August.27.278 Post-Foundation - Ekram
BEYOND JAGGED ROOFTOPS, the lights of Naion’s central arcologies radiated electric bonfire, burning night into ash-white day and flaring across Ekram’s vision. He’d stepped into a gallery of dirty windows: porthole and picture, convex ovals, tiled octagons, some inlaid with patterns, many edged in sloppy caulk.
The stairwell door creaked shut behind him and he waited. Ekram’s outdated brainware needed time to sync up with his physical location. If he couldn’t follow the directions on his contacts’ overlay, he’d get lost quick. City layouts changed faster than trendster hairstyles and made just as little sense, so public maps chased ever-receding accuracy.
Fortunately for Ekram, his maps came from Capca. Naion’s sprawling intelligence agency had a reputation for knowing the location, age, and thread-count of every bolt holding the city together—an exaggeration built around a grain of truth.
As his vision cleared, the kilometers-tall arcologies resolved into irregular pillars holding up the Canopy, its tangled mass constructed with organic imprecision. Everyone who lived there, the joke went, had already fallen to their deaths but were too dumb to know it. And the ocean waited below to catch them.
Floating settlements and ship traffic cluttered the oil-rainbowed water. Ekram had considered moving out to one of the nicer waterline communities after getting burnt off his job; no one out there cared about rep scores. But then Capca had come along offering decent pay for shit jobs and, more importantly, advancement opportunities.
The direction line on his overlay flashed left, reminding him of his current shit job. He got moving.
Twenty meters into a tunnel made from food processing vats, he found a bamboo ladder that took him up to an atrium packed with booths only as wide as their owners. Most were running auctions to groups of resellers. Voices slid fast and hot over each other.
He shouldered through the crowd and hooked up two flights of polycrete stairs to the fifth floor above topside. The doors here were unnumbered, reinforced with bolted-on jamrods and metal plates. As per his handler’s instructions, he counted three down on the right, knocked twice, and announced, “Grid management.”
Text appeared in the air, projected on his overlay: Entry Code Required. His Capca code generator spit out an alphanumeric sequence in response. Accepted. The bolts retracted and he pushed in.
The room was empty save for three chairs and a cockroach. Cracks spiderwebbed the wall panels and a galvanized sheet covered the only window. Light came from linear fixtures on opposite walls. To the left, in the far corner, was a curtained doorway.
Seconds passed. A tall man pushed through the curtain, his rigid bearing a mismatch to his laborer’s clothing. Graying hair, three scars on his left cheek, sunken eyes. He fit the verbal description of “Whitfield,” Capca’s asset in the bioterror cell.
Ekram had been ordered to turn off facial recognition. He suspected Capca wanted to see if he could follow instructions more than because of practical concerns. Face rec was less useful than it used to be, back when it was new and unregulated and nobody took precautions. Still, it had nearly replaced the handshake as a way of greeting.
A girl of about five shuffled in behind Whitfield, her limbs slack. She eased sideways onto a chair and gazed blankly at the wall.
Whitfield handed him a tac folded to the size of a deck of cards. “The locations you need are in here.”
Ekram reached out a signal to the mobile tactile interface with his nimph. The cranial implant found the tac’s wireless port, connected, and pulled the information into his brainware.
The wobbly square of Naion’s territory flickered in front of him before stabilizing, its north and south islands separated by the Naion Strait. Ekram’s view zoomed into the north-central section where a dot showed his current location in the middle of Sanphor Island. Two new locations appeared to the south.
Multiple route options snaked across his visual field: time versus safety versus terrain. The first leg of his trip ran eleven kilometers down the island’s switchback tail to the buy point in District Rylum. The second jogged west to the drop-off near Ferry Terminal South-2.
He minimized the map. “Procedure?” His handler had only given a vague outline.
“Go to the first location, meet the sellers, verify the package: a retroviral vector with customizable integrase.”
Ekram didn’t have a doctorate, but he knew enough to bullshit his way through hand-offs, especially with a synt whispering in his head. Synthetic intelligences provided quick surface expertise, making his job much easier.
Whitfield was talking about a gene-altering virus. Ekram could only guess why Capca wanted him to buy one from “terrorism facilitators.” An up-hierarchy sting, maybe, or a threat assessment. It didn’t matter to the errand boy.
“Okay,” Ekram said.
“Use the tac to deliver payment.” Whitfield didn’t move as he spoke; not a fidget or a blink or a shift. “It will help us track their financials.”
“How do I verify?”
“We need proof of active efficacy. Have them inject her,” Whitfield said. Ekram flicked a look at the zombified girl. “The relevant sensors are already in her system. They’ll communicate with the tac.”
A groan-sigh hybrid escaped Ekram. “You want me to haul a kid halfway down the island? There must be an easier way to do this.”
Sanphor had little in the way of public transportation, and roaming autotaxis had gone extinct on many parts of the island. The poorest flotsam collected here, between the eddies of District Alesthaya to the west and the whirlpool of the central districts to the east. Much like unguarded people, unmanned machines often met ignominious ends, chopped up for parts.
“You’ll be fine. You’ve got until 19:00.” That gave Ekram forty-one minutes. He set his nimph clock. “She’s been sedated into obedience. This can’t be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, or they wouldn’t have sent you.”
Not hard; annoying. Kids were fragile and clumsy. They also drew attention, inspiring undeserved fawning and bouts of too-much-information.
“Once she’s been loaded, go to the second location—those coordinates exactly. Someone with my name and this room’s entry code will be there to take delivery.”
“Got it.” Ekram pocketed the tac and stepped over to the girl. Sallow skin, auburn hair a mess, face smudged with dirt. Where had they dug her up? Actually, he didn’t want to know. “What’s her name?”
“Okay. Girl, let’s go.” Ekram waved her forward. She responded with a vacant look.
He adjusted the dual Onos pistols slung beneath the access flaps of his coat then swept her into the crook of his arm.
“No taxis, aerial or otherwise,” Whitfield said to his back. “Too easy to trace.”
Out front, grubby light filtered through a grubby patchwork overhead. Residents had put up sections of ceramic alloy glass, plastix siding, lamolin, and whatever else they could find to seal out the bitter air and block UV radiation. Swaths of resin and heat-tape filled in the gaps. Here was the “outside inside,” open to people but not, ideally, Mother Nature. Fifty years ago, a few deep breaths of unfiltered air could kill you in a week. Now prolonged exposure cut years off your life.
Despite the effort at maintaining hermetic integrity, he still caught whiffs of entropy’s bile, forever settling on all things human-made.
Ekram found his bicycle untouched; looking like a piece of shit was a more effective theft deterrent than a lock. He’d ridden it here from Ferry Terminal East-3 and had planned to do the same to the buy point, but he had nowhere to put a child and carrying her made him a target to criminal and law-abiding citizens alike.
Girl cradled in his right arm, Ekram directed the bicycle with his left hand. Her drool wetted his shoulder. Gross.
The streets cut drunken lines through buildings that were more accretion of material runoff than designed structures. Intersections ballooned into multi-pronged thoroughfares before abruptly shrinking to single lanes. People clumped and darted about. Scooters zipped by. Even with Capca’s maps, it was slow going.
They hit Rylum at 18:42. At this pace, they’d arrive at the buy point long after these gene mashers had turned the human race into a pile of evolutionary dead ends.
Ekram spotted an everything shop on his overlaid map and detoured to it. He had an idea.
The owner, greasy and good-natured, agreed to attach a basket to the front of the bicycle. Ekram chose one big enough to tuck Girl into.
It took two s-hooks, a p-clasp support arm, and six minutes. The man kept fussing about stability, but at least he paid Girl no attention.
Solution found and executed. Ten minutes left. All he had to do now was keep an eye out for spoke-spikers.
THE ADDRESS WAS two floors below topside in a condemned hotel. He coasted down ramps under skeletal ceilings dripping stalactites of spraycrete and piping.
All pretense of natural light faded, replaced by caged bulbs and strings of firefly lamps. No stars here, so they’d manufactured poor analogs and made decorations of them. Girl tracked the lights, her small head rotating.
They arrived and he took a lap around the hotel. The three visible floors were shaped like an upside-down boot. A two-meter-wide gap yawned under the toe overhang and beneath it dusty I-beams crisscrossed into darkness. The natural ground of Sanphor lay some thirty meters down. In between, a sediment of humanity slowly compressed into the foundation.
Ekram brought the bike to a stop.
Girl was staring at him with empty intensity, as if to say, “This is a fucked-up situation from my end of things.” He couldn’t argue with that. Some people get that end. He had a time or two.
In the lobby, past the empty reception area, an elevator grinned sideways at him, the kind with an accordion gate and chunky buttons. He didn’t take it. Best to avoid elevators; too easy to get trapped in them. He hoisted Girl over one shoulder and moved up the stairway. Rotting sections dimpled beneath his boots.
Distance counted down in his view as he approached the indicated room. Mold sprouted from the carpeted hallway, so thick it looked cultivated.
The wall lay collapsed inward, replaced with bent wire racks, cast magnesium, hacksawed dashboards, and chabudai tables, their stubby legs poking out like defensive spikes.
He leaned against an unbroken section of wall and said, “Hey, I’m here about a delivery.” Let them come to him.
A balaclava-covered head poked out from the far end. “Here.”
The guy had no tactical awareness. Ekram could have blown his brains out and still had time for supper before any of his companions reacted. He put Girl down and angled through a space in the junk, one hand on an Onos pistol grip, the other holding her wrist.
Foam mattresses sagged against the outside wall and disembodied drawers teetered in stacks. Three people crowded at the other end next to a door-less bathroom, like idiots crowd together.
The two with balaclava guy wore face-distorting bubble masks. A woman with a watermelon head, fat in all the wrong places, sat on a ribbed skylight. The man beside her could have been her brother, or father, or both. He was built like a stack of pancakes, bulky but weak.
They looked less like bioterrorists and more like failed clinical trial subjects except for Balaclava, who had the thin frame and bird-like movements of an academic.
The three of them stared at Girl.
“For testing,” Ekram said.
“Bring her here.” Pancakes jabbed a finger at the floor next to himself.
Ekram didn’t like the thought of getting surrounded. “You come to me. Just you.” He pointed at Balaclava, who looked to his people for consensus. They nodded and adjusted themselves—an unconscious straightening of a jacket, brushing a hand over a pocket—hinting that they were armed and not used to being so.
Balaclava came over and squatted next to Girl. He removed a small metal syringe with an inlaid screen from his coat pocket and stuck her with the fluidity of a competent professional. Girl didn’t react except for a tiny frown at some internal dissonance. Ekram noticed faint streaks on her pudgy cheeks. She’d been crying.
When Balaclava pushed a button on the top of the syringe, the notification was of something being extracted, not injected. A bead of disquiet formed behind Ekram’s left ear. Ever since he’d been a teenager working as a quota freight loader for the high-haul ’vators, his intuition had lived in his mastoid process, an imaginary lump swelling in the bone behind his ear.
Balaclava checked the syringe’s screen. “It’s confirmed,” he said loud enough for his companions to hear.
The tac remained quiet, med sensors reporting no changes.
“Have you injected the package?” Ekram asked.
Balaclava tilted his head. “Injected what?”
That tingle of wrongness surged. “The package.” He shouldn’t have to explain.
“Nothing’s been injected. I’ve verified her DNA. Provide your account information and we’ll conclude our business.” Balaclava took Girl’s arm in his delicate hand.
Ekram’s first thought: Whitfield has been compromised. The second: this is a misunderstanding. Important to be right.
“What about the virus?” He made sure to enunciate.
“What virus?” Watermelon lady said, voice rising.
Pancakes drew his weapon, a cheap and heavy 12mm. “We want the girl.”
An explosion in the hallway threw mangled furniture into the room. Balaclava toppled while Pancakes aimed wildly, not sure of the threat. Ekram was equally confused, but training had already pushed him sideways. He opened Pancakes’s face with a double shot from his Onos. Red syrup gushed. The big lady fumbled out her gun as if it were made of bees.
Ekram aimed at her. And then his forearm fell off, the ulna and radius shattering as something large-caliber relieved him of the limb.
Whatwhothefuck? Scorched-earth agony. Now on his side in a pool of his own blood, Ekram noticed a piece of table had speared Balaclava’s neck.
Shots boomed from Watermelon’s cannon. One hit Girl and she flipped back. I’m not getting paid. And, deeper: that girl had no business being here.
Another explosion shook the building. Rubble sprayed. Ekram drew his second Onos with his remaining hand, but the woman flew out of aim. No, he was sinking, some parts of his body faster than others. The floor, the ceiling, the whole toe section of this shit-kicker building collapsed in noise and synthetic splinters and real but short-lived pain.