got was transplant.”

Fingers of humid wind ruffled my hair. It seemed odd. “She had an undetected heart defect that worsened. It hardly seems possible with her wealthy family. They would have had detailed medical scans of her entire body. Of course, at her age a transplant would take fully. She’d be good as new. I just can’t believe she’d need one.”

Alain paused on the first step. “The tour took us around that central court and areas near it. We know there is a large underground here and they aren’t advertising it. We can attempt a more detailed scan of this site or research on it when we get back to my place. You should simply report this location. They obviously didn’t take a complete look at it. Maybe they didn’t know about the underground.”

I thought it over. “At Pinnacle City they know little about the outside city. They’re in their own world. Perhaps they didn’t do a proper check on this institute because they believe it is respectable.”

Alain snorted. “It sure isn’t that! Medical zombies run this treatment center. I don’t even want to guess what sort of experimentation they do underground. The legal stuff they do on patients above ground is scary enough. I believe that if Marvel is anywhere, she is there underground. You simply report that in the absence of any extortion attempt you believe they brought her here for some reason. She was here before. Who can guess what they did or want from her?”

“I’ll put in a report. If they come in with force and find anything we get the rest of the loot.” Lauren seemed skeptical so I faced her. “Alain’s analysis is the only one I can figure as an answer. She was here at one time. Maybe they did more than asked, some sort of experiment and kidnapped her to cover it up. For that matter, we don’t even know for sure why she was here other than something about her heart.”

Lauren wrinkled her nose unhappily. “We have to report this possibility anyway. If others do it before us, they will collect. If a raid turns up nothing, so what, a bunch of freak doctors get rousted. They most certainly won’t be able to make any loud noises about it. Beyond a doubt, they have illegal activity going on below. If it doesn’t pay off we get back on the case, look elsewhere.”

We walked down the steps, all three of us glancing up at the darkness swelling out over the lake. A storm would be on us soon, maybe even before we could get back. The boat could probably handle it but with my phobia regarding boats and storms, I wouldn’t enjoy it. Memories of being swept overboard when I was a kid were already returning.

I picked up the pace as we hit the bottom of the steps. The others followed silently. The odd creepy feeling skimmed up my back again, a gust blasted us and for some reason I stopped in my tracks and looked back. One of the orderlies was back there at the top of the steps staring down at us, his white smock flapping in the wind. Measuring him against the gate, he was abnormally tall and long-legged, with huge splayed feet. He wasn’t doing anything, just standing there smoking, but he gave me a bad feeling.

“Let’s get out of here fast,” Alain said. “They might be on to something by now.”

We walked faster, and I put my hand inside my coat on my gun. A bright flash ignited in the corner of my eye. The wind kicked up dust from a bare patch of ground and it blew in and partially blinded us. Dead leaves tumbled through the air from a disturbance ahead. Tall trees and evergreen scrub choked the path on the turn before the open walk to the dock. I was sure I a saw a dark form move quickly out of sight there. As I tried to check that, the ground suddenly moved with a barely audible low hum. It rose in bass strength as if an earthquake was impending.

A man suddenly appeared from the shade of the trees, catching us by surprise. He was stocky to lumpy in build and his hair was like a red mane around a creviced moon face. He held a gun with a barrel that was some type of tube with a fine end, hideously ironic, like he was about to shoot us with a giant syringe. The weapon had a bronze adjustment ring and he was turning it. He displayed unnerving confidence like successfully killing us would be nothing new to him. Flashing us a revolting smile, he edged out at the side of some bushes. The earthquake-like hum continued and acted as a distraction.

I had been doing a quiet setting on my special gun while this was happening, though I hadn’t drawn it out. I pushed a trigger as he fired and launched a repel aura around us. It saved us, as the air suddenly became flying sheets of energy with an appearance like cellophane. It swept around us and that caught him by surprise; he realized too late that I had an advanced gun as well. Only mine was portable and could do dual modes.

My fiery blast tore up the ground and took him down in a wave of debris. He also had some type of aura shielding because he rolled up and scrambled for the weapon. It had fallen a few metres south of him and I managed to hit it with a small blast. As I looked around for other attackers, a strong force knocked the three of us. My repel beam was still a shell around us but whatever it was it hit us with such force that it almost got through it.

The shock wave flattened Alain and put Lauren on her knees. My watering eyes cleared as I stumbled back up. Whatever had hit us had bounced into the trees. I heard it crash through some branches. I wanted the gunman out of commission and he was running through duff by a pine tree. I took him down with a shock blast that threw him into the trunk hard like a flying sack of goods.

He went limp and didn’t rise. I clicked the repel beam back on as it had been off for the shot. We looked around, trying to spot the other attacker. I knew it wasn’t a man. Moments later, it came clear in the trees. It was a dark shape like a large dog. When it moved it was so fast nothing but a blur showed. It disappeared in shadows, having the ability to camouflage itself. It had moved away from us leaving us waiting to see where it might appear.

My repel beam was a power eater; my gun had a strong recharge core but it could only do so much. I signalled Lauren and Alain to start walking and we again headed for the boat. That worked magic as it inspired an attack, and the creature gave itself up by approaching through bushes. It was not visible; the bushes it tore aside were as was the split in the fireweed and long grass it had to cross on the last few yards. I barely made the shot when all I had to do was hit the trigger button. I’d set the repel beam to track and suddenly focus all its power laser-like on anything suddenly coming in. I still had to do the trigger myself because I couldn’t risk it suddenly auto-killing any innocent party that might appear.

The result was a crack like a lightning strike hitting a tree. The shot nailed the thing about two meters out from us and we were caught in the blast’s dissipation. A hot air pillow threw all three of us on our backs. I wasn’t out but opened my eyes, looking up. I saw whatever it was I’d hit rising high at the treetops. The shot had thrown it for a loop and it was blazing with blue light I hoped was a deadly effect of the blast.

Red berries showered down on us and I realized that the thing had crashed through the bushes so fast that it had sent the berry clumps high in the air. As more berries fell, I rolled up and watched as the thing hit the ground in nearby trees.

Gunfire, I suddenly scrambled forward and turned. The shooter was Lauren. She was partway up and shooting at something by a nearby maple tree. Alain cowered beside her with his head in hands. At first, I couldn’t see anything then a white spot appeared and I fired. My gun was in recharge mode as I’d used so much power. The quick shot was still strong enough to take bark off the tree, hit the man and spin him around. He staggered out in the grass, revealing himself as a midget and an orderly. He had a weapon similar to that of the first guy but smaller. He swung it to fire but Lauren cut him down with bullet shots.

I shook my head and walked over to Lauren. “You’d think they’d know enough not to wear white smocks when they come out to ambush people.”

“Overconfidence,” she said. Her hair was a mess; she had dirt ground into her face. She brushed clumps of grass and smashed berries off of her outfit.

“They have a reason for that overconfidence,” Alain snapped as he rose. “We barely made it. We better run for the boat before more come.”

“No running,” I said. “First we go over and see what that thing is that I shot. Then we approach the boat cautiously. I want to do a quick scan before we get onboard.”

“No,” Alain whimpered. “Leave that thing out there. It might wake up.”

“That is precisely why I want to view it. We’re going to kill it if it is still alive.”

“There might be more of them,” he said.

“Let’s go,” Lauren snarled.

We crossed the grassy area and looked around. Alain watched our backs in fear of an ambush. He spun around when we came to the broken fir branches. From there we followed our noses. The odor was like rotting fish. We found the thing at the center of a small circle of trees and it was dead. Finding it didn’t tell us what it was though. Alain wouldn’t go near it and Lauren stayed about five steps back. I gave it a shot with a fine kill beam to the head as a safety double-tap before approaching.

Coming up close, I studied it. The bad odor was from some of its innards spilled on the crash landing. The thing was a monster, though not what I’d expected. It had a distorted mammalian head, somewhat like a giant possum with many sharp teeth. Huge clawed front feet extended from short legs. Its body shone with a steely blue armor that my shot had split open. The secret of its speed was its legs. They were long and triple jointed, stretched out behind it. The thing was a repulsive lab manufactured mutation. It looked like they’d crossed a mammal with a flea’s hind legs, among other things, to create a hostile critter that moved fast enough to kill any human opponent. It would’ve killed us but my carry of an unusual custom weapon saved us.

I stepped back quickly. “We jog to the boat. I have enough power to shield us briefly. We need to get out of here before any more of those things come out of the trees.”

A repulsed expression had locked on Alain’s face. He didn’t say anything as we ran off, the bad odor a power that sped our departure. I stopped briefly and let them get ahead. Hitting the scan button on my gun I got nothing nearby but the next beeps indicated a couple of mechanical objects on the dock. It was around a bend and through the last break of trees and bushes. I would have to pull a flash screen for a closer scan or chance it. I remembered the dock robot and ran ahead. I caught them on a rise. Looking down we saw the boat locked in at the dock and the dock robot nearby.


Chapter Seven: Penthouse


Alain had the remote in his pocket. He glanced at me then signalled the AI to unlock the boat so we could board and immediately kick waves out of the place. Because of the Spells the boat had been stabilized to the four posts at the corners of slot 4 by the dock robot, which was now frozen and unmoving. Being advanced, the boat detected that and floated out a special claw to do the release. The engines started and it drifted there still lightly attached by bow and stern lines. All that remained was to descend, pull them off and hop from the dock walk to the boat.

Since the others didn’t move, I knew they had suspicions as I did.

“If they wanted to be sure to nail us, wouldn’t they have someone waiting at the boat?” Alain said.

“True, but I see nothing. Your AI was set to let no one on board.”

The sky was now fully dark, the deep waters farther out looked Stygian. Leaves and dust blew along the dock and the boat rocked expectantly. I shrugged my shoulders then they followed me as we headed down. We reached the far gravel edge of the dock and then heard a loud bang. It had come from the harbour building at the end of the dock. Dust smoked the air there. A door had opened but all we could see was a dark blur.

A vehicle drove out, or at least it gave the impression of being a vehicle. When it came into full view, it was revealed as a huge robot. It rolled quickly forward on treads. Its one scan eye ignited and caught sight of us. The thing’s head was a forward cone like a battering ram. Its arms were extendable with tool extensions for hands.

As it charged, we ran to the boat, narrowly beating it there. Lauren pulled one rope and Alain the other. Rather than try to stop such a heavy robot with a shot from my recharging weapon, I waited until it slammed down on the boardwalk part of the dock and fired at the dock itself. The metal giant charged along it as my blast ripped out a section of the walk, sending it through for hard slam into the mud below.

That slowed it but it raised an appendage and fired a blast of projectiles that tore up the boards I had just jumped from to the boat. I could see that the projectiles weren’t bullets but nails. Someone at the institute had changed its programming and it probably thought it was supposed to repair us with spikes and hammerheads.

It quickly climbed up over the broken boards and fired a high-powered stream of nails right at the prow. I saw Alain stumble then fall below. Lauren ducked under a railing. Nails whizzed over my head, tore up the left edge of my coat and got me in the left arm. Then the boat roared out in reverse and I fell. At the same time, the robot, still ripping into us with nails, reached the edge of the dock, went over it and straight down into the water.

Waves from a strong gust splashed the port side. I got myself in and under cover. Squatting near some supplies, I tore away my coat and checked my left arm.

I heard Alain hollering, “We have damage on the hull and upper deck!”

Lauren hurried past me, heading forward to him. She glanced at my arm and winced. When she returned it was with some good news. “Our AI created an inner seal with a release of compressed liquid plastic. It will hold for a while but we can’t stay out long in this storm. It’s almost on us.”

I ignored her. My arm looked like hell and she was worried about some minor damage to the boat. Four hot nails were embedded at the top of my forearm. They’d been red hot when they hit. I felt like screaming from the pain but bit my lip instead. My seared flesh had a fragrance like cooked chicken, weird nerve pain and burning shot up my arm.

The boat struggled against the rising waves and picked up speed as I held myself still with my right arm around a post. Both Alain and Lauren came back and inspected the wounds.

I ground my teeth, and held back my anxiety. In younger days of space training, I’d learned separation from pain. It wasn’t working so well with hot nails.

“Nothing we can do here,” Alain said. “We’ll take care of that back at my place. My healing chamber can do a fix on that but the nails have to stay in for now.”

“I hope the damn things don’t poison me,” I said.

“That’s not likely,” Lauren said. “That wasn’t a war robot. It was a dock robot sent on a kill mission. It was about the same as the berserk forensics robot.”

“Worse,” I said. “In an open field that heavy thing would have taken fire and killed us all with nails.”

“Those construction robots are supposed to be locked AI wise, so they can’t be set to harm humans,” Alain said. “They come with a guarantee that tampering will disable them. They’re useful. I used to watch them construct houses.”

I winced as Lauren picked at a nail and answered Alain. “Obviously the people we are dealing with here know how to get around even the difficult problem of tampering with robots.”

Alain turned to the controls and Lauren spoke. “I don’t think they created that monster at the institute. I mean not there. I think it was brought up from below, from the Drop.”

The boat rocked hard on the waves. It was so dark that without the interior lights it would have been like night. The emergency screen at the side of main controls lit up brightly. I heard Alain cursing as I tried to keep myself steady with a leg and my good arm. The yacht suddenly went through a maneuver so dangerous it felt like we were sinking. A huge spill washed over us. Alain dropped down on his butt and used the remote in emergency mode.

We rose out of the water headed for a huge platform. I realized that the boat’s AI had again failed to see the same platform and was aiming for a collision with it. The rough waters pulled us away from it and we skated along its side on a wash of foam. I cringed as a loud grating noise came through the walls. It was hull damage for sure and whether the emergency sealant would work this time was questionable.

The yacht came clear, rising on a tall swell. We were reversing away from the platform again. The storm had turned to heavy mist, rain and froth at the platform. Then I saw something rising off it, an aircar. It spun up vertically through wind and rain.

The yacht lurched a few times and slowly turned, then we moved ahead slowly in the storm, visibility being little more than a show of flying spray. Alain was back on his feet and looking confident so I assumed we weren’t about to sink. I’d forgotten about the pain in my arm, but the bite of it suddenly came back with ferocity.

Lauren turned away from Alain and came back to sit with me. “I think I may be hallucinating,” she said. “I just saw that stolen taxi of Brett’s rising from that platform.”

“I saw an aircar too. Those two are getting to be a liability.”

The boat ride was nearly enough to cause seasickness, as the vessel couldn’t produce anything close a smooth ride in waters so rough. It did handle somewhat in such weather, which was amazing in itself. The next problem was docking. We couldn’t even see the shore as it was so dark and windy. The ship’s AI reported that we were riding in with the wind at our stern, meaning we’d have to dock away from the other vessels by an emergency ramp where our boat’s arm would do a quick seizure and lock on a post.

The jolt knocked me half off my feet but I recovered my balance and was the first to exit the yacht. I stepped up and nearly got blown into the water. Yelling, I warned the others to wait, then I reached the ramp and they worked slowly to get a couple ropes to me to secure the boat in a better fashion.

They joined me on the slippery ramp and we had to move in to the interior boardwalk with our heads down to avoid falling. Alain did fall and near the shore in a patch of sandy mud. He swore as I pulled him up. Looking back, the boat was fine, locked by the arm and rocking with the water and ropes. The rest of the small marina floated in lonely winds. No people around and all boats secured. The building lights were off.

We had to go through the rest of the muddy sand to get back to the aircar. All three of us needed a change of clothes. We came out of pebbled sand and blueweed into a blow of wet leaves. Water spilled over the path so we went around it and over a small rise. At the top, we could see down. Another aircar had parked next to ours. It was the stolen taxi of Brett’s.

I nearly yelled in the wind to Lauren and Alain as I put my hand on my gun. “We have to make sure it is Brett in that car. I’ll go ahead. You follow behind, shoot if you have to.”

I had my hat under my arm and my gun under it, the wind was so full of rain it was like a car wash. Coming up on the aircar, I saw a smiling face inside. It was Brett, his girlfriend beside him. He skinned open a section of the window. “We came out to talk to you about something. We got to the dock too late. Can’t get back into Alain’s place now.”

“I hope this is important,” I said, with the wind sucking my words away.

Brett’s window closed and I waved Alain and Lauren forward. They came up, staring at the windshield of the aircab as if strange fish were inside. Then we got into Alain’s aircar and he started the engines.

“They aren’t coming back with us,” he said.

“He has some news,” I replied. “Obviously confidential if he tried to deliver it in person.”

“Shit … I have to talk to him too. I sealed them in there. Now I have to find out how he beat my security and got out.”

Lightning struck nearby and the thunderclap shook us. The storm was directly overhead. Alain slammed a fist on the dash in frustration and glided forward, rising at a long angle. He took advantage of the wind rather than fight it. The updraft made going up easy but he had to turn on the lightning detector, especially to detect cloud-to-air lightning, and that caused our car to weave all over the place as it flew. There was no other option as it was impossible to rise over the thunderstorm. We were in it all the way back as the storm moved in the same direction. Rain splashed off the shields as we came down, as if buckets of water were nailing us. Alain’s place appeared out of the darkness and we flashed in the opening door, followed close behind by Brett.

Alain docked the car and left it to cool through a checkup. He got out immediately and opened a hidden security screen in the carport to view the readouts. Rather than simply ask Brett how he had managed to get the cab out, he wanted to see for himself. I didn’t know his system type but I was able to read the code translation as it passed. He suddenly halted the readout and highlighted a line. I parsed it to mean that Brett had gotten out because Thurber the antbot had let him out.

Alain cursed under his breath. “I’ll beat that little beast for this.”

Lauren moved up beside me. “What’s this about?”

I grinned. “It seems Alain’s little servant got tricked by Brett. You just can’t get good help these days.”

Brett was out of his car, Jewel at his side like she was attached to him, her blond hair frizzed up like one of the lightning strikes had connected with her.

“Thurber let us out,” Jewel said. “But he wouldn’t let us back in.”

“At least he half works,” Alain said.

We all dripped with rain and stepped back into the foyer trying to shake some of it off.

“I have one washroom and I’m using it,” Alain said. He flashed open a panel and sent a warm fragrant blow through the area. Then he sealed the door ahead of us as he hurried through. He left us standing there in fragrant airs.

It miffed Lauren. “All he cares about is his security. Doesn’t even want to know what the news is.”

“Yeah, and my arm is completely numb. I need that healing chamber of his soon.” I turned to Brett, feeling uncomfortable being almost nose-to-nose with him. At least he was tall and I wasn’t looking over his head as often happened with other people. “So what is the important news?”

“It might not be so important now. I mean you would have found out anyway. We just got excited. I contacted my people after you left and it came in.”

“What came in, what is it?”

“Marvel. Word is on the street that she is okay. Your case is over or there never really was a case because she wasn’t officially reported missing. A gossip news piece is out. It shows her leaving a luxury home in the Gated Core. She was in town for a visit and a charity event. The people owning the home are Wandsleys. You know, the super-rich Wandsleys”

Mild shock widened Lauren’s pretty eyes. Her expression was that of a person suddenly waking up in an alternate reality. “Did you confirm it?”

“Of course I did. I saw the clip of her. She is pale like Jewel, and just as skinny. She’s not as pale as you are though. Unless it’s a double it is her. She did lose some weight, but looks perfect with that change.”

I didn’t say anything, rusty gears of confusion turned in my brain. I waited until we were all cleaned up then I checked my messages. Sure enough, one was waiting for stealth pickup. It was Wes informing me that the case had been closed. They had Marvel. He included no details.

Alain didn’t find out about the new situation until he returned from his red quarters. He walked in slowly as Brett had the clip of Marvel on the screen. He caught on fast and addressed the issue. “Ah, they made a deal and are covering it with propaganda. It looks like the rest of the reward money you people wanted has gone down the drain.”

“Propaganda or not, it checks out on my recognition run-thru. It is her and it is recent.”

“I guess it’s over,” Lauren said. Her tone revealed disappointment that didn’t seem to be about money but more because her days of playing private eye were over.

“It ain’t exactly over,” Jewel said, shaking her hair and giving Brett a squeamish glance.

“Yeah,” Brett said. “The members of my gang are still on the run. They’re asking questions about Jack Michaels everywhere. I’m talking about the Blues. We’re stuck on their hit list and this probably doesn’t get us off it. They’ll probably follow us even if we escape the city.”

“We’ll deal with it,” I said. “What were you doing out on that platform by institute? We saw you there during the storm.”

“We attempted to reach you before you went into the institute. We figured the case was over so why do it when it was most likely a setup or unnecessary risk for you guys. I had to pull away quick. Three aircars rose from that platform from a door that opened on that building in the center of it. They were stealth and disappeared off the cab’s sensors as they rose. We could see them but had no read. I was far enough back that they didn’t spot us. It was too late to reach you guys so I decided to investigate. I got into the building by cracking a code to open the bay doors. Strange supplies were inside. Crates with mostly vials and pills, all unmarked … or I mean marked by a color code system we couldn’t read. I spent a long time looking around and Jewel wanted to get out of there. I figured there had to be something more in there, a hidden control panel or screen with instructions. I couldn’t find anything, just more and more of those supplies. Loud bangs spooked us and we split. It turned out it was wind from the storm and you people crashing into the place. Probably the institute trades in some illegal stuff it manufactures. They keep a stash out there on the water and ship from there. I didn’t take any samples. I don’t even want to know what it is they make; I wouldn’t try it. It’s probably stuff to juice people that are about a century old, which is an age I’ll probably never reach.”

Alain suddenly turned from the security feed he was running. Paling again, he had panic in his eyes. “You talk like it is speculation. None of us is going to live to be a century old. None of us will see tomorrow. Lauren and Jack have killed us. Unless we do something it’s only a matter of time before they trace us here.”

Lauren took offense to his statement. “Hold on, cousin. I didn’t invent the bad guys or invite them into town.”

Alain didn’t answer. He just stood there, his hands trembling. I answered. “They don’t know where we are or they’d be here now. They expect us to run, so they’re watching for that in the expected locations. I think we should go in deeper under that institute and see what’s there, attack them at the source.”

“That’s impossible,” Alain said.

“You say you’ve been looking deep into that place. Run a check on that platform in the water. Maybe it’s a way in.”

“We could check the surveillance video on it,” Alain said.

“You have that?” Lauren said.

“Yes. Apparently Thurber let them leave in the cab, but he also planted trackers on it before it left.”

“We’ll view it,” I said. “Let’s deal with my arm first. I can barely feel it or move it.”

Thurber trundled off to get the equipment. Alain had his hands together, fidgeting nervously. Lauren watched him with disdain. Brett and Jewel remained relaxed, almost like they weren’t frightened as long as no one was shooting at them. I figured Alain would do well if he could be as simple minded.

I was worried about my arm and poisoning from the fragments so I was genuinely relieved when the robot appeared carrying a long silver box on its back. It shifted about and rested it on the coffee table beside me.

“That’s it,” I said. “That’s your healing chamber. I thought they were all as big as coffins.”

“You mean like at the institute. No, mine are portable and with few features. This one heals the arm. It won’t make it younger. It is only a piece of the chamber, which is seven pieces – arms, legs, torso and head. The actually operating technology sends from my red area.”

Alain picked the long box up. It appeared to be feather light and open at one end. He gestured for me to put my hand in the opening. I obeyed and felt heat as I put it in … then the thing gripped my wrist and slid up my arm, causing flashes of pain so severe I had to bite my tongue to keep from releasing a howl.

It had my arm and I panted as Alain pulled hidden snaps free and removed the box-like exterior. The piece underneath resembled a complete mechanical arm with a metal exoskeleton. A wrist panel displayed small banks of flashing lights and buttons.

I grimaced. The others looked on, too amazed to speak. “I said I needed healing, not an entire new mechanical arm. Take it off; it’s killing me with pain.”

“Just relax,” Alain said, and then he hit a sequence of buttons that immediately ended the pain, and sent my arm limp and numb.”

“Great,” I said. “Now my arm is paralyzed.”

Alain hit another button sequence. “The healing has now begun. It will remove the projectiles and slowly do the rest. In a minute or so, you’ll be able to move it. It reads the signals for movement from your brain. You can use your arm, but it doesn’t come off until it is finished. There is no way to take it off until then. It keeps your arm protected, as its outer sheath is a super strength alloy. It also warms the muscles so they move easily.”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said. “Why would you happen to have a healing system like this one? We’re on Earth and not a space station or the moon. This city has advanced hospitals. The cost of it must have been phenomenal.”

“I invested in the R and D twenty-five years ago. The continuing grant meant one of the systems would be my own. I bought it for a song by doing it the smart way. Surely, you realize that in a complete catastrophe, one will not be able to rely on hospitals. If seriously injured, I have the healing suit. Once inside it I can move, and the armour protects me. The suit’s AI is actually much brighter than I am. You know how it is nowadays, with the devices being smarter than doctors are. The super intelligence is jailed so like in all of the new machines its thinking can’t go beyond the problems at hand.”

Lauren exhaled and curled the corner of her mouth as if she thought it was all BS. “If there never is a catastrophe, I guess that means you did all this for nothing.”

“Maybe it is the machine that should survive and not Alain,” Jewel said.

Alain raised an eyebrow. “Not really. Man is a survivor; it is in his nature to do all he can to survive. A machine, even a machine much smarter than humans, places no intimate value on survival. With me, it is key that I survive as a human being, so I won’t be counted among the vampire elders that want to live on as the dead or cyborgs. My turn will come to perish, but not any time soon if I have a say in it. All of my investments produce spin-off benefits. Like the trackers, my robot put on Brett’s cab. We can enjoy some of those benefits right now by viewing the surveillance.”

Strange sensations of heat, cold and electricity ran up and down my arm. I moved it about and found the movements easy. Some metal fragments appeared inside a small transparent compartment just above the wrist so I assumed the operation complete. It entered deeper into the healing phase after a series irritating flashing lights appeared on the arm. I enjoyed the healing effect. My arm felt like a new form of entertainment.

“You must be overjoyed,” Lauren said, noticing my satisfied smile. “Now you have a second toy arm to go with the one took from the robot.”

Alain fiddled with the tracking device Thurber handed him. He looked back while setting it up for play. “That healer isn’t a toy for his collection of silly stuff. It’ll be going back into secure storage when the job is finished.”

“What do you mean silly stuff,” I said. “You say you’re an investor. Those two items are something we can work on. We could make a fortune marketing new prosthetics.”

“Maybe,” Alain said. “Most likely everything on them has been patented by others who will sue. Aside from that, they don’t fit the mold of something saleable. People want to buy a workable prosthetic arm if needed. They don’t need muscles and fingers strong enough to rip steel. That sort of strength is for robots. On humans it would be a danger even to the buyers themselves.”

Lauren, Brett and Jewel grinned at me. I didn’t want to admit it but Alain was probably correct. My idea of profiting from my morbid collection was likely a pipe dream. Fortunately, the discussion on it ended as he got the video rolling.

The introduction wasn’t something Alain found entertaining as it showed Thurber escorting Brett and Jewel out to the car and enabling the takeoff. Brett had the appearance of someone headed out for a Saturday afternoon stroll in the park and not of a clever trickster that could fool robots.

As the vehicle hit the open air, Alain froze the video and went through all of the other items tracked. Once he was satisfied that no one was following Brett, he went back to video and fast-forwarded it to a speed that highlighted the effects of the windstorm. Trees were a blur, small dust clouds you wouldn’t normally see raced past. They passed over a portion of the lake then Alain went super slow through the playback of the approach to the platform. Brett was way off to the south but the video captured the three air vehicles leaving the platform and Alain was able to zoom in on them. Brett was right about stealth. They were visible but barely as they emerged from a west-facing door on the square building on the platform. Their surfacing did an instant color blend to camouflage them no matter what they passed. Rising into higher air, they were closest to invisible, almost like transparent glass or cellophane. Alain played this launch over many times; forward and reverse, and using numerous filters. Finally, he got something interesting. We knew by the shape of the planes that they were custom made; an odd cigar shape with a small curved front windshield and not at all fashionable aerodynamic design like standard air vehicles. Their exhaust did not show in any filter. One interesting item was the outline of a face captured. It bore the distinct rough-edged slightly apish profile of a Blue.

That ended the display. Alain stopped the video. Brett was troubled. “Blues, and now they have military stealth stuff. Maybe they’ve been following us all along.”

“No,” Alain said. “They aren’t on to this address yet. I checked that. They can’t hide from my trackers here, they’re military quality.”

Alain’s sudden boost of confidence didn’t convince Lauren. “They will find us soon. They were fishing nearby when we went to the warehouse. Before they were busy with Marvel, making sure no one got close and arranging some kind of deal. They didn’t have time to put all their resources into pursuing us. Now they have time. They will do it because we learned too much, and unlike others that know too much we aren’t dead. We’re a danger to their future plans.”

I slammed my arm on the table without thinking. Alain gasped as the table cracked. I didn’t give him time to start complaining about the damage. “Damn right we’re a danger to their plans. I’m not waiting around to be hit by them. I’m going in. Alain - see if you can get more on the institute. Trace when that platform on the water was constructed. Technically this is a prison break, though not in any usual fashion. They must have a weak spot somewhere and we won’t find it by running from them.”

Brett’s eyes lit up as he returned from contemplation. “Maybe we should reveal the prison break. Everyone thinks the Blues area a new gang doing a business takeover.”

Lauren shook her head. “Reveal to the SSU and media that we cracked into the Drop and are sure prisoners escape from there. If we did that, we’d be arrested. Jack is right; we need to find a weak spot.”

Alain shut off the system and headed for the door. I have some hunter bugs gathering stuff on the Connect and the Web. I’ll be back with my full report, and then we can decide what they are and what to do.”

After Alain left we relaxed. Thurber took the broken table away for repair. Brett and Jewel put a foreign movie on and tuned us out as the enhanced script and scene clips fed directly into their Loops. Lauren sat with me as we attempted to gain some understanding of the arm piece of the healing suit. The small banks of multicolored lights began to flash less and lose their luster as they measured a slow countdown on the healing. My guess was that it used various forms of stimulus and injections through the skin - tiny needles, thus the sensations I felt when many processes were active. They would be too small to cause nerve pain but in combination with chemicals injected under the skin, they would cause the hot, cold, and electrical feelings. The part we couldn’t guess was how it removed the projectiles and moved them to the outer compartment.

I could tell the healing was nearly complete as without the many lights I got a clearer view of the arm. It fit tight to my flesh like a thick, bubbled skin. The mesh of the outer skeleton fastened over that. Even though the metal pieces were thin they were super hard as Alain said, yet they moved with the arm and its muscles. I still had it in mind to use the other pieces I had for some type of invention and weighed some ideas. Being an inventor would be a possible career move, especially if detective work ran short. After all, who would need a detective in a place that was nothing but Blues, gangsters, crooked SSU cops and other levels of crime and authority?

Alain stepped in the door exactly as the medical work on my arm was complete. The piece suddenly split down the middle and came loose. Unfortunately, I didn’t get time to inspect it on removal. Alain saw it happening and hurried over and seized it, disappearing again as he took it into lockup.

We waited for him to return. I was somewhat miffed that he’d moved so fast and I couldn’t study the piece more. It was becoming a new hobby of mine. I was even more dismayed when he returned with a printed report. Something on screen would have been preferable to listening to him read material.

Nevertheless, that’s what he did, and he wanted an audience because he insisted on pulling Brett and Jewel over from the leisure area to hear his report. I looked at Lauren, sitting with her hands clasped, and wondered if she was expectant or mocking him with the studious pose.

Then he began his talk. “My surveillance systems have pulled up some sexy stuff. To keep it simple, I believe the platform and the Reyes Institute are connected. That would be via the underground. There is much more than that. The huge core supporting the platform is ostensibly a sealed tube down. Of course we know it isn’t always sealed because the air vehicles we spotted emerging almost certainly came from below.”

“I saw no way of going below,” Brett said.

“There’ll be a way. You just didn’t find it. The platform was originally the top of a borehole. Work was done fifty years back to stabilize a fault line under the lake. Seismic activity took place under the city at that time. The old files I uncovered show that there was more than a fault line. The Great Lakes are glacier dug. The bore discovered a deeper cavern system. Small quakes were creating movement in it causing ground shakes high above. It was partially water filled and partially open. They went in with equipment and stabilized it. There are huge pillars of rock and steel down there and reinforced walls in a long system.”

Lauren interjected. “This is an interesting science history lesson, but what use is it to us? Unless you’re saying the Blues have a hideout down there now.”

“I am saying more than that. I believe they built a small connecting tunnel over to the Reyes Institute … to the underground there. They also constructed a long tube tunnel along the fault line to another series of caverns. Those caverns being the Drop prison.”

I shook my head. “I was always under the impression that the Drop is mostly manmade.”

“It is manmade, through use of robots. Most of it is … they extended and built on existing structure – the old storage vaults. There is no escape because the original bore is a super secure thing dropping straight down a long way with all the one-way security features that allow no one to come back up. Since we know they do get out, they route to the borehole in the lake. That is simple logic. The Drop got reopened and the work was done in secret. The Drop was secure for a long time but has been recently compromised.”

Brett looked skeptical. “Huh. How could they do major underground construction in secret?”

I agreed. “Do you have any real proof of this? I see you holding a folder, that’s all?”

“Ah, well … if you can play at being an inventor, I can play at being a detective. It is called the power of deduction. I simply put a few pieces of genuine evidence together and came up with the answer.”

“Quite an expensive deduction,” Lauren said. “Only a big developer or the government would have equipment to bore a tunnel deep under the city.”

“Not really,” Alain said. “My calculation is that the original tube to the Drop isn’t the straight drop tube at Sandpoint Prison. It is under the Mercer federal building and a more angled tunnel. Mercer is a super secure part of the underground portion of Toronto with no public access. To expand a new tunnel segment to compromise the Drop they just went down with some robot portable borers. They went to the end of the cavern system and bored open pieces where needed along the fault line. This distance is only a few kilometers. They paralleled the Mercer tunnel to the Drop as it used the cavern system as well. Since the underground portion of the Reyes Institute was already in place, it was easy to bore to it. So they have two exits in that location – the platform and that courtyard exit at Reyes.”

I scratched my head. “Whether I believe it or not, I think we have to check it out. Maybe I could go in alone at the Reyes end without being detected. If I get some surveillance and put it out, the Blues wouldn’t have any time left to pursue us. The heat and firepower would be on them.”

“Yes,” Alain said. “Forcing the military to go in after the Blues would be much better than being sitting ducks. They should have done so already in the city at large. I don’t understand why they allow a crime wave to continue.”

“Because Toronto is a city state,” Lauren said. “They have to be invited in or else acting on a grave national emergency.”

My plan to go in alone failed to go over with the others. My reasons for wishing for a way to settle things alone were obvious. I had picked up the foolish Marvel case and drawn the blowback on us all. We weren’t dead like others that worked the case. My feeling was that I should handle it and spare others.

Regardless of how I felt, everyone wanted to go in except Alain. They weren’t in need of an adventure but they feared the Blues would show at SkyReach Suburb while I was gone. Alain, having confidence in his security and the good feelings that came from a handful of pills he’d swallowed, didn’t fear the Blues. He had his super-secure red area … a unit that only housed one person and would be of no help to others. Alain wanted to help, but not actually go inside Blues territory.

The decision was to wait until the morning and we all slept deeply, leaving Thurber as our guard. He didn’t bark but proved effective as no trouble showed. After a breakfast of feather-light eggs and meats that Alain’s Armageddon food processor titled a Spanish Breakfast, we reviewed the plan. We’d take Alain’s smaller aircar and the taxi with Alain following in the cruiser. He wouldn’t come inside but would watch the area of the platform and institute. We would be heavily armed. Once inside the only communication mode would be secure text that would appear on the read screens of our portable guns. I would have explosives and a few other tricks for getting past any secure entranceway. Initially, we wanted a look around to get a guesstimate of the size of the enterprise and to record it through the release of a number of tiny bug cameras. Possibly, we’d get nowhere but meet enemy forces and have to retreat immediately. The cameras would get something if we couldn’t.

Before we left, Alain went into his red area and ran some detailed scans and surveillance. We wanted to be certain we weren’t being watched. When that came out clear, he ran a security program to close up his place and we all headed out to the vehicles.

Brett’s taxi was short on defenses so he was to follow behind when we got inside. Watching him and Jewel entering the vehicle, I wondered why I was allowing them to come along at all. I decided we really didn’t have many options as all of us were marked for the grave. We really were aiming for some brand of magic, considering the strength of the enemy.

Alain’s cruiser looked like the vehicle for the trip but it was too large to enter. Lauren would be flying the smaller vehicle, and it had guns mounted. Still, I was at a loss at how to deal with any Blue stealth cars if we encountered them, as I had no idea what arms they carried.


Chapter Eight: The Dungeon


A heat wave was coming on strong on the outside. We eased out one vehicle at a time into a hazy sky. The sun had gathered a cloak of the haze and resembled a huge red mandala. For once, it wasn’t windy and that had drawn out heavy traffic in the air lanes. People tended to use ground cars in the worst windy weather. The pass lane was full of fast moving vehicles. There was no reason not to fly direct to the destination but Alain was in the lead and for some reason wanted to approach it from the south. That took us out over the lake. Sailboats, yachts were below. A ship was moving farther out in the channel and that meant there was no storm predicted for the day.

We remained off in the lake, hovering before approach, and then Alain soared in to do a wide circle of the target area. He had the ship set for the deepest style of scan with some equipment he’d installed on the vehicle before leaving. Twenty minutes later, he gave us the clear signal and fed me some results obtained on the Reyes Institute.

I called Brett, telling him to hang on and remain at hover while I checked a few things. Since we weren’t using voice, he received that on the screen of his Rx32 portable energy weapon.

Lauren was impatient with the hovering. I wasn’t. “Are we ready to go,” she said.

“No. I told Alain to look for vehicles and see what he could scan on the platform. Instead he ran beam scans on everything.”

“Did anything interesting come up?”

“Shots of the underground and Reyes, what it should look like. It is problematic because they might have detected the scan beam. The area revealed is large. He highlights equipment setups, vehicle parking and human beings. About twenty people are down there at present and many more are above. There is a tunnel going down near the center but the scan loses penetration twenty meters down.”

“The scan of the platform is what we need right now?”

“It reveals nothing. The central core piece runs to the lake bottom and shows as solid on the scan. If it is shielded material hiding an entrance, we’re okay. If not we are out of luck.”

I signalled Brett and we moved out, now feeling good about the hazy day. It at least gave us the feeling of camouflage. The vehicle scan had been clear so we had a safe hover down to the platform. We got out and so did Brett. The west wall of the center building was in front of us, which was where Brett had entered.

I looked at Brett and shrugged. I couldn’t see any door.

“It’s there,” he said. “I cracked the code and we slipped in before. Let’s take a closer look.”

“It would open by pulse and we could crack it but it would be recorded somewhere that it opened. I’m going to cut it.”

Brett was okay with that. He stepped back while I adjusted my gun to a fine burn beam. The cut took half a minute then I hit a pulse button that tumbled the segment inward. It fell with a creak and bang and we walked up close and looked inside. I flashed a light. The supplies Brett had mentioned filling the building were gone. The placed was empty. Nothing but some caged lockers on the far wall and even they had been swept clean.

“They’ve been back,” Brett said. “They moved everything out. This must be a temporary storage area. They bring stuff up from below and move it out later.”

We walked through and over the broken piece of door. It seemed quite spacious inside, maybe fifteen hundred square feet. I tested the floor and found it as solid as a concrete slab though it had a glossed grey tile appearance. Looking about, I couldn’t see any opening in the floor or any controlling mechanism. It gave me a dead-end empty feeling. A small silver drum remained in one of the open cages so we walked over. Brett picked it up and shook it by its ring handle. It was unmarked and thick aluminum-light alloy, but also empty. He scowled, lifted the empty drum over his head and tossed it through the air. As it shot up, we were knocked off our feet. The entire floor pulsed open in a circular fashion from the center and the expansion came right out to us. The drum fell below into darkness; I managed to throw myself backwards into the cage. Rolling over, I saw Brett hanging half over the edge, about to go down in a fall, then the opening pulsed closed and the speed of the action knocked him up.

The floor sealed to a solid slab, Brett remained on his back on the floor. I rushed to him and helped him up.

He favoured one leg and rubbed it furiously while I stared above, seeing only the ceiling and a few small Star gemlights. We had the way down but no visual of the mechanism. Something had to hover there to trigger it into action.

Brett’s limp was slight and he recovered a degree as we hurried back to the vehicles. Moments later, we floated up and over to hover at the center. Lauren flashed a detection beam down as the door sprang open, resembling an eyelid from above. It read clear so we descended into temporary darkness. Lights flashed on in a ring around us and they pulsed down with us, lighting only the area we were traversing. We dropped nearly five hundred meters at slow speed and then we came to a junction. There were three branches. Two ran off horizontally and the third continued down but at a long thirty-degree angle.

Lauren hovered and spun the vehicle slowly. Our spotlights showed one tunnel to be an entrance to storage and a parking area. The other horizontal tunnel and the angled tunnel ran deep and out of sight.

Lauren flashed over into the parking area and we landed there followed by Brett. The area brightened. We checked the read screen then got out and looked around. There were stacks of the same small drum type Brett had tossed and we guessed they were a special fuel for the stealth cars the Blues used down here. No one was about and no robots or drones secured the area, so I gathered that all detection was farther inside.

It was dusty and the air had a clinging filthy feel to it … but it wasn’t dry as the walls ran with watery slime. Jewel coughed from the lung irritation. It didn’t trouble Lauren but other aspects of the atmosphere did. She had her hands on her hips and her gun drawn across her bellybutton. She looked edgy.

“The deep tunnel is the bore hole,” I said. “It doesn’t appear to run straight. It will be as Alain says and run way off into deep underground caverns and an eventual connection to the Drop. The other tunnel runs up and over to the institute. We have to either take the cars in farther to the institute tunnel or leave them here and fly in with the packs.”

“We take the cars,” Brett said. “Packs lack protection. We could be fired on right away. The vehicles should be as close as possible if we have to escape.”

A quick search of the area produced nothing of interest so we got back in the vehicles and shot across into the horizontal tunnel, Brett again on our tail. We moved slowly into the same expansion of lights until the instrument panel showed something ahead. Turbulence hit us and the vehicles began to shake violently. We shot forward at high speed. The effect threw me back but Lauren had the handle and was able to pull for reverse thrust. She had forgotten about Brett behind us. He was also racing forward but he managed to turn and wing us. He passed us with a loud shake and scrape. The side of our vehicle took a nasty dent. The thrusters continued to hold us back and the violent shaking continued. We saw Brett disappear into flashing blue lights ahead then the turbulence slowly ended.

Lauren slammed off the reverse thrust, regained control and eased forward. She switched the headlights to search beam. Ahead, the tunnel expanded to triple width and ended at a huge rectangular door. It had an eye pattern at the center about large enough for a vehicle to pass through. It was sealed and we saw Brett there; his dinged vehicle parked on a long ledge that rimmed the big doorframe.

Lauren eased in and landed on the ledge behind Brett, but none of us got out. We tapped out messages on the gun screens.

My message was as follows … No real security features on the entrance. This door is the security. The stealth cars are built for the tunnels. Eye at the center sucks in approaching vehicle at high speed and lands it. Unauthorized vehicles are destroyed.

Lauren’s gaze remained on the hostile scene of the ledge and slimy walls. “Do we even want to get in there? This place stinks.”

I could see Jewel’s worried eyes staring over at me. They remained in the vehicle as I got out on the ledge. The lighting system still detected our presence because a ring of star-brites continued with a flash rotation. I had the feeling of being inside the throat of some gargantuan stone and metal monster, looking over at the ribbed metal hatch to its lungs or belly. The eye pattern at center created a creepy feeling of being watched but the read detected no such surveillance. I walked along the ledge checking the rectangular rim of the door fixture, looking for some hidden controls. There were none that I could find so I set my weapon to fire a range of signals in frequencies and patterns similar to those I had used to open automatic doors in the past.

I was about to trigger it then I halted. The wide stone ledge was slippery with reddish half-calcified slime. If I triggered on the suction blast, then I would probably be pulled over and through the opening when it pulsed. Being crushed to a pulp while being suddenly sucked up wasn’t in the plan so I got back in the aircar with Lauren. I signalled Brett and he followed Lauren as she eased the vehicle to the far edge of the ledge.

I held my breath for a moment, then I triggered the program and it ran through its possibilities. One of the signals worked to ignite a brief return of the air blast, but the door didn’t pulse open. A second attempt opened the entry eye and started the suction too. It didn’t shut off. The door kept eye-blinking open and the air drawing down only to restart a moment later.

I got out. The blast wasn’t so strong as to suck me away and I could look up and over to the opening. I saw that we could get through to a bay on the other side but only by climbing up in the blast and jumping through. It would have to be done one person at a time, and quick or the door would become a crusher.

Lauren got out, I waved to Brett and we left the aircars parked on the ledge. I went over and through first and took a quick look around, spotted no danger and waited on the others. Lauren and Brett scrambled through fast but Jewel stumbled and I had to yank her through.

The door remained pulsing behind us as we turned and moved left to get out of the air blast. Dim blue-white embedded lights twinkled in an area ahead that was like an underground rail tunnel. A flat grey stone floor ran straight ahead through duplicate metal ring segments with a thick silver rail running the length of the ceiling.

Parked vehicles rested farther inside. I gathered that vehicles incoming rode the ceiling rail over and down and parked there. Moving ahead, the sound of the air blast died down and we heard no other strong sounds. Five of the cigar-shaped stealth cars were parked at the end of the rail, each in its own slot. Everything in this interior area was clean and new, but nothing smelled that way.

No one was about or in the parked vehicles. Standing at the first car, we studied it but none of us spoke. The vehicle was amazing in that it resembled the interior cars that ride the long segments of the moon ring; a specialized vehicle and these were obviously made as the only vehicles that could go the full length of these tunnels. They would be the way of flying down to the Drop and passing through similar security doors down there.

The vehicles fascinated Brett. He likely hadn’t seen the new engines, as they were exclusive to space vehicles … energy taken from a tiny vacuum and supposedly much more efficient than aircars. In my opinion, the efficiency tag was incorrect as they harnessed the tiniest fraction of a stupendous energy source. It was the same energy source running the experimental technology out at the Galilean moons. There they were making use of its full potential in an attempt to make them habitable moons. The United Nations had banned similar work on Earth, though nothing else dangerous seemed to be taboo.

Lauren grabbed Brett’s hand, preventing him from touching one of the vehicles. It disappointed him but he followed me as I moved ahead. Nothing much was stored in the area other than the vehicles. Farther along the tunnel ended at an odd staircase … an imposing tumble of large brown stone rectangles leading up to a higher level. The stairs had a gritty surface and it took high giant steps to go up them. Detection alert on my screen revealed security cameras in the area and I allowed the auto-blind signal to run with the info. That signal channeled away human movement or heat auras detected. Cameras would see the stationary background and nothing else. It also disabled a scent detector at the top of the stairs.

As my signal penetrated, I got flash alerts on abnormal human life forms and other security features on the level we were entering. No reads on anything higher up showed. We came out in an area reminiscent of a dungeon or underground morgue. The hall ahead was wide and gloomy, with some overhead light orbs highlighting dust moats and the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Long and deep rooms or cells were set into rough-hewn and grainy red stone. The design basics were primitive but the windows were modern technology. We could see in the small window of the first cell, which was like a thick porthole in the vault door. No one was in it, but objects that looked like human bones and metal fragments littered the floor beside a towering medical machine.

There were rows of these cells ahead on either side and the doors were not spaced evenly. Some of them were much larger rooms or entrances to other areas. As we moved along the flow of cavern air from the entry stairs dissipated and fouler odors came to our nostrils. We passed two more of the empty cells and came to a large door. Lauren peeked in the tinted window first then gasped and ducked away.

I raised a finger for silence and glanced in through the thick glass. It was like looking through the distortion at the bottom of a plastic bottle or old-world thick glasses. The room was inhabited but the inhabitants were nothing but withered heads and torsos embedded in shining clamshell emplacements in the wall. Each emplacement had a disc over the top with filaments running down into the withered heads. Though the heads were ghastly they all showed some signs of life … eyes open but grown over with cataracts, smiles on the faces like they were in some form of weird sexual ecstasy. Their skin was a bloodless grey, all racial characteristics having faded. Tubes ran in with blood feed of some type.

I motioned Brett and Jewel away. I didn’t want them to look in. There were more of these cells with similar contents as we moved along. They were nearly identical but varied like they were alterations on some horrible experiments performed. Each cell was its own chamber of the living dead. We came up to one that had a number of huge mutated bugs scampering on the door. It was like they could smell the death inside. They detected our presence but I fried them with a quiet heat beam before they could attack. The odor of the burning disgusted Lauren and she bent over and nearly threw up. None of us would go near that cell door to look inside. To compensate I released a bug camera that would hang around and gather some data.

The largest cell was ahead and it was surely another window into manmade medical hell. It featured a doublewide door and was likely a master cell. It had two huge windows. Brett and I made the mistake of glancing inside. It was a grand enhancement on the other wicked experiments; two circles of bodies in control loops. The outer loop had ten bodies: withered heads and nothing below but vascular systems and organs connected via silver filaments running down from an assortment of pulsing bulbs above. The skin had been rudely stripped from the foreheads and replaced by glowing silver strips and crude implants. The second group brought a new meaning to ghastliness. The heads were mutated monster things that had perhaps once been human. There were indications of that. I concluded that these experiments connected a number of brains that were greatly aged, and fed them with many different fluids and chemicals, and electrical impulses via the implants. One triple-size clamshell emplacement was sealed. Since everything ran around it, I concluded all the rest to be for the benefit of whatever was inside it or would be inside at some future time.

Brett had already ducked away, being unable to bear much of the scenery of that room. I turned back to the others, but did nothing other than exhale. The entry doors to all of the cells were heavily bolted with an ancient locking system I hadn’t encountered in the past. It looked both mechanical and electrical. I had no idea how to get inside and could read both Lauren’s and Jewel’s eyes saying that I had better not try to open those doors and go inside.

I agreed but kept them in momentary suspense; an investigation into this crap would have to be done by someone else. Our target would be the masterminds of this creep show. There was another staircase ahead so I assumed they might be above. These stairs were also large but white stone. I wondered why there were no lifts up and down then figured there might be inside the sealed areas.

We went up the stairs in single file. I received alerts about motion detectors, alarms and cameras and was thankful that these systems were modern as I could shut them off. When I got the all clear, we went up the last of the steps into a brightly lit hall. It was so vast and amazing that Jewel gasped and said, “Holy shit.” Brett shushed her and for some moments, we all stood and stared. This hall was wider and higher than the area below. The doors ahead were all glowing white with trimmed windows of transparent plastic of a pale blue tint, clinical and neatly set into walls of polished white marble. The floor and ceiling were of the same white marble and area lights were like glittering overhead diamonds. It was as if this was the heavenly version of the dungeon hell below.

A glance through the first door into an empty chamber verified that. It was quite large and filled with modern medical equipment. One of the freaks was at a chamber near the far end and we all ducked away from the window before he could spot us looking. His image remained fused to my eyes. Although wearing a white smock, he was more of a withered monster than a man. He had some of the look of a Blue, but one that had been Blue so for so long that other major decay was at work that reddened the eyes to creepy blood orbs and the mouth to a crooked lipless slash. Even gloves couldn’t hide his large deformed hands. He’d been reaching for something in an enclosure, but we hadn’t seen what was inside.

I motioned the others quietly ahead. A couple chambers had steamed windows and we couldn’t see inside. The doors were locked as a pull on the embedded handles revealed. They were almost hermetically sealed and I couldn’t get a read on the locking mechanism other than that it was mechanical.

A larger door ahead had a big frosted porthole window and the door opened a crack when I pulled it. I let it close and looked to the others, trying to decide whether I should enter or not. It seemed like the sort of thing where entering meant no turning back. The others couldn’t make a decision so I simply opened up and stepped through the door.

One of the medical staff was inside, a small blocky man with unkempt hair like a growth of weeds. He turned as if he was expecting another staff person to arrive. I shot him instantly and quietly. His mouth opened to yell as the red haze of the beam hit him, and then he really had a reason to shout because his hair burned off in a sprout of flame … but no sound issued from his lips other than the hiss of steaming breath.

He fell like a side of beef to the cold floor. I noted that his uniform was pale blue with a badge indicating some rank other than doctor or orderly. Brett came through the door while I was glancing around. The others followed. No other medical personnel were present but there were living bodies as the room contained a series of cryonic shells. These shells were open and the bodies resting inside at forty-five degree angles were all of young females and naked. Brett took a close look at one of them and Jewel glared at him as he did. The skin and body was creamy, perfect.

He turned back to us in askance. There was no time to explain it to him. They appeared to be alive but suspended like clones. It was possible they were used for body parts, organs. It was hard to tell when they were being kept in perfect condition. Maybe they were patients undergoing some form of longevity treatment. They didn’t appear to be about to wake up and talk about it, so we decided to keep moving.

As we exited, I considered that the things in the dungeon had all been male, at least at one time, and grotesque. Here they were female, whole and perfect. It was as if they had his-and-her experimental centers down here. If so, they sure didn’t have any respect for anyone of the his variety.

Another big chamber was just down the hall. It was fully sealed but we could see in a bit though the clouded window. There were two people moving inside. Medical personnel, and more bodies but laid out in clamshell beds of a different nature. Unfortunately, one of them saw me looking through the window and walked toward the door. I waved to him through the glass to create the impression that I was calling him over. I didn’t want him to ring an alarm but to think I was perhaps a visiting doctor. At the same time, I waved the others back and they moved down the hall.

It worked as he came to the door and stepped outside. I found myself facing a willowy bald man with a creviced face and sunken eyes. His ogling stare was perverse. His voice was so nasal my bones could feel it. “What are you doing down here?” he said imperiously. “This area is off limits to all but medical staff and security.”

I’d spun a setting on my gun, but still had it under my coat. I snapped it in as I took it out and fired. The kick beam hit him like a fist and the immense recoil from firing that close was only slightly countered by the fact that I had stepped back on shooting and pushed forward with my gun hand. The gun still slammed my chest but it was an impact my wrist and ribs could take. His story was different. It flattened his ribs as it knocked the wind out of his chest; he rebounded along the wall and hit the floor with impact. He wouldn’t be getting up.

The action didn’t make much noise and the sealed door prevented his pal from hearing. I looked back as the others hurried up to me. Lauren pointed down the hall, indicating that someone was coming down from distant stairs.

We had a few moments to take cover. Brett and I grabbed the body, dragged it quietly back into the room, and hid it under a bench. The other doctor was still absorbed in his adjustments on a panel near the clamshell beds. He was far off and didn’t turn or notice us. The others entered and we all ducked out of sight. I picked a spot behind a bank of medical equipment that allowed a view of the window. Three men passed the door. I saw them in profile. They were Blues and it was bad news if they were going back to the vehicles. Their footsteps faded and we silently crept back out into the hall.

They were gone and we didn’t attempt to track them but instead moved ahead down the hall expanse and found a lift they’d rode down on. The door was open so I stepped in and checked it. It was a simple four-floor operation according to the panel. The bottom floor was the stop at this higher dungeon. There was another subsurface floor above and the ground and second floor of one of the institute buildings.

I decided against going up on the lift, as we’d emerge blind, possibly in the face of a bunch of Blues. Brett had already found a stairwell ahead so we went to it and inside. I took the lead up and we continued to move quietly. The exit door had a small window of upright rectangle style on the handle side. I looked through it and waved the others aside. This floor was larger than those below. A large hospital area was outside and our stairwell was at one side near a lobby area. I could see complex equipment set up in the open floor area. Freak doctors and couple of patients bustled by to some other area. This was an active part of the institute; one they didn’t show during their tours of the place.

Medical clutter, planters and tall section dividers were in the area closest to us. The patients they’d hustled off were older men. A few more of the orderlies appeared and went the same way. On closer inspection, I saw two patients in the area just outside the door and left. One had his feet protruding from a special surgical cocoon and I recognized the other man as the Wandsley fellow I had talked to on the tour. They had him strapped in a device, near naked and sweating profusely. Since the staff and the Blues were off through a bottleneck to another section, I told Lauren to follow me and we went out and crept up to Palmer Wandsley. I looked into his glazed eyes and could tell he recognized me.

“Why do they have you in this surgical robot?” I asked. “I thought you were getting general life extension treatments?”

Wandsley coughed miserably. His eyes bulged with the strain. “Timed injections – they’re turning my blood into a special feed serum. My time has run out. It appears I’ve been betrayed and by members of my own family. They’re murdering me. I heard the doctor talking about it, if you can call that creature a doctor. They select people for certain medical reasons. I found out too late, after you left. I decided to look around then. Some of the other patients knew about Marvel. They had her down here in a special heart area.”

Lauren had the expression of a woman hearing juicy gossip. Palmer’s condition irritated me and I had my gun out, looking around. Brett stuck his head out of the stairwell door and looked our way. His signal indicated that we were still clear.

Lauren picked up the questioning. “What exactly did they do to her?”

Palmer choked on his tongue, coughed again and spoke in a faint voice. “She was a host. They used her to develop a special heart for Ginette Wandsley. Marvel’s genetic makeup at birth had been set for it and the arrangements were made in secret. They didn’t want to kill her. They gave her a cloned heart after the removal, erased her memory and returned her.”

“That was it,” I said. “But why?”

“She’s Doctor Marin Gold’s wife, Ginette is … she is not part of a younger generation of Wandsleys as I thought. She’s much older than I am yet remains a beautiful young woman. It’s not something new for her … she grooms the people she needs from birth and they unwittingly grow organs for her. However, it failed this time, so I heard. She is dying even with the heart she took from Marvel. The organ thefts have been going on for a very long time. Those and all the other cruel experiments they do here.”

Lauren took his hand. “What about Doctor Marin Gold? What is he?”

“He’s a monster. You’ll know when you see him. He is as old as she is but he took another route. Whatever animal mutation lives the longest is what he adds to extend his life. He plans to use my blood for a serum, to keep the human parts of him alive. There’s not much human remaining of him – the blood serum feeds mostly his brain. While I extended my life, they were using my body as a host to develop the blood. They will be keeping me alive in some horrible manner far worse than death. All of the patients that come in here for life extension are fully screened. They select certain people for their macabre experiments. This place should be destroyed and burned. All of us should be dead. We are paying the price of hell for living on too long.”

“I don’t know how to get you out of this thing. Try to hang on,” I said. “Maybe something can be done for you. I plan to take care of Doctor Marin Gold.”

“Take care of him? You don’t know what you’re dealing with here. Burying him and this place with bombs is the only solution.”

Lauren and I turned and spotted one of the medical staff coming through a smoked glass door across the room to our right. He carried a cylindrical object that glowed at the back end. A red thermometer-style tube ran up its side. The man was horse faced and muttering. He didn’t look back our way or notice us. He went ahead and right. I decided to tail him and asked Lauren to wait for a minute.

I strolled down the aisle, paused and looked beyond a long counter of smaller equipment and supplies. I heard voices and saw figures moving far down through a propped door at the end of the area. It seemed clear so I went down, ducked through the door and looked about quickly. The orderly was there placing the cylinder into a tubed wall holder on the far side. I spotted no one else, at least not anyone else living. Other people were present but in pieces … mostly hearts. A number of the cylinders were in place along the wall and containers that were more of a ball shape were in stand-up cases throughout the room. Two empty human-size chambers were next to the orderly. Both chambers would fit female bodies.

I walked halfway across the room without alerting the guy. I would have reached him had Lauren not suddenly entered. Her arrival was hurried and clumsy; she bumped a table causing the rows of fitted tumblers on it to rattle.

He turned sharply on his heel, having completed his task. Initially, he said nothing. His sleeves were short, revealing muscular arms overgrown with spirals of dark hair. He had the elongated hands of a strangler, which he raised as he silently approached me. Behind his horse face, his pupils expanded with murderous intent. I lifted my weapon but he had somehow anticipated that and ducked around one of the stand-up chambers. It exploded in a burst of glass and blood as he charged in from the side. His dive was lightning fast; I lost my weapon as he gripped my upper arms and threw me down. We hit the hard floor and just as fast, his hands flew to my throat. I found a sharp shard of the exploded chamber with my loose right hand and drove it into his neck. The veins there were standing out from the strain of strangulation and the effect of my thrust was a blood shower.

His hands fell limp and I threw him aside. Foul blood drops were all over me and his body was quivering and spurting a fountain of the stuff. It seemed impossible that so much foul oily blood could come from one person.

I picked up my gun and saw Lauren clicking the inner door lock. She hurried over. Then there was commotion near the door so I ran to it. A peek through the window showed three orderlies running through a swing door on the other side. It meant they had heard the explosion but got the location wrong.

I grabbed some white towels from a stand and started wiping away the blood. We knew the situation was full alert now and shooting would be next. There was another exit in the area that the orderly had planted his cylinder, and we moved across the room to it. We stopped behind a tall bank of supplies. A control panel rested near it, facing the two human enclosures. These ones were ringed with slots, small slide controls, dials and hand emplacements of the sort used in surgical enclosures operated by skilled surgeons.

Lauren tapped me on the shoulder and nodded to the symbols on the panel. I got the message. The enclosures in this heart area were where Marvel Sunbulian had been while missing. A specially grown heart had been surgically removed, and a standard model put back in. She would remember none of it. Her family would never really know what had happened. There wouldn’t be a scar or pain.

The sight gave me the uncomfortable feeling of having spent dangerous time chasing ghosts. Officially, the case was over. There had been no contact with Marvel. I still hadn’t met this Doctor Marin Gold fellow, and Ginette Wandsley would be safely ensconced somewhere inside the fortress called Pinnacle City in the Sky.

I supposed that Marin and Ginette belonged with the dead and ghosts, but like many others, were still with the living. There were getting to be too many of that sort on the planet. The future would probably mean more of them because society existed as thousands of densely populated pockets no one could track. Living on indefinitely wasn’t an offence anyway, not in a world where most people died young.

The stiff pops of distant shots broke the quiet hum, and we suddenly realized why the orderlies had dashed off the other way. Brett and Jewel hadn’t stayed in the staircase and had been spotted. I hesitated and Lauren glanced to me, waiting for a decision. We knew the mission here was to wreck the mad doctor’s organization. Running away wouldn’t help us now so my decision was to run through the door toward the sound of another blast.

The sound was from above; the lower area had definitely emptied out and we saw no staff present. Bursting through a far door, we came to a wide transport lobby. Sunlight beamed in through open bay doors to a wide ramp up. I remembered spotting the ramp during my tour. It had been sealed then but it was the ramp up to the central court of the complex. A bumblebee glittered above then soared into the air. Brett had been carrying a couple bug cameras so it meant he’d released them as he went up into this area.

One Blue appeared and blocked our exit; he saw us coming and raised his weapon. Lauren had been running with her gun raised and shot him with energy projectiles. The sunglasses he’d been wearing shattered in a starburst of fire. He hit his trigger as he fell backwards to the floor and his burn shot smoked the ceiling above us.

The ramp was clear; there was shouting above. We paced up quickly, looking for enemies that were sure to appear. We reached the top at a time that was both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate in that everyone had turned off to the right to a section of the inner court. They were all involved in a face-off situation. Brett and Jewel were backed against an ivied wall piece that was an arched support for a windowed walkway above. They had their weapons out. Staff and Blues had them easily out-gunned. There were eight hostiles total, more would be coming. The ones present seemed to be waiting for something.

The upper corner wall of the ramp was massive and lined with leafy foliage so Lauren took cover behind it. The Blue at the forefront had turned and was commanding the others not to shoot. He didn’t spot us as we were observing the scene through the curtain of greenery.

We soon understood what was up. Someone was coming. Three men were walking across the enclosed walkway above and behind Brett and Jewel, headed for a staircase down. The center man was our target; I guessed that because he was dressed in an expensive deep grey suit of the textured super-wool variety that always looks perfect in color and hang. His features didn’t match the two Blues flanking him. I could see through the glass well enough to note that his facial features were unusual as was his skin color. He wore gloves, tinted glasses and a matching hat. He was the same man from the enhanced video of Marvel’s kidnapping; the man with the strength to defeat robots in combat. The dark copper-tinted facial features I could make out told me why he kept covered up. He was more of a monster than a man, and either his eyes emitted some form of light or the glasses were special devices. It was easy to see how he commanded the Blues; Doctor Marin Gold was both powerful and frightening.

I whispered to Lauren, telling her to get ready to shoot and run. My plan was to create some confusion and an opening for escape. I told her to get out with Brett because I was going to hang behind and try to hit the doctor.

She nodded, but didn’t appear to agree fully. The scene of Brett, Jewel and their opponents remained a frozen tableau. Doctor Marin Gold and his two Blue guards were at the bottom of the stairs behind a glass enclosure. They stopped there and didn’t step out immediately.

A dark cloud passed over the sun like a bad omen, then the door opened and Doctor Gold came out in the lead of the men.

He was still off to their right and I seized the opportunity, stepped out, and fired a well-aimed kick beam. Lauren also fired and that turned the scene into pandemonium that gave Brett and Jewel an opening.

All of the others looked my way even before the first shot struck. My beam ripped the top off a statue and took out the guys closest to Brett. Lauren made a direct hit on another Blue and sent him for a smoking tumble. His gun exploded as he fell, putting him out of the action. The other five, Doctor Gold and his two Blues, moved into the clear fast while at the same time taking stalking positions against me.

Brett went off their radar, and he took advantage of that and shot one of them as he ran with Jewel around some bushes. I spread more confusion by doing a scatter shot of fire flowers that exploded in a line through the court. My weapon had some shield power set for auto, meaning it was on whenever I wasn’t firing. That saved me as three shots hammered me. I was still moving forward and one of those shots was an energy blast that tossed me five feet left even with a shield on.

Fire and smoke engulfed me then quickly blew off. They were all charging for me. I fired a wide kick beam and took steps back. Over my shoulder, I saw Jewel going over a portion of ivied wall. Brett was already beyond it with Lauren. For once, she had obeyed and they were escaping or trying to as other armed medical staff headed their way.

Doctor Marin Gold and his Blues focussed on icing me. That situation turned into a long dance around the inner courtyard. His men had potent energy guns that transformed half of the area into a Hades of flaming plants and walls. Showers of stone, dirt and glass from gardens and windows flew. One of them was sure he had me as I faked a fall over a blasted section of wall and ran back over to the ramp. I waited until he came around then lifted and fired. The heat punch hit his midsection and threw him like a shotgun blast would, only this one cooked him, sending a burst of liquid and smoke out his mouth and nose as he flew.

Doctor Gold hung back as his second Blue guard charged in on me. Gold wasn’t in a hurry and he obviously didn’t care about his men. A bad sign, I knew. He was so fast he’d already made amazing jumps away from the direct tracker shots I had fired at him. The idea of erasing him hadn’t worked out so well and his hit man was coming straight for me. His gun was up and he wanted to be right on me for the shot because he knew I still had some shielding.

We both fired, and we both took to the air as the power of the blasts separated us. I came down hard but had a lucky roll, wasn’t hurt and still had my gun. The Blue hit a pile of smoking rubble and ended up tangled in vines when he tried to scramble to his feet. A quick shot and I put him down and out cold. It didn’t kill him; my gun was out of power.

That meant I would have to wait for it to recharge at a time when Doctor Marin Gold was walking right up to me. I saw the haze around him. He had shielding but he didn’t need it. He could have shot me but he didn’t. Instead, he pocketed his gun and kept walking.

I could smell him, a beastly odor no fragrance could cover, and the glow behind the dark glasses made me think of his eyes lasers.

I couldn’t shoot, but I didn’t throw my weapon down, I put it in the case in my coat before we began to grapple with each other.

It was a revolting fight and humiliating too. His strength was as overpowering as his filthy breath and body odor. Marin Gold had arrived from hell. That was certain. He looked like the moldering dead yet he was still walking. Perhaps he lacked surface beauty, but his muscles and tendons had gained strength.

He nearly broke my arms and my ribs. I squirmed free but he charged in and after my best punch bounced harmlessly off his jaw he picked me up and threw me.

I hit the concrete hard and rolled up. His glasses had fallen and I saw his eyes. They were red like a demon’s eyes yet black veins pulsed on the whites. I knew the glasses were vital in some way because he stopped and picked them up.

He was my only opponent at that point but I knew I was finished. He would tear me up piece by piece and he was stepping forward to do that. Then the sun came out as a huge cloud passed and he stepped quickly back into the shadow of the wall piece and vines.

I got on my feet and looked up. The clouds had passed and it would stay sunny. I heard a crash farther off.

Facing him, I tried to make a quick decision. I couldn’t beat him in a physical match and a poor shot from my weapon wouldn’t do much. I expected him to shoot but he didn’t go for his gun.

I turned, planning to dash off, but then he spoke. “You should have stayed away from this case. You learned too much from the beginning and now I suppose you know the meat of it.”

I answered him. “I know you should have been dead long ago. I know the Marvel deal was about nurturing a special heart. After that, the pieces keep fitting to make an ugly puzzle. How it began, that I don’t know.”

“Yes, you wouldn’t know how it began. You see, it was a philosophical difference. I was the aging medical man and the lovely and wealthy Ginette Wandsley was my lady. She wanted to remain young and beautiful forever. I wanted to live longer, but never cared about the beautiful part. That’s why I split the science two ways. I rejected the transhuman life-extension modes of machine and super-computer attachments used at that time. For Ginette, I have made it possible for her to live on as long as possible in beauty and in the flesh. For myself, I have made it possible for a man to keep living on in the flesh but without retaining human conceptions of beauty.”

“I see. Beauty and beast. The two experimental chambers below.”

“Yes. Marvel was never of any real importance. Ginette needed a superior human heart for a time so we used Marvel. Call that a small accomplishment. The real breakthrough is in my own body. I’m a doctor of flesh and biology. It is superior. Animals, insects, parasites … I took from all of them and created myself as a new man.”

“You look more like a monster than a new man.”

“Perhaps I am a monster. A monster needs its own servants and lair. That is why I created the Blues and my special medical staff. I do not prefer to live in a society of beautiful people but in one of my new people. This city is suitable for our needs. As far as the rest of the world and its beautiful people, Ginette can have that.”

“You won’t get away with stealing an entire city and running it with those freak humans you’ve extended.”

“The job is nearly done. I control the officials I need. Down the road, some people will grasp whole the picture and realize their mistake, but by then it will be too late. Ginette had the money and power to unlock the Drop. She can keep the outside world at bay. Surely you know that the world has always been ruled by the lord of the underworld. In this century I am that dark fellow.”

“Living on indefinitely is one thing. Maintaining control is another. You want too much, and at the expense of too many others.”

“That’s your perspective. The way we see it, I am creating the future. You saw the new experiments in the chambers. I have discovered that the mind alone can live on. The loops you saw were experiments in transmitting consciousness from an aging brain into a fresh body … not a cloned body but another human body. With me, my own flesh is closer to that of a fish than of a man. It is a second and greater experiment. Man living on in a body that is much more than human.”

“Your body looks other than human and if your humanity isn’t retained what’s the use of living on indefinitely. You are so altered it is something other than the old you that lives on. You used your skills in a perverse way. You could have done your work in a legal manner, maybe applied your discoveries to aid the body in space flight or other productive ways.”

“You know what, I checked you out Michaels, and that’s why we moved in quick to kill you off. You’re Mr. Natural in a world where no one is natural anymore. You had opportunities come your way in the past and didn’t want to deal with anyone. You’re as much of monster as I am. You are a Neanderthal. You can’t compromise with the world of today. Face it, the old human race died a long time ago. You are the one living beyond his time.”

A new dark cloud rose in the sky along with my dark understanding of Gold’s plans for the future. Footsteps and shouts were approaching so I decided to make my exit while I could. Without fishing for a last word, I turned, ran and vaulted over the wall and down the ramp. I grabbed an energy gun one of the freaks had dropped as I ran. It came into use as I went around the corner and found myself charging straight at two of the medical freaks. I fired and kept running. Their bodies were still shaking and collapsing as I ducked around them.

Halting, I tried to picture what I knew about the complex. Escape the way we came in would be impossible and I had to find the others. I also knew that Doctor Gold would have ducked back in out the light and inside he would find me quickly.

I slowed to a jog in case of traps and got into a new area. It was an off-limits area. There were a couple patients inside strapped in cocoon healers that left only their heads showing. A far door was locked. I kicked out a floor-to-ceiling view window, went into a consultation area and out its door. I was right behind a spike-haired orderly patrolling with a gun and knocked him in the head with my weapon as he turned. From there I saw a way up into the public area I had been in before. Passing an elevator, I saw that it had been shut down. The place was on emergency power only. I went up a narrow staircase and came out in a long public corridor with sculptures and a wall garden. A group of Blues were a ways down and I saw that they had Lauren. Her hands were taped behind her back and she was struggling weakly as they carried her in the other direction.

The other nearby Blues turned and spotted me and began running towards me. I fired and stopped one dead in his tracks. As he went down the other one fired at me. I was already ducking away and the shot tracked into a sculpture piece and exploded it as I passed.

I was moving around to take the Blue in a fight, the others were hurrying away with Lauren, and then it was bad news. Doctor Marin Gold appeared and he now resembled his appearance in the enhanced video I’d seen of the kidnapping of Marvel – long dark coat, big gun and hat. His face and hands bandaged by material with a silvery gleam.

When the Blue noticed him, he ended his pursuit of me and left the attack for Gold. That assault was brutal. Gold fired the strange weapon he was carrying and it was only because I jumped and rolled away that I wasn’t finished. Flying debris carried me away in a tumble as the beam transformed everything in its path into a wave of rubble. He didn’t fire again as I rolled but made a super leap in my direction, landing right behind me as I burst through another stairwell door and ran down.

Gold was dressed for the sunlight so aiming for the open wouldn’t help me, and once I ran down I didn’t see a way out. Instead, it was a mad dash through rooms and levels and stairs with things crashing all around me. The evil Gold was always nearly on me. At one point, I managed to seize a large empty planter and shatter it with a throw at his head. He partially blocked it with his arm and got me with a blow as I tried to duck off. That sent me flying and tumbling. More objects shattered, a Blue appeared and fired at me, then all I remember is running through a fog and finding myself back in the deep underground near the lot where we came in. One of the shots had sent scorching air into my lungs and because of that, I nearly collapsed and was leaning on a post trying to catch my breath.

Gold appeared. He was alone. His eyes were a bright glow behind the shades. With his bandaged limbs and face, hat and flowing coat he did look like the devil of the age. He did a jump that the giant flea he’d created would have admired and landed right next to me. I tried to get away but he caught me and threw me. I bounced off one of the cigar aircars and went right over it into the wall of its slot. I banged my head but didn’t pass out.

Blurred vision caused Gold to appear as a smear of darkness in distorted light. He dragged me out into the open, picked me up and slammed me on the hard floor. I could feel the taut strength of his muscles and wondered what animal he’d used as the model for them.

If I didn’t go under but kept coming to, it was the horrid odor of the man. It rose up my nostrils like a feed from the morgue. Though the pain was bad, my mind was somewhat disconnected and the irony of a man calling himself Doctor Gold and reeking like a corpse caused a faint smile.

Blood poured over my left eye. He stood over me. “Now you know the power. Every organ I have developed from other species. I created the serum of nutrients and the genetic alterations to make it all work. Add some human blood and you have the superman that is now beating you to death.”

I could barely speak. “You’re not a superman. You’ve returned us to the primordial slime.”

“You will die, but your lovely girlfriend Lauren won’t perish like you. You can at least be satisfied with that. I mean her body won’t die. That’s something you failed to realize. We pursued you so faithfully because of her. Ginette chose Lauren’s body to preserve it for that day when she needs another. The day the new transfer method is ready. My Blues were delivering her to us but they made the mistake of stopping at that pit to dispose of some others. Like a fool, you had to come to the rescue. Regardless, it worked for me. If it weren’t for that lucky strike, I wouldn’t have checked you out and found out how dangerous you are. I do know now and it is time for you to be neutralized like every other threat.”

What followed is now mostly a memory of pain. It often appears in my dreams in repeating nightmare format. He kicked me, punched me, and tossed me against walls and pillars. Marin Gold didn’t prove to be a healing doctor at all. He broke my arms and one leg. My left foot received fractures along with my ribs. He crushed one of my hands while uttering some self-righteous nonsense I can’t remember. Blows to my skull caused more fractures and I choked on blood. The beating lasted long enough that my eyes swelled shut.

At my near-death moment, I heard footsteps and a worried raspy voice. It was one of his Blues. I saw him as a large blur standing over me. He gave me a light kick with his boot and said something about an alarm in one of the main chambers. Gold took it seriously. He huffed angrily and immediately hurried off, leaving me for dead there on the floor.


Chapter Nine: The Suit


I should have been dead. Events of my life passed like fiery meteors in a dark swirl that turned to distorted soul-searing visions. A huge cloaked insect towered over me and stared with eyes of fire. I had chilling nightmares and was crying out in them but couldn’t wake. The thousand tremors and aches of my body took the form of strange sounds, shards of agony, then a torrent pulling me under. After what I was sure was an eternity of it, I awoke, finding myself locked in a tube. It was another part of the nightmare but a waking part that lasted for a few terrifying hours. Especially frightening was the certainty that Gold had me in one of his machines. Then a cover plate slid clear of me and I saw that I was strapped on a deep bed in very faint light. Alain’s face stared down at me. He looked at me soberly as if I were a specimen or plant he was growing.

“Where am I?” I said, the words coming out as a pale whisper.

“Resting, in my full-spectrum healing chamber. You’ve been in here for nearly two weeks and you will be in for another. You are eighty percent healed. Your eyes will have to slowly adapt to light again.”

“Who rescued me?”

“Brett. He found you there in the bay and stole one of their special vehicles to get you out. Jewel also escaped. We don’t know what happened to Lauren. They took her.”

Over the next few days, some of the fragments of my mind came together with my healed body. Trauma I would live with or already was living with even before meeting the warped Doctor Marin Gold. There had been other cases, other beatings, maybe not quite as bad though. The gerontocracy wasn’t anything new to me either. I had encountered other elders before Gold and Wandsley, and they wore their own descriptions of evil. They were nearly always transhuman or cyborgs to a degree with implants boosting everything from memory to their vision. Some had senses normal humans don't have, yet I had outsmarted and outmaneuvered some of them.

Ginette Wandsley and Marin Gold were not similar to any of the others. She remained perfectly human and had defied aging. Doctor Gold existed as a monster no one would want to become … unless some of the Blues or other freaks saw his status as ideal. Gold called himself a superman but it appeared that the man portion of his humanity had been severed.

As it turned out, my survival tied in with Brett’s fabulous luck. As I lay there bleeding at the institute, Brett tricked Gold and his men. He sent them running back to Gold’s chambers and a false alarm. Alain also fooled the mad doctor. Four rogue cruisers with beam weapons vaporized the top floors of his building at SkyReach, collapsing most of the rest of the tower. They’d finally traced Alain’s address. Only they traced it too late, and their decision to use extreme weapons proved to be a mistake. They didn’t realize that Alain had already detached and moved his entire penthouse before their arrival. The top floor they attacked was the floor below. His black asteroid had finally roared in, exploding on Earth as Blues and a mad doctor. He’d escaped destruction by slowly flying the whole place north. His cruiser did a fake tow, getting air clearance as a transport vehicle. Our new location was deep forest at the edge of Lake Simcoe.

Since I couldn’t move from the healer, I spent some time in thought. My final calculation was simple and deadly. I was dealing with an enemy that had control of a small army, but didn’t especially need it to erase me. He was much older and had spent a lifetime in a hell where he'd survived to become the Lucifer of it. Killing people was something he did often and down there he would have dealt with some of the most vicious opponents living.

There didn’t seem to be much on my side. A shivering coward named Alain and his robot ant. It was laughable backing for sure, but I did have Alain’s doomsday resources. I had Brett, Jewel, and not much else. The question was how to fight an opponent who was near invincible. Robots and equipment were of little use as he had already proven he could take control of them and use them for his own killing means.

Slowly an idea emerged; that being if an enemy had super strength I needed it too. Due to Alain and my habit as a morbid collector, I had a method. My calculation was thus: except for the headpiece and visor, Alain’s portable healing suit was super armour and lightweight. If I could add the muscle tissue from the robot arm I’d collected and attach and fit the hand I’d stolen from the cabby I’d have a suit that would allow me to take blows and leave me with one super arm and hand. I could use aura energy shielding to protect my head. I figured that if I could do it I could also hide the suit under my clothing and coat. The other core item would be the element of surprise, since the enemy assumed I’d been vaporized he’d be amazed to see me alive. He would also expect me to be as weak as before and wouldn’t be ready for the hidden suit.

Eternity ended and I was out of the healer and sitting at a table with Alain, Brett and Jewel. My stomach growled. I remained miserable as I tried to adjust to eating real food instead of the mush Alain had given me over the final week of healing. Breakfast tasted great but went down hard. My intestines and my bladder protested. Alain's bran cereal with ham and eggs exploded in my stomach but his coffee calmed it. I had already outlined my plans regarding the suit and Alain believed the idea viable. He was ready to work with me on it.

Jewel had no plans on returning to Toronto. She wanted to escape the entire country and she had many morbid questions about Lauren … about what they might be doing with her body. Brett didn’t feel returning to the old poverty turf and broken family was imperative either. The thought of Gold gave him shivers.

Alain had the outside view showing on the walls, revealing a sunny forested clearing and the shore of the lake. Black bears were walking on a path through firs on the shoreline. The scene was beautiful, tranquil and depressing.

“I’ve already explained that,” I said, referring to an explanation I wasn’t sure I believed myself. “They’re keeping Lauren on ice. The lovely Ginette Wandsley plans to live on in her body when the anti-aging treatments no longer work on the one she currently has. That’s what the mad doctor told me. I have no way of knowing whether he was playing with my mind or not. He claims he can transfer a mind into a fresh body and talked of having the process nearly perfected.”

Alain sipped his coffee and watched the bears as they sniffed around the house exterior walls. “If she is completely iced under, I can bring her out of with my healing chamber. Same software as they use in space. My machine can run it. Of course, you would have to rescue her first, if that is at all possible.”

I nibbled on honey toast. It hurt my throat. “Leaving her in there would be unthinkably cruel. What the mad Gold calls perfecting something might be the worst form of torture imaginable. A smash and grab would be ideal. Get her out before Gold knows what is happening. I’d still have to deal with him, but that could be later if possible.”

“Much later, we hope,” Brett said.

I nodded. “I feel like I’m still dreaming. We really need more than a rescue effort. I mean a core problem is we need surveillance, and armed men to seal that tunnel to the Drop. We need to obliterate that doctor’s setup at the institute.”

Brett winced. I could see he didn’t want to attempt anything too big. “We’ll start work on that special suit today. If we get that done you have a chance of getting in and out. You said Ginette Wandsley is a Pinnacle City resident like Marvel. We can’t get into that city in sky. Maybe we could get eyes in there and more surveillance on the institute. You said you were initially hired by a security man from there, Wes Cameron.”

“That’s right. Wes is one of the top men there. The place has its own policing and super security.”

Alain’s eyes brightened. “Then that’s the answer. Mr. Cameron knows something hinky went on with the whole Marvel deal. He wouldn’t know exactly what. Once the Sunbulians made a deal and got her back, his investigation would have ended. What you have to do Jack, is spell the whole thing out to him. Give him the details and the few feeds we got from the bug cameras we left inside there. If he decides to help, he could give us surveillance of Ginette Wandsley. He could tell us what’s happening with her in there. He could also run deep surveillance on the institute. He has cruisers, high tech equipment in the sky. He has armed men too.”

Brett didn’t seem convinced. He looked depressed. “It is a nice idea, but why would Wes help that much? You know the deal with that Pinnacle City in the Sky place. It’s one of the richest places on the planet and isolated. People there are world elite and don’t even visit Toronto. They don’t care anything about us.”

“That is true,” Alain said. “But they do care about their own security. They are obsessed with being secure and exclusive. That’s how Jack can sell him on this deal. Tell him Doctor Marin Gold breached their security to kidnap Marvel. Add the news that Gold has opened the Drop. Toronto will be under his hidden control and it borders on Pinnacle City. With Gold’s wife and partner in crime living at Pinnacle City, there will be no security there. We have some limited feeds from the fly cameras we planted at the institute. Enough to verify parts of our information. So far, I can’t get much more with them as they’re now stuck, continually hovering out in that courtyard area.”

Alain’s short talk settled my stomach nicely. I glanced from Jewel to Brett, then to Alain. “You are correct. Doctor Gold and his Blues have control of the SSU and every key official they need in Toronto, but there is no way they could buy off anyone in Pinnacle City. Wes will help us because he has to do so before the corruption reaches inside his secure domain.”

I attempted to contact Wes that afternoon, but he wasn’t immediately available. I left him a message of the sort where only he would find it and know it was from me. After that, I went for a walk with Brett and Jewel along the lakeshore. Toronto and the Spells seemed far off; the weather was much nicer up north and other than a few fly bites, things felt perfect. The shoreline was wild and tangled and combined with the expanse of water added a hidden and secure feeling.

The four of us began to work with Thurber on the suit. Brett modelled it on the computer and the house AI perfected it while the antbot came up with a method to construct it. Reinforcing most of it, fitting it for my body, and building in a weapon and shield device on the left arm was done without much difficulty. Assembling the right arm took three more days as the muscle tissue had to be bonded in a special way. Alain worked on a special control that would allow movement fed from the nearest brain, which would be mine, though it also detected body muscle movement and followed it identically. The prosthetic hand we took apart to remodel as a fit-over for my own hand that worked like a glove. The powerful finger pieces we retained in the glove.

There was still no reply from Wes though the suit was ready for testing. That test came on a windy morning. Alain and Thurber outfitted me in the suit and we noted some needed adjustments then went out. It was a body fit. I planned to wear my regular suit and hat over it. Out in the wind, I asked Alain if heavy rain would affect it. The answer was no it wouldn’t.

We walked to a nearby clearing. I did some running and jumping and quickly got the hang of it. It was uncomfortable to wear but liquid in movement. A group of bears were passing and one roared at me and stared. As it did, I used blows from the special hand and arm to break a massive log to splinters and sawdust. The power of that was enough to convince the bears to retreat. They released a couple more roars then returned to their fern-lined path by the stony shoreline.

I could break rocks with that hand, and the bullets Brett blasted at the aura shielding of my head bounced off harmlessly. The strength of my opponent remained clear in my mind. With the suit, I could fight him. Whether he could be beaten remained to be seen.

Late that night a message came back from Wes. The gist of it being he knew I was dead so if I was alive he wanted proof before any further contact would be made. I discussed it with Alain. Wes probably believed the Blues were trying to lure him out and hit him. Unless we transmitted some evidence of my existence, we were out of the game. But that was risky. If anyone anywhere picked up news of me being around they would sell it to the Blues.

A day later, I sat in the sun next to a rocky limestone outcropping, waiting for Wes Cameron to arrive. The decision had been to arrange a meeting. If anyone other than Wes arrived, I would head through the outcropping to the other side where Brett was waiting in a mini aircar that would fly out low for an escape. Wes arrived alone this time in a stealth vehicle. It was a new variety and I heard it before I saw it land. Steely blue with short back fins, the vehicle had a windshield hidden as part of the body.

I didn’t see Wes emerge; he was suddenly there outside the car, armed and walking toward me slowly. I had no doubt that someone inside the vehicle had a bead on me.

Wes wore a showy two-piece suit with Pinnacle epaulets, and the crest emblazoned on the front. He shimmered in the sunlight but that was partially an aura force field. I could tell by his long expression that he was having a hard time believing it was really me. He said a few words about our new wilderness location being superior to Toronto, but we didn’t waste much time with small talk before getting down to business.

“I’m glad to hear I’m still dead,” I said.

“We heard you were dead, but any news coming in from Toronto is suspect. It has been that way since the security breach and Marvel’s kidnapping. Anyone at any level from Toronto could be working with him … meaning this doctor you mention.”

“How much were you told about the Marvel thing? I mean, you got her back, but what did you really find out?”

“As you know, that is confidential. Yet on my part, there aren’t any secrets to reveal. It all went over my head. Contact was made with the family. We picked her up at a specified location. We agreed not to pursue the case or the kidnappers. I don’t know what the deal was or how they gained her return. After delivery, they released a propaganda tale to cover it all. The real effect on our security at Pinnacle City has been devastating. The Board will not accept a report that reveals our security was penetrated. They have an eye on slowly replacing all senior security staff. I had to take a personal beating from the president of the Board. The idea that we haven’t identified exactly who committed the breach infuriates them. At present, it would be easier to fly in from Russia and get into Pinnacle City than it would be to get in from Toronto. We are sealing Toronto off, almost as if it is a there-be-dragons area of the map. For us, that city is a write off.”

“Something can be done,” I said. “That’s if you help us.”

“Pardon me. How would I aid you? We’re not allowed in Toronto anymore. Not officially.”

My answer to that one was to motion for Wes to sit down on a boulder, which he did. My long explanation followed. He said little during it, but he whistled slowly a couple of times when the magnitude of the problem began to sink in. When I finished, he sat there shaking his head. He couldn’t decide what to do.

“You have a plan?” he finally said.

“I do.”

“Okay, sit on it for a few days. You can give me the gist of it in a minute. It’s obvious you need more surveillance and so do I. Ginette Wandsley is still inside Pinnacle City, and if I remember the rumour correctly, she is ill. Supposedly a strange illness. I’ll have to get everything I can on her and everyone connected to her. As far as the Reyes Institute goes, we’ll do what we can with remote surveillance. You’re dead, so stay dead. Remain here until we’re ready with something.”

I did remain dead and Brett remained in the grave with Jewel. He made no contact with his gang but he did use Alain’s setup to track members. They were mostly out of hiding now and the Blues had gone back to their usual business of putting a slow stranglehold on areas of the city they didn’t yet control. They hadn’t penetrated Brett’s territory and they probably wouldn’t focus on it because it was low income. Blues generally used gangs already present to run their business in those areas.

I felt the suit was ready to go and burned with impatience. I didn’t like to admit it but personal revenge was definitely a motive. Aside from that, I had no way of being certain as to what they were doing to Lauren. Comforting myself by listening to Alain’s reassurance that they were simply preserving her intact for now didn’t seem realistic. Hanging around the lake grew tiring because no matter what we tried to talk about it always came back to unfinished business. The sort of unfinished business that was live or die, meaning we’d either accomplish the impossible or die trying.

A week passed then word came back from Wes Cameron, not only word but also a coded workup on the plan. Wes’s superiors had agreed to take action and that it would be covert. They’d bought into my proposed plan but with alterations.

We had Thurber serving a dinner that included meat from a deer Brett had hunted and killed. Though he hadn't actually killed it but got it confirmed that his shot would've killed it. Alain's kitchen did the rest in simulating the meal. Not a meat eater, Alain nibbled on his portion only out of kindness for Brett.

“Let me get this straight,” Alain said. “You simply trust us to decide whether to pull out and leave you?”

“Correct. If I fail and you are reasonably certain of it, escape at top speed. Head back here to avoid being vaporized. In the bigger picture, Wes has a plan to seal the Drop, by stealth. They are going to blow that entire tunnel, and once I’m out probably that entire clinic. They didn’t say exactly what they will do or when.”

“Stealth,” Alain muttered. “How could anyone pull off such a large operation by stealth? I know Toronto is an independent city-state on paper. In reality, the feds keep an eye on it. Wes and his people might be charged with war crimes or something.”

Brett didn’t buy it. “Huh. The Blues have turned the city into war zones and the feds haven’t done anything but watch. They must get their payoffs and look the other way. They probably won’t do anything about Wes and his guys either.”

“The feds will certainly burn us if we are traced,” Alain said. “Pinnacle City is also an independent city-state, and the wealthiest place in this country. Maybe Wes is counting on the feds looking the other way if they trace it them.”

I wasn’t sure what Wes’s confidence was based on … perhaps simply that after the fact would be after the fact. Meaning he would rely on success. Failure would bring trouble. I knew the surveillance we were working with was not foolproof. Wes’s new information had Ginette Wandsley ill, terminally ill. The special heart was buying her time. She would die and soon but only on paper. Her will, when in force, would leave her estate to Lauren. Of course, it wouldn’t go unchallenged, but by then Lauren would in fact be her and would personally settle any scores. It meant that Doctor Marin Gold and Ginette were mad or they really did have the means to transfer Ginette’s mind into Lauren’s body. For the experiment to go ahead Ginette would be transferred out of Pinnacle City for special medical care and taken to Reyes to do the transfer. It would be just before her physical death. Since no new information was coming from Wes, we didn’t know if Ginette had left for Reyes. We didn’t have much time.

The last order of business was a new coating and ID tags for Alain’s cruiser. We also fitted the inside of the cruiser with a special drone delivery from Wes. We were going in first, not with Wes. Thurber ran the program for the exterior job. Brett and Jewel decided to get in on laying out the new coating. The job came out well. Alain and I inspected it and set the feeds it would send out to other craft, air traffic control and covert surveillance. The craft looked beefier under the disguise, which was good as it was wearing the Cargill logo and dressed as a small transport craft. The sort of ship that would come into the city on the slow transport beam with robot craft and other manned transports.

Intense preparations kept leading to more preparations. When sudden word came in from Wes to move it created agitation and panic. We had an hour remaining and were out of time, sailing away as Thurber sealed Alain’s house. On the slow cruise in, I went over the newest dot from Wes. The news was strange and I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad. Recorded patients and nearly all other hidden patients had left Reyes. A process that had been underway even before our visit. Perhaps they wanted it empty for Ginette’s transfer. There were guards on the premises as well as active robot security and the detection system. A buoy robot had sealed off access to the dock. Wes reported an energy source directly below the institute. That would be under the levels we’d accessed earlier. It meant that if I didn’t find Marin Gold above, he’d be below somewhere. Surveillance had him with the dock robot only yesterday so he was on the grounds somewhere.

Our route followed the city perimeter and we didn’t expect to be stopped, but that didn’t work out well because we got red-lighted and forced over at a way station. City customs control and those cops could do a full vehicle search for hazardous materials, weapons or illegals if they wanted. The custom with customs, to get out without a search, was tipping.

The customs cop bullying Alain was a gruff bulldog wearing a buff uniform that looked about to burst at the seams from the force of his bulging musculature. Alain looked shaky and guilty, Brett calm. I got out after Alain beamed in the cover documents and ID requirements. Inside a room that was nothing more than a square cell with a wall flag and a desk, the cop asked me a few questions. I let the tip chips slip into the desk tray during that time; when a read came up on his private screen indicating the amount, his mood altered from gruff to pleased.

“So you aren’t actually staying in the city?”

“Our stops are at perimeter pickups, north, south and east. If orders change and we are called inside the city you’ll be notified.”

“If that happens you’ll have to stop back here first. Any pickups of hazardous materials have to be signed off before entry to a city lane.” He smiled like a shark as he said it and his pupils widened. The thought of hitting me for another large tip had sent him up on a natural high. Nevertheless, I liked him. He ran his own show. A nasty customs cop could have done a search and gone deep in our pockets.

We pulled out and began the cruise around the edge of the city. Alain would repeat the route until I called in. I had arranged that by altering the border cop’s log with a tap at my wrist while he was feasting his eyes on the tip. I knew I was getting too used to altering books and too used to corrupt officials. In my early detective days, I did an honest beat. At least I did until I realized that to make money bending the system was a requirement. I began with a client that wanted to buy revenge. He was an accident victim and he hired me to bust up the guy that crippled him. Instead, I used my own style and I looted the guy that hit him. The customer liked that outcome better. Customers love you if they think you did something dirty or dishonest for them. After that case, I went forward and I never stopped working. Years passed, the cases got bigger, scarier, violent. I got rough at the edges and smooth with sneaky tactics. I learned to lie like a psychopath, and the rotten stuff came far too easy. I never got a day off to tell the truth or play clean.

With our disguised cruiser orbiting the city so to speak, it became a matter of prep and waiting. The special item delivered by Wes was a Burst Sphere, that being the street name. Wes’s team would be going inside that way, too.

In space, the spheres created a common transport mode. Their use on Earth remained sketchy. A common conspiracy theory was that the technology was being supressed to save the air vehicle industry. There was probably some truth in that but the sphere mode only worked smoothly in the near vacuum of space. It was as close to the old science fiction mode of being beamed somewhere as science could get. At least it looked that way; in reality it was like being shot somewhere inside a bullet.

Back in the bay, Brett and I walked around the sphere doing a final read for any flaw. I cracked it open and the effect was like that of a large silver flower opening to reveal a soft blue interior. The sphere wasn’t exactly a sphere either but more of an oval. I was already suited up and had clothing, hat and a long coat over it. The clothing was partially a disguise. I didn’t need the coat but I felt better wearing it. It didn’t retain heat and had blast-proof material that could be a lifesaver when shielding failed or powered out. It provided an extra level of protection.

Satisfied with the sphere, I turned to Brett. “Once I’m inside monitor it from outside. You don’t want to be close when it moves. All you’ll see is a blur and it disappears. Don’t touch the platform. I don’t plan on returning in it, but we can call it back empty or self-destruct it.”

Brett remained fascinated by the device. “I can’t imagine self-destructing something that costly and advanced. Those Pinnacle City people must be the richest people in the world to have them.”

“They caught me by surprise, too. They’re using a number of them to go in after I finish or don’t finish my job down there. I’m sure of it. I never would have guessed they had them. They’re only legal in space.”

“Yeah, and aren’t you taking a big chance. I mean, how does that thing work on Earth? There’s no vacuum here.”

“That’s near vacuum. It encloses me, and then it waits for optimum conditions. At that moment, I become suspended in what feels like jelly and can’t move or breathe. The transport is nearly instantaneous on a short distance. Here on the ground it is not the same tech as space, these somehow fire the sphere along dimensional strings, yet the body is masked and not affected or even jarred. That’s why I’m surprised. The cost of even one of these things would be phenomenal. The Sunbulian family probably donated them to the Pinnacle City arsenal.”

Brett saw me stepping up to enter so he turned to leave. “Makes me feel small time,” he said as he stepped out the door.

Distortion suddenly became an enlargement of Alain’s face on a hidden view screen. The petals closed on the sphere, leaving me locked inside. It was a claustrophobic experience and I had to wait for optimum conditions. I checked the time window; if the sphere did not find a window, I would have to exit and have Alain fly me in for a drop. Alain spoke to me through a speck-size earplug I was wearing.

“I have no idea what decision to make. We’ll probably lose contact once you’re inside. I may not be able to fly in if needed. They have too much firepower. We have the other portable healing suit here but who knows what condition Lauren will be in. To be honest, I can’t figure out how this mind-transfer deal would work. How could Ginette become Lauren, I mean completely? In my mind, Ginette’s brain has to remain intact somewhere for that deal to work even partially. You can’t physically replace Lauren’s brain with hers.”

“Quit panicking and wait. We’ll have all the answers once I get inside.”

Alain's questioning attitude wasn't uplifting; the claustrophobia began to eat at me. I had to keep my thoughts moving to rid myself of it. I thought about Wes. He was doing me a gracious favour, allowing me to attempt a rescue. I saw it that way because I knew that if his men were going in to hit the place and wanted to be undetected, it would be fast, mean and dirty. It would be impossible to rescue a possibly suspended body in those conditions. If I failed, it would likely be over for Lauren.

Various pitfalls and rescue options went through my mind. When the transfer hit it was sudden and surprising. A bright flash hit my brain like a blast out of the dark and I suddenly felt suspended in cold jelly. I couldn’t breathe but my mind worked, my senses automatically calling up a panic attack so severe I nearly fainted. Then it was over with a sudden feeling of decompression and relief.

I took a deep breath. Moments later the sphere opened and I realized why the transfer had not been instantaneous. I wasn’t inside; I was outside on the fringe. I didn’t realize that first moment because I was facing away from the institute at the towering facade of the nearby city, rising into the misty clouds and traffic lanes. The burnished scrapers combined with transfer vertigo and sent things into a spin.

I turned in the meadow grass and got the real picture. Something had blocked the route. Possibly, the sphere had detected the unknown power source underground, avoided it and stalled until it got me just outside the grounds. I hoped Wes wouldn’t encounter the same difficulty and figured he could avoid it because he was aiming for the tunnel to the Drop … various locations along it. They would move to the institute from it and head deeper as well.

I was at the west side, away from the dock and the main entrance. The wall at Reyes resembled something from a castle fortress at this end. Fortunately, a copse of pine trees circled the grassy area and sphere shell. Other firs and birch trees fenced by a line of bushes were to the front then it was open meadow in to the wall. I saw no entrances in it and there was a guard walking along the top of it. The guard was a Blue, the ghastly form was easy to recognize, as was his tube weapon. Something glittered at his neck … field glasses that would focus through all conditions. I used them sometimes myself. If he decided to look this way, they’d automatically zoom in on any human figure. I was lucky he didn’t have them on.

That luck didn’t last, before I could move he put them on and suddenly turned my way … a distant bug-eyed face. I saw the eyes glow as I ducked behind heavy bushes. I was sure I’d seen a scowl on those thick lips. I became certain of it when he suddenly blasted off the wall. The bastard had one of those tiny short-range fly packs on his back. He was sailing over for an encounter.

He was a standard Blue; big as a monster … and it always surprised me when a man that looked as dead as a zombie could strike as fast as snake. The cold dead metabolism seemed to store energy for quick violent release. It also surprised me when he flew left of me, deep in a wooded area like he was checking something there. I received a detection alert and boosted up a ghost screen at my wrist. According to it, I was technically inside Reyes because an advanced detection perimeter was set farther out. I had in a sense blasted inside undetected. At least until the Blue spotted me. I wondered what he was doing and I decided to wait a bit. I wasn’t exactly dressed for quiet travel through noisy bushes.

Moments passed then I got an alert on his approach as a ping in my ear. He came crashing out of the trees. A purple arc showed at the wide barrel of the assault laser aimed at me. I had blast movement with the suit and simply shot to the left as the big arc he fired shattered a shoulder-height rock outcropping where I’d been standing.

I took a rough tumble through bushes and rocky ground. That was it for my hat, but I didn’t need it anyway. The Blue grunted as he hurried closer to my position, then he made a dumb mistake. Instead of laying some more blast power at me, he planted his weapon in its holster and moved in to tackle me.

Bullies always have to get physical, don’t they, and I suppose he assumed that because I ducked a blast I had no shielding. He was right, I didn’t. I left it off and met his tackle. We tumbled in the weeds and it was a shocking experience because he had a personal force shield on that made his every touch feel like electrocution. He got some shock-back himself and shut it off when he emerged on top of me. His decayed breath stank so bad I felt like asking him to turn his aura shield back on. But that was only really for a moment. He was coming down with a hard punch to my throat and pounded dirt when I squirmed right a touch.

He roared in frustration and anger and the hot blast of breath hit me like poison gas. The sight of sores in his mouth grossed me out. I convinced myself that I was testing the power of the suit. Burs were stuck all over my coat and that pissed me off. Fortunately, the suit was performing; his crushing tackle hadn’t hurt at all. It had transferred the shock and blocked the crush. Using my enhanced right arm, I tossed him off to the side, then I flew over him in a flash and got him with the same sort of punch he’d aimed at me. That hurt him and I was thrilled because my left had only my muscles and not much extra power.

He used all of his strength fast, knocked me aside and stumbled up to his feet. I knew instinctively what would be next. He was tired of wrestling and wanted a fast win. He’d spin and nail me with a pocket weapon.

That happened, but I beat him to the draw. My kick beam threw him against a tree. His shield saved him. A click of the cylinder and I fired a blast of energy beads. They rattled on his shield, set him and the tree on fire, but when he jumped away, the flames washed off him.

Through all that, he’d held onto his pocket weapon and I blasted up as he fired. The shot went in an arc to him, and since he’d set a tracker we were both hit by his blast as it became a half backfire. Since his shield was off for repeat fire, he received the worst of it and went down in the rocks. I hit dirt and skated through the dust not far from him.

I’d had enough of him and shot him again before he could react. I looked around, knocked dust off my coat and checked him out. On turning him over, I couldn’t tell if he was out or dead. It would be hard to check the heartbeat of one those lizards so I didn’t bother to do it. Walking away, I picked burs off my coat and looked for the area where he’d first landed. I came across my hat hanging off a twig on a branch and plucked it off. There did not appear to be any activity over at the wall. I knew there were guards there. Most likely they were on the other side or inside because they hadn’t noticed the shooting.

I foraged around, went through some brush wondering if the security perimeter was recording my every move. Trees appeared after I passed an open area inside the brush. I stepped over some thick roots and down into some blue flowers and long grass. A structure was at the center with a path running to it. At least I thought it was a structure. It was vine covered and maybe just a mound or outcropping. But why a path to it?

An alert pinged my brain on the next step so I stepped quickly back out of the flowers. A curtain of light appeared in front of me as I did. I’d escaped being sliced, just barely. The triggers had to be among the flowers, and that meant tracking the points. Once that was done, I clicked out a code on my gun’s cylinders and fired. Light flashes rose in a ring as the energy packets found home and destroyed the special tips of the ring.

I stepped through again; knowing that the distant system would think it had fired and disrupted me. I reached the center with no other alerts and pulled away some of the vines. It wasn’t a mound or outcropping but a bevelled cone shape, made of a super tough alloy that wouldn’t rust or give way to cutters. An embossed metal lid sealed it and the logo imprinted was the swirled R of the Reyes Institute.

I realized it was most likely a shaft or other way down. If down, it might lead to that deeper level we hadn’t reached when on the inside. Perhaps I’d been lucky after all. I definitely wanted to know what they were holding deeper. Wes’s scan said Reyes or Gold to be more exact, had an exotic power source down there.

I worked my way around the cone, scanned it and checked the readings. The material was like that composing a modern safe in the way it simply blocked scans and even x-rays. It left me baffled but I knew there was a way to enter because of the path leading up to it.

Through the heavy foliage, I spotted another Blue walking on the distant wall. I waited until he passed then went up on top of the seal to see if there was a trigger hidden there. As I got down on my knees, the thing began to move, dropping down. I gasped as I realized all a person had to do was step up on it to go down. I’d spent too many years trying to break into places to expect anything to be easy.

The lift dropped about forty meters down a clean tube, and then a door opened in front of me. Bad air assaulted me. A tunnel loomed ahead and it reeked with some ferrous odor of death. There was the telltale revolting fragrance Blues exuded, mixed with other vile odors. Blue button lights were overhead and the walls and floor were made of a hard dull alloy. The tunnel ran downward at an angle and when I stepped inside it, the door sealed behind me.

I moved ahead slowly. It all looked clean and dust free. There was air circulation pumped through from somewhere and it worked to broadcast the horrible odors. Fifty meters of walking led me to a door. It was set tightly in with barely a crack on the closure. It had been recently sealed at my end by a bar of metal fused in place exactly where a heavy bolt would be on an old-style door. The seal was copper-colored. It appeared to have been installed via a hot beam weld, and not to keep someone outside from getting in but to keep something inside from getting out.

This irritated me, as it was another entry puzzle. I tried the hottest beam my gun could produce and that failed to cut or melt it. My special suit had the modification of the cabbie’s special hand installed as a glove so I decided to test the super strong fingers. I wanted to soften the metal some so I did a heat transfer, rolled my coat sleeve back so it wouldn’t catch fire and tried to pry away the metal. It loosened some then I noticed the fingertips could cut a scratch right into the metal. Using them, I had the seal loose in a few seconds. I had originally thought the cabbie used the special hand for crushing skulls when he robbed people. Turned out it was more than that; he used it for break-ins too. It was a crude but effective method for a robber lacking expensive lock-picking devices.

Even with the seal broken, the door wouldn’t move and I couldn’t get a grip so I had to cut one into the jamb with the fingers then use the special muscle power of the suit’s right arm to pull it open. The thing was fused and without the suit, I would not have been able to force it open. It creaked hideously and opened a few inches before I staggered back from the death miasma that assaulted me. Dead human bodies didn’t smell as bad as it did. In the first seconds, I thought it was poison gas. It wasn’t. It was something else and so foul it could’ve staggered even a Blue. Even aura protection at my face didn’t keep back all of the vile fragrance. I shook my head, wishing I had brought a full mask. I didn’t want to move forward but I had no choice.

I got behind the door as I pulled it open the rest of the way, and that helped as a rush of air passed up the tunnel. It wasn’t all that rushed out as the miasma was followed by something repulsive. It filled nearly the whole doorframe and it slithered out in a rush partway up the tunnel. A mist from it nearly blinded the lights. I saw it halting and quickly went around the door and inside. Seizing the door, I attempted to pull it closed and lock the thing out. The door moved some but the artificial hand slipped on the residue the thing had left. A hinge creaked and the thing heard it and turned. A large purple-veined eye appeared and it slid forward as I retreated. I’d closed the door enough to block it. It was temporarily stuck there and I should have shot it. Instead, I turned and ran. The surprise and vile odor of it had been so disturbing that running in terror was an automatic reaction that overpowered common sense.

Fortunately, no traps or guards appeared ahead. The tunnel took a branch left and right and I went right. The walls showed a slight curvature and I got the feeling that this segment ringed the entire complex. I stopped at a sealed door, heard the rustle of the thing pursuing me and hurried on ahead. This deal wasn’t working. If every other way in deeper was sealed I’d be stuck fleeing in a long circle from the thing. I’d have to stand and fight it.

Prepare to fight it is what I did. I set my gun for a wide burn beam. The lighting in this section was brighter and I saw the thing approaching fast. It sensed me and stopped. My eyes widened as I studied it. It was a rubbery mass like a worm with that huge eye, and its coating was semi-transparent. Tentacles or hairs of the same substance were all around it and propelled it forward. I could see through to veins and other odd organs on its insides. Its eye gave me the creeps, as its stare was intelligent. The thing was sizing me up in its own strange way. I knew it was biological in origin, and the sticky exterior hairs and body reminded me of bacteria as studied through a scope. The see-through rubbery body was also a bacteria thing, but at this size, it made me think of it as partly a robot, perhaps with an AI controlling it.

I fired directly at it. The wide beam kicked up heat and steam as it hit. Blowback hit as heat blasted back and my shield came on automatically to keep me from being cooked. The damn thing should have been boiled like an oyster, considering the wave dose I’d given it. But it wasn’t. The steam cleared and showed it still there and slowly creeping forward. It was heat resistant; I tried a kick beam and it worked like a punch in the head to stop it. Its eye flattened to a coin then popped back out, and then it attacked with a tentacle shot - a sticky tentacle that practically materialized right out of it. I heard an acid burn as my aura shield repelled it, then I did a triple kick shot that gave it a weighty bounce.

I turned and ran. Death odors were like an invading virus permeating all my cells. The reek worked as a stomach turner and shot of withering fatigue. Another door appeared and it wasn’t sealed or locked. It opened inward to a vast rectangular room and I closed it and locked it as I entered, hearing the beast ooze against it just after it shut.

My special weapon found more use as I moved straight forward toward another one of Gold’s freak medical Joes. This guy imitated a stiff walking plant, some form of scabby skin disease eating away his face. At least I assumed that when in fact it could’ve been his idea of beauty. He had a miasma about him just like the tunnel beast, but he wasn’t heat resistant because my shot cooked him. Heat shots burn a normal human black, and he was not normal or his side and arm wouldn’t have melted like blood wax.

The beast continued squeezing against the door. It would be in before long. I looked around the huge room and didn’t like what I saw. This place was big, and half of it appeared to be the creature’s pen or lair. Indents marred the floor by large feed and water spigots at the wall. Light blinked in lines at the edge of the pen on the contacts that would create a flash energy wall to hold the thing inside it. The medical man had fallen near a bank of equipment. A wall with medical tools, vials, and a full bevy of equipment was behind it. The jellylike creature had to be both an experiment and a security feature of the clinic. It looked like they experimented on it and sometimes let it out to forage or guard the perimeter area.

The observation was interesting but not as exciting as the horrifying thought of falling victim to the creature; I had seconds to deal with it and an idea bursting out of the panic in mind. I raced over and into its pen, called up the security mode of a flash screen as I got there. Then the outer door burst right off its hinges and shot forward, banged the stone and slid. The creature crept in, halted and scanned the room. Its mouth, which hadn’t been visible before, appeared and opened with a strange roar. Seeing me standing in its pen enraged it and it came in fast, almost swimming across the floor. There was room for me to run a fast semicircle and leap out; hitting the target button I’d keyed to work on my gun. That sent a signal in to hack the security system and flash up the energy wall, knocking me out of the pen for a tumble and kicking the beast a good one in the butt as it forced it the rest of the way inside. Penned in, the beast tried a couple slams against the energy wall then slid back and sat there watching me.

The wall of medical equipment didn’t interest me. I didn’t want to touch the grotesque fallen body so I knocked it aside with a beam and inspected the bank of equipment he’d been using. It was more of Gold’s advanced medical technology but it had a connection to the building security system on the right side. One small screen allowed an operator to flash through some surveillance screens one screen a time. Since the guy already had the system running, I didn’t need an eye scan or print to use it. It only covered the section I was in and some of the perimeter walls. Tracking around I spotted Blues in a number of locations, then I spotted another open room down the hall from my present location. I couldn’t see inside it but it went the right way so I left and went down the hall to it.

I peeked inside and saw no one, but at the same time, I heard footsteps coming up the hall. Ducking in, I found myself in an odd foyer with a railing on either side. A heavy bronze door was ahead. The footsteps were growing closer and I figured I was trapped, but as I stepped up to the door, it flashed open. As soon as I stepped in the door closed behind me.

I swung around, panning my gun for possible shots, but there was no one in the immediate vicinity. The view was overwhelming. I’d gone down a ramp, which made the ceiling much higher in this area. Dim lights showed like in all of Gold’s underground areas, a design element in play because he couldn’t tolerate much direct light. This was another room of medical equipment with rows of machines. On inspection, I recognized them as cloning vats. They weren’t new designs but other machines farther in were more complex and larger.

I wanted a look at them and foolishly let down my guard. I stepped out from between two vats and felt my aura shield go on as blaster shot hit me. I stumbled and tripped from the force of it, as if thrown over by a big hot fist. My outer suit was fireproof, though it didn’t offer the protection of the inner suit. I’d seen too many people catch fire in shooting contests and guarded against that.

Go with the flow was always my game in such a situation. I threw myself in the direction the force was taking me and tried to roll off behind another vat. A second shot tore up a piece of hard flooring behind me and the firecracker bang of it hurt my ears.

An emaciated Blue was swinging around out of the shadows to fire on me again. I shot him from the ground and knocked him over. Even while falling he managed to raise his weapon for another shot. It missed because I’d already ducked left around a post. A second hit put him out and I saw a coin spill out of his pocket.

As I picked it up, a distant crash startled me and I moved away from it, deeper into the room. No other Blues showed; I came to a set of silver doors in the far wall and was sure it was a lift. A pass of the coin over the metal plate at the side opened the doors and I had access. A second swipe of the fob on the inside activated the lift. I hit the down button, hearing someone running through the vats on the far side. The doors closed, saving me from him, and then the lift shot down.

The drop seemed startlingly long and fast. I barely got three breaths and the doors were opening again. My weapon was at ready and no one was waiting, yet I had the feeling someone was and my trigger finger itched. I felt a presence. The sensation was an overwhelming sixth-sense thing yet as real as feeling heat or cold or pain. Something existed there watching, seeming to read my mind yet imparting nothing to me. Almost like a sponge taking in everything yet also scary in impression like a big spider on the wall. In spite of the skin-prickling feeling, no security alerts came up. It came from everywhere but no matter where I looked, it wasn't there.

The stress of it was so distracting it knocked off my other senses, and when the visual impression of the area hit me, I became awed. Faint blue-tinted button lights sprinkled above lit up a mechanical, storage and medical area that ran off into the distant gloom. The ceiling here was twelve feet high and the entire area glittered with sparkling glass, metals and the faint jewel lights on the machines.

Feeling somewhat dizzy, I strolled into the area, fighting to keep my mental focus. The first deep area contained numerous metal-trimmed transparent storage devices, the contents of which were gruesome; preserved organs and small mutant animals and fish, each item floating in its own container of tinted liquid preservative. One entire section contained brain matter, some of the encased samples were complete brains of various types; others were floating arrays of tissue in special liquids. The mad doctor, Marin Gold had replaced or altered every organ in his body more than once, it made me wonder if he also planned to replace his brain. If so, he was in disagreement with Alain who claimed the brain couldn’t be replaced.

Off to my left down a long aisle an open entry led into another area. Large machines stood just inside it so I figured it to be a main mechanical room for the institute. An even larger area was in the other direction through another wall opening. All I could see was a dim haze of light there and when I took a few steps in that direction I saw something out of the corner of my eye. It was a shadowy figure revealed by a flicker of blue lights and I knew it had to be Doctor Marin Gold. I halted and waited as he stepped out into the aisle in front of me.


Chapter Ten: End Spell


The shadow of his hat covered most of his specially bandaged face. When he spoke, his voice was reedy like he was suffering a throat infection. “Well, I’m certainly surprised to find you alive. There are some associates I will have to punish for this.”

“You would know about punishment, but do you do it as the real thing or another experiment?”

“I do it as a superior being, but I’m a medical man, too. Down in the Drop the AI delivered punishment when I ordered it.”

“Yes, you said you ruled the underworld. They must love you and your cruelty down there.”

“They are learning to love me in the city above, too, because I rule it now.”

“You can get you want, but no one can rule this city. It's too big and you have no common sense. You’re playing with dangerous forces and the lives of millions of people.”

“This is no amateur enterprise. You should know the past has a way of framing the future. I’m bringing about the future the ancient prophets saw in visions. There was no God then but they knew one would arrive at some future time. Their visions were of strange beings controlled by their God. Beings that looked more alien than human. God really arrived when my extended-life experiments approached the immortality zone. Now I can use it to live on indefinitely.”

“Ah, so you’re a god. I find it hard to think of your Blues as the new chosen people.”

“They are just enforcers and came about by accident. The chosen will be others and properly developed. I could give examples but I don’t have to answer to you. You are an ordinary man. You have no brain plug-ins or other extensions. The higher elders of the planet are nearly all trans-human cyborgs now. Artificial intelligence is their ruling deity. In essence, they are machines. I am answering them, taking power from them. You are nothing more than a bug that gets in the way.”

“Maybe you should find a way to answer them that doesn’t involve being just like them.”

“I am not like them. I know that man can’t be a machine. The two don’t mesh other than in basic prosthetics. The genuine tiger on the mountain is biology and the enhanced flesh. The flesh and organs can become nearly immortal and super resilient. The beauty of my plan is that the others don’t know I am here or that I will destroy them.”

“I see. Taking the city isn’t enough. You’re on a total power trip, looking for enemies to war with.”

“I will continue to move science in the proper direction by first destroying those that want man to live on as a plug-in for a computer. I will create new elite beings. Look at my body; I developed my organs from fusion with animals, fish and insects. I’m way beyond stem cells and cloning. I have made flesh the ultimate power.”

“Your ultimate power looks much like the ultimate evil. You forgot what man is while you were reinventing him.”

“I see. You want to defend the ordinary man and woman, and leave them ruled by elders that have become androids.”

“I don’t like the system as it is. It’s too bad you aren’t an answer. You are another branch of the evil.”

“Your fears are unfounded. Think about Ginette Wandsley. She remains a classic human being with life extension through another branch of the same science. You should be at peace, knowing your friend Lauren will live on. I have created a better way than using clones. My wave technique combined with the proper chemical baths primes the brain for the transplant of a foreign personality. One person can live on in another and keep the best features of the host body and personality.”

“You're worse than some of the other elders. The moral ones use cloned organs to live on and don’t snatch organs. If what you say is true, you will be snatching a person’s body, brain and soul, so an elder can live on. And elder who should have died.”

“Who are you to say who should die?”

“Wave technique … so that is the presence I feel down here. Whatever you’ve developed reaches right into the mind.”

“It reaches into the mind and body. It is something you would have enjoyed studying. Unfortunately, you won’t be alive to see it. I have fused insect mass mind with mammalian brain tissues and contained the expanded mass as a living super entity. The resulting mind can do many things. It can map an entire human brain, every neuron, transmitter … right down to the active electrons and store that map in brain tissue. It actually recreates that brain. Combined with my other technology of chemical and electrical baths it can transfer one human mind into another body and brain. I am in partial union with the mass mind right now. It renews my strength, boosts my health. In it, I have created a greater power than artificial intelligence. It is genuine intelligence, real brain matter in action - super species intelligence.”

I had a strong feeling Marin Gold was telling the truth. He had taken science to new heights of the weird, though it was hard to think of it as a human brand of science. His personal solution for me was to exterminate me - a solution that made my opinions of his science irrelevant. Being still a man, and not an elder, cyborg or insect … survival was my natural instinct, even if it meant killing him and his institute. I did believe that a moral view of his developments would be interesting, but time ran out. The conversation ended. My arm swept left, my weapon firing a bright beam that sent glass, liquid and tissues exploding in the air as many of the containers shattered. Two Blues had been creeping up on me and the shot lifted them into the air with the other explosions.

My eyes flashed to them as they tumbled to the floor into the mess of debris, and by the time they flashed back Gold had a pocket blaster out. His shot was a hammer blow; a force shot that nearly broke my weakened shield and gave me a hard jar as it threw me back. My body swung around as I flew through more of the casings. A moment later, I was on the floor. I was partially swimming in a thick mass of debris not that far from the fallen Blues.

Doctor Gold was certain he had me. Glasses up, his fiery eyes came clear in the lights as he walked toward me. An ugly idea hatched in my mind; he’d kept me entertained with his talk for a reason. He planned to have his men seize me alive for use in one of his hideous transfer experiments. Being captured alive would mean living on as someone else or even worse, as a thing with no organs left but hooked to a mind loop and fed by tubes.

A tone in my ear told me my aura shield was out until a recharge. I still had the protection and strength of the suit, and some surprise factor because Gold didn’t know I was wearing it under my overcoat.

He found out partially at that moment. I was up a touch too fast for an ordinary mortal, and the jump I made right was too quick and precise. Catching one of the rising Blues at the end of my jump, I swung him around and used him as a shield to catch Gold’s next blaster shot. That shot turned the Blue into hamburger and sent me stumbling back into the other Blue. He threw a bear hug on me and I broke it and threw him over me.

Gold tossed his blaster, and did one of his lightning runs toward me. He knocked the unlucky Blue aside as he charged and I ducked around him, using speed to race through the mess into an undamaged area and then on toward a distant door leading to another dark section.

My action had been unexpected and in the confusion, Gold slipped in the debris. The door was a heavy affair and locked. In that pumped-up state I had good command of the stronger arm and simply ripped into the crack and tore away the lock. A second pull opened the door and I swung in and closed it behind me. That happened as Gold was racing to me on the tail end of one of his jumps. He hit the door so hard it sounded like a car crash. I heard him cursing a second later.

I wanted to buy time to get out of Gold’s sight and then take him down with a sudden ambush. I hoped no other hostiles were in the room as I raced forward through pipes and machines. The room wasn’t square but a huge oval and the ceiling curved to a high dome. Something large was at the center with a shimmering railing wrapped around it and I was running to it. Emanations or the brain waves Gold had mentioned were overpowering me and the shadows were flashing with hallucinatory bats. Physically it felt like a ghost wind was passing right through my body. All of my nerves tingled. I knew Marin Gold would be in and looking for me but not if he was directly on to me yet.

At the railing, I collapsed to my knees. I glanced back because it felt like I’d been pulled down at the shoulders. I saw nothing but a kaleidoscopic swirl of fiery colors. My mind suddenly rose out of my body and I was watching myself from high above. I became aware of the intense force shield guarding the item on the other side of the railing. The device was an embossed metal egg about the twice the size of a man and it sat locked into a corrugated platform. Tremendous mental radiation emanated from it so I assumed it was the power source surveillance scans had detected. The idea of brain tissue and waves registering as a tremendous power source interested me; that I was floating above my body and thinking rationally in such a situation was surprising. I did not feel like part of some insect mass mind or under control, but I knew the egg contained the brain matter and insect mind Gold had mentioned. To me it meant that he was criminally insane, attempting to release a world-altering Frankenstein creation, without any consultation or precautions.

The possession was becoming unclean, I felt like a soul floating away from my body, unable to maintain the lock. Gold appeared below, approaching my fallen body. He stopped a few feet from it and raised his arms in the air. He had a grin of ecstasy on his bandaged face. It was as if I could see through the bandages. See him growing stronger by feeding off the force. I tried to concentrate, to make my body function. In moments, Gold would be on me at full strength, and while he gained vigor, all I got was the weird disconnection.

Concentration had an effect. I felt myself coming back together. As I rose and faced Gold, he slammed a punch into my chest, sending me staggering along the railing like a beaten prizefighter. Following me, he laid blow after hard blow on me, but the suit held. Finally, I blocked a blow to the head, and then in a moment of recovery I used my strong arm, throwing a wild uppercut that bounced from his chest to his jaw.

He fell back in a near drunken stagger and his hands went to his head as he fell. Again, I was on the run. Getting out of that area was paramount. Battling him there where he gained constant strength was not an option. His mutant body used that wave source; it was music for his muscles and health and nothing but noise and disorientation to me.

Blindness came upon me after ten steps, and I was accidentally running toward another Blue. There was a collision and struggle and I had that effect of looking down on my body as I got in with three blows and knocked him down. Then I dashed off, regaining vision and escaping the waves as I ran through an open door.

Keeping on the move was best; I heard a crash, looked back and saw Marin Gold in pursuit. I hit the ceiling with a blast shot as I ran, leaving a fall of rubble in my wake. An empty area lay ahead, like open dungeon, but wide and lined with square support posts. I coughed on dust spilling in from somewhere. Odors of something rotten stung my nose. I spotted what might be a lift door next to a heap of debris, stopped, and hit the one button on the panel.

The door rattled open and I got inside. The thing was a freight elevator that went up one floor and opened on a storage area. Popping out, I looked around. The place was deserted except for some piles of red crates. A stairwell door showed at the end of the aisle so I went to it and looked through the tiny window. Then I went through and up the stairs. When I emerged, I was in Gold’s dungeon beneath the institute. The same one we’d entered on the earlier visit when we got in through the tunnel. I was at a portion of it past the stairs we’d previously gone up. I hadn’t seen that area before. A huge medical cocoon was in front of me but I didn’t take time to investigate. Instead, I kept moving and got into the transport bay where Gold had nearly beaten me to death before.

Perhaps it was a bad omen like Déjà vu or my death repeating itself. Grim memories of the last beating rose in my weakened mind. I suspected Gold’s brain monster of planting the idea of running here in my mind. My hands went to my head and I shook it from side to side, trying to get a grip on reality. I staggered forward, convincing myself that I was at least familiar with the area and there were places to hide. I headed for a dim portion not far from the parked vehicles. Shelving and some stacked crates were there so I got behind them and waited to see who would show.

It wasn’t a long wait. Hurried footsteps broke the faint hum of the area, and the person approaching was Marin Gold. He was alone and he stopped on entering and began to look around in a predatory way.

That wasn’t good. I had hoped he’d be reckless. After taking my last punch he’d sobered up. Not that he looked weak. He’d followed me on the run, and he wasn’t out of breath at all. The man was as formidable as before so I had to take him out in a few smooth moves or he’d wear me down, kill me this time.

Gold got the idea I might be in one of the vehicles and he went over and behind them. The rear windows he could see through while the side and front windshields were smoked. Stopping at each vehicle, he took time to study the interiors. Dissatisfied, he snorted and stepped away, and then he got on to the gloomier area.

He was coming nearer, sniffing me out. I had the impression of his eyes lighting up even brighter behind the dark glasses. If I was out of luck, it would be a straight-out fight when he flushed me out. I wouldn’t have the advantage of an ambush.

He had a few more steps to take but didn’t make them because the situation went suddenly haywire. My rescue effort had run out of time; I knew that because a sphere suddenly flashed in just on our side of the bay doors. It meant Wes’s raid was underway. Spheres would be appearing along the tunneling to the Drop and in the institute as well if they found a clean entry window.

Not even bandages and dark glasses could hide Gold’s surprise. I could read it in his startled body language. He immediately forgot all about his search for me. He moved quickly for the sphere as it began to open, and he was waiting when the mercenary appeared, stepping out in heavy battle gear.

Gold was fast with his move, and like an amateur, the fighter had his shield off and in manual control setting. The hard punch sent him to floor so quick he slid on it, and the flash of his shield finally coming on showed as he tried to look up to see what had hit him. He caught a glimpse of Marin Gold approaching then fell unconscious.

Distant booms suddenly rang out in succession, throwing Gold off balance again. He was still viper fast; he detected my approach and swung around as I reached him. He was too late, and I did to him what he’d just done to Wes’s soldier. Unfortunately, I was hitting someone a lot stronger. Gold had a head like a new flexible form of stone or metal and neck muscles like toughened tree roots. My hit with the strengthened arm was a killer blow, yet it only sent him stumbling back, a bit stunned. It was enough to give me some advantage. I moved in, slugged him again, used my weaker arm to counter a couple of his blows, and continued hammering him with hard rights.

He ended up staggered, blue liquid spurting from his nose. I got a stranglehold on him with the arm and the fight continued. He got a hand on my neck, but before he could strangle me, I used the special hand to pincer off three of his fingers.

That brought a spitting howl of anger out of his throat and he did a controlled stumble back. I had no plans on giving him a rest, charged him and we ended up wrestling around the vehicles. We ended up pummeling one another out by the bay doors and he managed to seize me and throw me across the floor. As I skated on my back, a tremendous boom deafened me. I saw an entire jagged section of the bay doors blow out in an explosion, with the huge torn metal cap flying forward like a cannon shot right into Gold. His body was so tough it remained intact as it knocked him through the air in an arc. I raced to him as he came down on the floor and saw that he was nearly out, but not quite. The metal cap kept bouncing down a corridor until it clanged to a stop. I got Gold with a couple more punches from the arm and that did the trick.

Exhausted, I looked up, turned, and found myself under the guns of five of Wes’s men. At that moment, I realized that I wouldn’t have triumphed in the contest with Gold. If a cannon-shot of an exploding metal door failed to kill him, my efforts would have also failed.

Hands in the air, I ended up listening to more distant booms and shouts and missing the action. A sense of the unreal had taken hold and my mind felt like it was returning to me after extreme drug side effects. Physically I felt rough with muscle spasms moving in a pattern from my legs to my chest. I did not want to get close to Doctor Marin Gold’s contained master bug brain again.

Fifteen nearly unbearable minutes passed then communication came in from Wes and his troops allowed me to speak to him. Things moved quickly when he found out we had captured Doctor Gold.

The Doctor remained under and in apparent bad shape. We cuffed his hands and legs but that was only a temporary fix. Ten minutes later, more men arrived with a full lockup enclosure. The thing was one of those transports for dangerous criminals that enclosed the body up to the shoulders in lightweight mesh alloy that sealed with fuse locks.

That was the last time I saw the innovative doctor, Marin Gold. I watched him carried off by brutal leather-faced Pinnacle City shock troops. Travelling with one of Wes’s raiders, I met up with him in the upper chamber where I expected to find Lauren. The search for her there took some guesswork, as there were a number of women embedded in machines. We found her suspended in one of Gold’s advanced medical cocoons and in her own separate area. Wes had a specialist with him. A woman named Shelley Oprea, outfitted in space-style body armour. She didn’t look like a doctor but more like a scientist and she didn’t state her credentials, just her name.

Shelley’s pale face remained clouded behind a bubble energy shield. I could see her small nose and flowing dark hair. She was attractive in a rare way but also forceful as she directed her team. They placed an attachment on the cocoon and she pulled up a screen that allowed a full view inside. It showed a cartoonish view of Lauren’s body, intact, in complete hibernation. That brought relief, because I felt it meant any brain-altering transfer Gold and Ginette had planned had not taken place. Our rescue was in time, provided the medical team could revive her and fix any damage already done.

“We cut the base of that cocoon and take her out as is,” Shelley said. “The rest will be done back at our P. City labs.”

Wes nodded at her words and I considered something. On the way over, the view through a section of shattered wall had revealed a transport cruiser landing. It meant Wes hadn’t been truthful with me on the raid. It wasn’t a hit and run only, they were taking everything out.

Wes took me aside. “You can’t go into Pinnacle City. Those are the rules. Lauren will come out when she’s been released from the suspension Gold has her under.”

“Are you certain your people can do it?”

“They will do it or no one can.”

“What’s the whole story here? I mean regarding this raid. You’re taking everything experimental out, aren’t you? I saw the cruiser.”

“The influence of the Sunbulian family happened. I took a chance and briefed them on our surveillance. I kept your name out of it. They got through to the right people in the federal government. A decision was made to let our high-tech forces clean this up. Their own intelligence agencies would create a mess so we have the authorization.”

“Very clever. They get you people to do clean up, and I bet they don't pay but are going rifle Gold’s goods and research for any benefits.”

“That information is classified. They provide no support. Aid is coming from local SSU police via friendly contacts we have inside their departments. There are firefights inside the city right now, engagements with the Blues and gangsters to prevent them returning here before we finish up. Once we are out, there will still be Blues and the usual gangsters entrenched in the city, but the tide will turn. Right now, Doctor Gold’s stuff is all going out and into a contained area at Pinnacle City. Everything we can collect on his experiments will be examined and most of it probably buried. That includes him.”

“He is storing a dangerous item deep below; the power source you detected is another anomaly. Gold built the thing with the brain matter of mammals and insects and placed it inside a metal shell. Extracting it and containing it elsewhere will be difficult. It creates strong psychological effects on anyone that goes near it. And it affects more than the mind because he used it for everything from healing his organs to bizarre mental transfer experiments of one mind to another body.”

“We’ll find a way to contain it. Anything else we should know?”

“Yes, there’s a large and dangerous creature in the underground perimeter. Warn your men as it would have got out when you shut the fields down. The rest is too fantastic to go into in any detail. Doctor Gold gloated about some of it when he confronted me. Your people will unravel it all over time. Ginette Wandsley, have you questioned her?”

“That is another mystery. It took time to get the clearance to move on her. She got away. They got her out somehow, and the two medical personnel that took her left no trail. She must be here somewhere, maybe in another medical cocoon.”

“I think I know where she is. She would be in the special area Gold used for research. Follow me.”

Battle shouts, beam blasts, the sounds of small explosions were dying out slowly like fireworks. I heard a burst of distant weapons thunder from the city as we reached the stairs down to Gold’s personal dungeons. I noted the sour look on Wes’s face as we descended into blue-tinted emergency lighting. He hadn’t come prepared for the fragrances of the place.

The upper dungeon area we’d tagged as Ginette’s life extension area gave the impression of the institute as at least somewhat professional and tolerable. Gold’s vile personal area would end that idea in an instant, but Wes didn’t have to go down there yet.

His team’s security penetration was deep, perhaps too good, as the remote effort had unlocked most doors when some of them had contents better off remaining contained. Just off the stairs, the morgue effect came into play with cloying odors of death floating in the smoke that had drifted in from the fighting and blasts. The hallway had taken blaster and bullet shots. We stepped over the bodies of a few Blues and some medical personnel as we picked our way along. Wes paused and studied the body of one of the freak doctors, the way it had melted and burned in such an odd way. Gold's life extension or side effects of it clearly did something weird to the textures of the human body. Wes grimaced and spat, then he double-tapped a Blue nearby with bullet shots.

We halted and looked through a few distorted portholes at the contents of the cells then moved on until we found what looked to be a master cell. I thought back, I was certain this one had been empty before. Now it was set up with some of Gold’s most advanced equipment.

We stepped into the room, finding no signs of a struggle inside it. In spite of the explosions and Wes’s remote shut down, everything inside was still running. The button lights overhead were on and the control lights flashed on the largest bank of equipment on the west wall. The medical monitors were all running with reads feeding across the screens. The object they were detecting was a huge silver cocoon deep inside by the back wall of the room. This encasement was much larger than the one Gold had chosen for Lauren and was of a superior type. Like all of the institute's equipment, it had only the institute logo. How it had been manufactured remained a mystery. The biggest piece of it was an extremely complex bubble over the head. Though that area was partially transparent so many fine gold filaments ran through it that nothing of head it enclosed showed.

A pattern of small lights continuously flashed on the cocoon. A special plate over the breast allowed a view inside of it. Wes didn’t trust it at all and stayed back while I approached and looked through the plate. Slight movements of my eyes allowed me to see the contents. Mist shrouded the body. As I continued to stare, I heard Wes making an urgent radio call to Shelley Oprea. He wanted her help immediately.

I tagged the contents as Ginette; I had a blurry vision of her body … a naked torso and withering limbs. The head wasn’t visible up in the complex part of the encasement. The thrust of the entire deal was a myriad of connections to the head and brain.

Stepping back, I nodded in the affirmative to Wes then we waited for Shelley. She showed with two male assistants in tow, walked straight up to the cocoon, and glanced inside. A short look satisfied her and she turned back to the banks of monitoring equipment.

“What’s the verdict?” Wes asked. “What is this deal?”

Shelley raised her pencilled eyebrows. “I have no idea what that encasement does but the person inside it is dead. If you are saying it is Ginette Wandsley, she is now deceased. She perished connected to a machine that attached millions of micro connections to her brain.”

Wes grinned. “Perhaps the verdict is madness. Doctor Marin Gold killed her with some bizarre life extension experiment.”

I didn’t laugh with him. “She’s not dead,” I said. “My friend Alain was correct about not being able to replace the brain. But in Gold’s case he moved it into new tissue.”

“What are you talking about? Come back to reality,” Shelley said sternly. “This person is dead.”

I replied seriously, calmly. “This body is dead. It died after a transfer placed Ginette’s brain and mind in part of that contained orb of brain tissue Gold has fixed far below this room. She is alive in new brain tissue, but we arrived before they finished the job so she has no body. To complete it they needed to remove Ginette’s corpse and place Lauren inside the cocoon. I believe they were going to make chemical alterations to recreate Lauren’s brain as a receiver, accepting the transfer of Ginette’s mind. They were going to imprint Ginette into Lauren's brain.”

Shelley attempted to digest it. “You believe that madness?”

“I do. Gold’s great accomplishments are his own body and his other new immortality scheme, where a person can live indefinitely in encased brain tissue, using new bodies as required. You could probably put a cloned body in that enclosure and overwrite it with Ginette’s mind. That’s if you can figure out how to run it. That is how she planned to live on as a perfect human woman. But she didn’t want a cloned body. She wanted to pick her new bodies.”

Neither Wes nor Shelley replied. Perhaps they were imagining flickers of madness in my eyes or believed Gold had hit me a touch too hard. Their expressions were stern, then they slowly began to change, and their eyes went slowly back to the encasement.


Lauren returned in secret after two weeks at Pinnacle City and slept for most of three days. At the end of that time, her nightmares began to lift. Her food for the next two weeks consisted of rows of pills inside a carrier … complex time-released custom medications, all working to soothe brain tissues, neurons, balance neurotransmitters, repair dendrites. Gold had not completed the transfer but he had bathed her brain in preparation for it. All of that preparation had to be undone. At Pinnacle City, they had already gained some basic knowledge of Gold’s methods.

I thought the whole thing over as we prepared to exit E-Towers in my Ford LT ground car. I knew Gold’s work would remain and hoped they would keep the worst of it buried at Pinnacle City. Any other decision would be ridiculous. Marin Gold’s forms of immortality were simply too bizarre to ever be legal. Nearly all people would grimace at the idea of unions with insect brain tissue. No one would want to become a mass of foreign organs as Gold did.

Out on the city streets, the Spells refused to die off and clung to the region in a humid heat wave. I parked the car at the curb and watched Lauren walk ahead of me in the steamy jungle-like heat. She seemed untouched by the sticky gray sponge over the city. Her white suit highlighted her figure and the elegance of her walk helped me understand why Ginette Wandsley had wanted her body as a vehicle for extended life. It was kind of like shopping; Ginette had picked a tested model she saw as already on the market. She could have had Gold prepare a blank clone, but didn’t. There were also other reasons for that decision. Lauren had listened in while recovering at Pinnacle City. She heard Shelley Oprea speculate that the transfer had to go to a brain already burned in through age or it wouldn’t take. In essence, I found the idea of it to be lacking in taste. Ginette, her brain somehow transferred; stored in a slot of that mass of insect and human brain tissue, gaining some of Lauren's traits along with her body. Ginette existing in her body through the waves the brain mass could broadcast to the prepared body in the way a tower transmits to a phone. It would be like being yourself and stealing the best of someone else. Not really my cup of java, as the whole insect brain mass thing simply turned me off.

I shuffled up and down the hot street for a while and then bought a cold fermented drink from an aging street vendor. Halting, I stared up at the imposing stone pile that formed the Cityside Bank. My whisker stubble did its job and attracted the attention of the security guards in the lobby area. They stepped out and were about to approach, but Lauren had already settled her business with her one surviving brother and emerged.

We got in the car and I took the wheel, feeling the relief of the air-conditioned machine. Traffic was light in the area. The general disaster and scraps with the remaining gangsters and Blues had moved into key areas farther north. It kept local traffic local.

We were driving to the Free Zone, the last downtown zone with major violence. We planned to move there and I had the place at E-Towers up for bids. The Fortress neighbourhood remained too imposing for my business; the Free Zone would be a solid home base.

I hit the pedal, the car roared down a side street, a wave of debris showed at both curbs. Many of the windows in this neighbourhood were spider webbed from shatter waves. Recent battles had left some of the lower portions scarred and streaked with burn areas. I braked at a huge crooked crack splitting the roadway ahead. The only option was a rubble-strewn alley so I turned down it and stopped at its mouth. A crowd of busy pedestrians was passing to the Bleeker Market area.

I turned to Lauren. “You haven’t said much about Pinnacle City.”

“I didn’t see much unless you count dreams and hallucinations of the deprogramming … a few things. Marin Gold isn’t there. They took him somewhere else. Probably a black site.”

“Are you sure about moving to the Free Zone?”

“Of course I am. I own property there and those blocks have been cleared. Today we inspect the damage and guestimate the cost of repairs.”

“I need something higher up for my office.”

“You can always try Alain if you want to be right up there in the clouds.”

“I suppose he’s back up there and in his shell by now.”

“It’s worse than that. He’s studying life extension. I think Gold’s philosophy contaminated him.”

“Do you plan to live forever?”

“No thanks, and not as somebody else. Fortunately, the real black asteroid, Doctor Death, has ways of taking out people that expect too much.”


===The End===