Almost there, the scavenger thought. Just a little farther. He slid the damping piston the rest of the way down into the shock and reached for the motor oil with his right hand, pouring it into the open assembly with a soft little glug-glug. He used the sound to gauge when the oil level was near the top, because the dusky light in the garage was dim, and he couldn’t risk seeing if the fluorescent lamps overhead still worked. They probably didn’t. He had to get this right, or he’d die alone in a filthy garage a few minutes from now.
Orion Danes liked the sounds of his work—the soft whirring and grinding of something being fixed up, something old and broken being made new again. He concentrated on these sounds, shutting out the screams and gunfire in the streets outside. He replaced the rubber seal and tightened the nut back down on the top of the repaired shock, then removed the shock from the vise on the workbench and carried it to the dirt bike in the corner. He’d ducked into this abandoned garage just as the raiders had come charging into the little town. Orion had originally intended to stay the night here, moving on in the morning; now, rest was the last thing on his mind.
Finding the old bike in the corner had been a godsend, even in its present condition. Somebody had landed hard on the back wheel, cracking the rear rim and busting the shocks. Not such a tough job for Orion, who had spent most of his fifteen years hanging around the trade caravans that scavenged junk in the wastelands. Most things could be fixed, if you knew how to do it. Somebody needed to fix the entire world: clean it up, replace what was old and broken, and make it all new again. It just seemed like nobody knew how.
The United Corporations Order couldn’t fix what had happened—they might have their shiny towers in the Great Cities with their legions of Protectorate officers and herds of obedient vassals, but it was just a veneer, a fresh coat of paint on something that was headed to the scrap heap. And the UCO was in better shape than anyone; the outlanders who lived outside the cities talked a lot about fixing things, too, when in actuality, their Resistance fighters were getting slaughtered every day out here in the wastelands. An outlander’s existence was short and brutal; it was better to be behind the UCO’s huge city walls, if you could manage to get there. New Zaragosa wasn’t much farther, and this bike just might save his life.
With the shock assembly back on the bike, Orion turned it upside down, then pumped the kick-start valve to clear the fuel line. He flipped the dirt bike right side up, pumped the valve some more, and then froze.
A chilling screech cut through the sounds of the fighting outside.
Lacerta warriors were here—drawn by the chaos of the attack. Now the slaughter was a three-sided free-for-all: Lacertas versus the banditos versus the Resistance townsfolk. He had to get out of here now.
He crouched to inspect the cracked rear wheel. Making the repair using a conventional torch would mean removing the tire altogether before welding, then replacing it on the wheel when the hot work was done. Otherwise, the heat would rapidly expand the air in the tire and cause it to blow up in his face—ruining the wheel and injuring him as well. Normally this job might take forty-five minutes, but that was time he didn’t have.
He rolled up the sleeve of his jacket, exposing the bionic interface grafted into the flesh of his left forearm. He no longer got chills when looking at it—but the cold prickles still came every time he remembered the Greys bending over him on the table, staring with inky bug eyes and blank, lipless faces. He’d been awake through part of it, feeling the sickening tugging on his arm from their bizarre tools and cold, clammy flesh. He’d had the crazy thought that he was lying on a workbench and they were fixing him like a machine, taking an old, useless part and throwing it away, replacing the scrap with a new piece that worked better.
Pushing these memories away, he danced his fingers across a few keys on the interface. The computer’s scanner bathed the wheel in pale-yellow light. He held his left arm steady with his other hand as a piercing red laser shot out from the interface, stitching the crack in the wheel rim into a shiny line of solder. The job was done in seconds. He pumped the kick-start valve a few more times, threw his leg over the frame, and then started the bike, unable to suppress his grin when the engine roared to life on the second try—
“Nice work, son,” said a gravelly voice from behind him. Orion looked back to see an unkempt man standing near the door of the garage. A wide-brimmed hat and duster hid most of his face except for a ragged beard, which parted to reveal a yellow-toothed sneer. The man held a thermal pulse rifle in both hands. “Sorry to do this to you, kid, but you get off that bike nice and slow.” Orion tried not to look at his own 9 mm ballistic pistol lying on the ground with his tools nearby. He had no choice; the outlaw wouldn’t hesitate to fry him. Orion dismounted, relinquishing his prize. Without another word, the criminal seized the bike and was out the door.
Orion scooped up his tools, glimpsing the carnage outside through the open door. At this point, the aliens were massacring the entire town. He crept out into the street, which was littered with empty weapons and mangled corpses. He could smell smoke and fresh blood. There were no Lacertas in sight at the moment, however, and his eyes darted to a panicked, riderless horse flying down the street toward him. With an outstretched hand, he made a leap for the reins as the beast approached. His fingers closed around the rough leather straps, and he took a moment to calm the animal before swinging up and into the saddle. As he did so, a bolt from a thermal pulse streaked by so fast it singed the peach fuzz off his face.
Head down, crouched low over the horse, Orion charged through the street. Burned and ruined buildings went by at a breakneck pace. He passed the town’s outskirts and escaped into the desert at a full gallop. The destroyed landscape rushed by in a dusty blur. After three minutes, he still couldn’t ease back in the saddle, still wouldn’t think of how close a call it had been—and then something smashed into him with crushing force, tearing his left side open, bowling the wild-eyed horse over and trapping him on the ground underneath it. Warm, sticky blood, both his and the animal’s, washed over him as he kicked his legs, trying to free himself.
The Lacerta had lain in wait behind a boulder, striking with precision as Orion flew past. Now, the giant crocodilian loomed over him, standing on two legs. A scaly green-black hide covered the alien, but its reptilian face lacked the cold impassiveness of an earthly lizard. Instead, its features boiled with fiery hatred and rage, leaning its body forward to hiss through a triangular toothy maw. Orion’s pain and fear blended into a rising tide of panic as the monster prepared for the merciless second, and final, blow.
The burning wound in Orion’s side raked his concentration, and he fought to control himself. The monster appeared to be at the end of a dark tunnel... There were only seconds left in the scavenger’s life, seconds with which to act. Orion’s fingers, slippery with blood, closed around the pistol in his holster, and he jerked it out, aiming it at the face of the alien as it bent toward him. He pumped the trigger over and over like the kick-start valve on a dirt bike. Hot bullets tore into the open mouth of the thing, and it gargled black blood amid its unworldly shrieks. Orion emptied the clip of the gun before the reptile fell backward at last, collapsing into a twisted heap.
Without pausing, which would only weaken his resolve, Orion jammed the pistol’s hot muzzle against his side. He stifled a yelp in his dry throat as the gun sizzled and cauterized the bloody flesh. Coughing and choking, he slid out from under the dead horse. In agony, he struggled to stay on his feet, weaving and stumbling through the desert. He needed someone to fix him, to make him all better again. He limped through the wasteland, a graveyard of useless things. If he stopped moving, if he let himself fall, he would become just another discarded piece of junk. Ahead, the wind eddied and curled over an object on the ground. He almost fell over it. It was the bandito from before, now clawed to gory ribbons next to the stolen dirt bike. Orion hefted the bike upright and winced as he kick-started it. Then he was racing along toward the glittering spires on the horizon. Still so far, he thought with the hot desert wind drying his tears into clean streaks on his dusty face. Still so much farther to go.
New Zaragosa was like being in the palm of God’s hand, the towering skyscrapers surrounding Orion reaching up to the sky like the beautiful fingers of some divine being. In a way, he was cradled within that hand, as if it were lifting him above the world to a safer place.
He was still woozy from the laceration in his left side, and couldn’t help but take it slow while creeping down the street, hugging the shade of buildings and from time to time resting against their walls. It was just as well, since the battery on his active camo didn’t have much left; fast movements in full daylight would only cause it to work that much harder to keep him hidden. He’d been lucky to find the photostatic disruptor out in the wastelands; just a couple of minor adjustments had made it easy to sneak into the Great City without incident. He’d anticipated trouble when trying to enter New Zaragosa; he wasn’t sure of the best way to answer the inevitable questions at the South Point Salute entry gate, but it turned out all he had needed to do was wait for a returning patrol and invisibly slide right on through with them. The passive scanners at the gate had gone off, of course, indicating a discrepancy, but he had been running down the Protectorate Thoroughfare by then. The enforcers would be more likely to treat the alarm as a misfire since there was no weapons alert—Orion’s empty pistol was half buried in the dirt next to a dead Lacerta 120 kilometers south of here.
It was downright odd that, despite having bled half to death, he could call this day “lucky” at all—he’d found a veritable fortune in scavenged goods. The dirt bike still had an eighth of a tank, and he’d stashed it in a crumpled, wrecked van on the highway outside the city’s barrier. The photostatic disruptor had spared him an uncomfortable confrontation already, and would surely save his life in the future. And he’d even managed to kill the Lacerta, which was no small feat. After the day he’d had, it was a miracle he was still standing.
Next, he had to find medical care immediately. Here in the Grey-operated human stockyards that were commonly called “cities,” treatments of all types were free…for citizens in good standing. The technology at even the humblest street clinics would ensure that Orion’s life-threatening wound was just an unpleasant memory by this time tomorrow, but he wasn’t optimistic about his social status. He’d likely have to either bribe a doctor or purchase the use of a medibot, and nobody within these walls would be interested in bartering. The bike and disruptor might be worth their weight in whiskey out in the Badlands, but on the Thoroughfare, one’s worth always came down to political clout, or hard capitals. Orion had neither.
He wasn’t sure what a “bank” looked like from the outside, and most of the holostacks of businesses he passed weren’t showcasing goods but rather holographic idiots offering a three-dimensional “thumbs-up” to passersby on the streets, along with some nonsense slogan. He couldn’t afford to use trial and error; if he turned off the active camouflage and walked in asking questions, the shopkeepers would take one look at the dirty vagabond, obviously an outlander, and call the Protectorate. This was life in a city, after all: you needed capitals for information, but you needed information to get capitals.
He sneaked off of the street and into a steamy alley. A square titanium housing about six inches off the ground betrayed the location of this building’s supernet hardpoints. Looking around to make sure he was alone, he crouched close to the wall with his back to the street, and rolled up his left sleeve. Slicing the lock with his own cybercomputer took less than two seconds, and he folded the hinged housing up to expose the hardpoint jack. This was a gamble; he’d never hacked an active city terminal before, and if it had Grey technology, then he was about to make the worst mistake of his life. He doubted the Greys had enough of an active interest in whatever these people were selling to supply their own firewalls, though, and if it was a normal private system, his own cybercomputer, itself Grey technology, would make short work of it. In any case, the risk had to be taken; without any caps, he’d be dead by morning.
The only sound was a soft whirring as a jack extended from his metal forearm and plugged into the wall. Then he watched the soft-yellow display on his computer shoot through encryption codes at the speed of light—twelve digits, he noted. Military tech. This would scare off a lot of hackers, but Orion actually had to suppress a chuckle as he remembered the time last year he’d hijacked a parked Demistrider that he’d found outside a desert cantina while the pilot was having a drink. He had taken the walking tank for a short, wild ride. Based on his experience, military firewalls took just a little longer than usual, but they couldn’t keep him out.
As he’d anticipated, a root access menu appeared. A flurry of keystrokes with his right hand brought up a number of bank accounts. Then came a moment of internal debate—how much were capitals actually worth? Orion needed to take plenty to get around, but not so much that he would spark some “crime of the century” manhunt. He settled on 125,000 caps—about 5 percent of what was in the particular account he was looking at—hoping that was enough for his purposes.
He erased his digital tracks, unrolled his sleeve back down to hide his cybernetic arm, and stood up. The process had taken less than a minute. The photostatic disruptor was out of juice now, and he was glad the sun was beginning to set. Orion stumbled, then steadied himself against the alley’s brick wall. Help was close now. He headed back to the street.
Stepping out into the open, however, he saw a crowd of citizens coming down the Thoroughfare. Their angry voices reached Orion before he could read the homemade signs they waved in the dimming light—and the chant “Death to freaks!” swelled into a chorus. Oh, no. The Anti-Augmented Foundation… He might have preferred if the Protectorate was coming instead.
The AAF viewed themselves as the redeemers of a purist vision of mankind; they hated anyone who was “augmented” or “evolved,” whether through psionic ability or cybernetic enhancements. Although augmentation clinics littered the city, many of their patrons tried to keep up the ruse of being normal until they were trampled down in the streets. AAF members almost never demonstrated in numbers of under a hundred—and no individual, no matter how gifted, could stand against that. Orion had no reason to suppose they were after him specifically—most of the time the AAF just came out to raise hell and show a strong presence for their cause—but things could turn ugly fast if just one keen-eyed zealot spotted something unusual. People with cybernetic implants could be torn to pieces in the streets, sometimes even with armored soldiers standing a block away pretending not to see anything. Orion supposed the civil unrest likely to result from a mechanized Stomper opening fire on “peaceful demonstrators” would be a hundred times worse than the unsolved murder of some tough-guy mercenary with a flamethrower for an arm. Another one of city life’s little pleasantries. He’d be better off staying out of the street.
He ducked back into the alley, hoping the movement didn’t make him look too suspicious, and broke out into as much of a run as he could manage. He settled for a wincing jog through the shadowed alleys. There might be psychos and murderers here as well, but he’d manage if they were in smaller numbers than at the demonstration. After a couple of minutes, he slowed to an agonized walk. He spotted a junkie curled up next to the warmth of a steam grate. Orion looked the other way as a scowling tattooed man crouched and rifled through the unconscious vagrant’s pockets. He wished for at least the tenth time that evening that he still had his gun—the empty space on his right hip was a worrisome nuisance in contradistinction to the burning, bloody torment on his left side.
He came to a wooden gate in the alley. It was latch operated but not locked, and his sense of direction told him that another major street would not be much farther. Nudging aside bags of trash with his foot, he gripped the rusted latch and thrust it upward, shouldering the wooden door inward.
Then, directly on the other side, he came face-to-face with a lean, solemn Grey. Stick-figure thin, it was leaning forward with its skinny shoulders hunched under the large, bulbous head. The alien was physically diminutive, but its predatory stance heightened the terrifying visual sense that it was towering over Orion. He screamed out of blind panic, staring into giant eyes that were colder and blacker than the deepest, farthest reaches of obsidian space.
The alien reached out for him with one spindly hand. All the nightmarish insanity in Orion’s memories of his previous encounters with the Greys struck him like a wrecking ball, and he tumbled backward, scraping his palms on the filthy ground, kicking and scrabbling to gain purchase, trying to run before he could even stand. The thing took a step forward, and Orion saw a foot that was just a weird knob at the end of a stalklike leg. With smooth gray limbs like straw, it probably weighed no more than eighteen kilograms. Orion’s mind shattered, trying in vain to either cope with the sight of this horribly attenuated being or reject it altogether.
Orion fled through the alley, which was a dark maze around him. There was no direction, no logic or reason, except to get away from this thing that came walking after him as if on tiptoes with its arms swinging in gentle arcs at its sides. Terror replaced Orion’s pain, overriding it. His legs pumping faster than ever before, he ran and ran, only to feel as if the alien were always walking calmly right behind him.
Orion burst out onto the street in a surge of speed. Panicking, he didn’t register the impossible situation on the Thoroughfare for several moments: all around the street, the AAF demonstrators were frozen stiff, many in midstride or with mouths open in a hateful grimace. They were unaware and unreactive; time for them seemed to be standing still as Orion ran through the crowded street with motionless human statues on all sides of him. No one was witness to the horror unfolding in the middle of the busy street.
But then one person was indeed awake and moving, a dark silhouette in the garish neon-lit wax museum at the end of the street. Orion saw sinister eyes framed by a hood pulled low over a lean, aristocratic face. The man was clearly a psionic—an augmented ally of the Greys. Any hopes of help or rescue from his pursuer died in his stomach.
Still running at full speed, Orion slammed into a solid, invisible wall—if he had run face-first into the side of a building, it wouldn’t have arrested his flight any more. Bouncing off of the unseen barrier knocked all the breath out of him; he was flying backward through the air, limbs flailing from the force of the impact. He landed on his back a few meters away, a crumpled rag doll, supine and helpless. Gasping, Orion stared up at the sky, seeing the towering skyscrapers all around reaching up to the sky like fingers, framing his field of vision. Once more, he was in the palm of some omnipotent hand, this time with the fingers closing in on him to squeeze the life out of his frail body.
He was aware of the skeletal Grey and the psionic approaching him, although he couldn’t turn his head. He couldn’t look away from the sky as an enormous Grey spaceship, an unmistakable flying saucer the size of several city blocks, crawled into view far above. It was massive, hovering over New Zaragosa with a heavy and foreboding presence. As Orion watched, it seemed to fill up the very edges of his vision. There was nothing but the gigantic black shadow floating there, perfectly silent and ominous.
Orion awoke to a metal table beneath him and the cold, slender hands prodding and touching his side. The pain was still present, but weaker. His most prominent sensation was the unnatural tugging at his left side. He couldn’t look around, as his head wouldn’t move, but the slippery squishing he heard sent his drowsy brain teetering on the edge of mindless horror all over again.
“Relax, young man,” came a glassy voice near his right ear. “You won’t be needing those worthless organs much longer.” The psionic man’s hood had been pulled back, and part of the handsome face now came into view. “Don’t be concerned at all—they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Orion mumbled something unintelligible in reply. The aliens were shoving metal parts into the hollowed-out place where his entrails had been. It was so cold, like ice being packed inside him.
“I realize this is quite uncomfortable for you in the moment, but I can assure you that you’ll find it all worthwhile.” The psionic’s voice had an edge of excitement just under the placid demeanor. “You really should think of this as an honor, you know. They don’t just choose people at random anymore. The Greys have gotten increasingly selective about with whom they share their gifts. You’ve proven to have a pleasing aptitude for the previous technology they bestowed upon you. This time they’ll be giving you quite an upgrade.”
Shallow, quick breaths to deal with the shock to his body and mind—Orion was hyperventilating. Then a bone-jarring spasm convulsed his entire body, and his breathing was cut off completely. The cold, clammy hands kept working. He anticipated drawing a frigid, ragged breath and then another, but the relief of fresh oxygen never came. At the edge of his vision, he saw one of the creatures holding a freakish instrument the size of a flashlight, one end of it dripping with blood. It placed one hand on Orion’s neck at the collarbone and the other hand, with the tool, was angling toward his chest.
The psionic man rested his own hand on Orion’s forehead. “No, this is not the end for you. You were almost killed by the Lacertas today, but you used all of your assets to survive. Some of these you were born with and had to learn to utilize; some you were given by the Greys. After today, you will see how those assets might overlap with each other.”
Now a smooth whine as the aliens bored into the side of his head. The action of the drill moved his head automatically in a sick parody of nodding in affirmation. As the alien surgeons stuck a long metal tube into his skull for a moment, then withdrew it, the only pain he was left with was a mild headache.
“That headache will pass on its own,” the man whispered, his voice now emanating from inside Orion’s head. “You’ve been doing very, very well. We’re nearly finished now...”
Orion closed his eyes...and began to see.