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Authors: Ferrett Steinmetz

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BOOK: Fix
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“Know who these mooks are?”

“Got orders from on high to guard 'em. They haven't made a peep all day.”

“Maybe they're drugged.”

Valentine paused, palms touching the sun-warmed tarmac, to see if they'd spill any other information:

“Know who these mooks are?”

“Got orders from on high to guard ‘em. They haven't made a peep all day.”

“Maybe they're drugged.”

They'd given all the exposition they had, the poor little pinheads. But they stood before the barbed-wire fence penning in the Morehead prisoners. So she grabbed Guard #1 around the neck when Guard #2 turned around, dragged Guard #1 around a corner. She snatched the keycard off his unconscious body, feeling her flux swell – her only indication that he hadn't
had
a keycard before she'd gone looking for it.

She knocked out the other guard, used her keycard to open the prison gate, walked in.

The fifteen prisoners dangled like sacks of meat from a beam someone had spot-welded across the hangar – each of them clad in hi-tech, black leather straightjackets with glowing monitors studded over their hearts, over their arms, on their thighs. Black sacks had been tugged down over their faces, their feet twitching in mid-air like dogs, dreaming.

Jesus, what Frankenstein experiments were these fuckers running?

Yet if the prisoners were being monitored, then someone might be alerted when she freed them.

“Get ready,” Valentine muttered into her walkie-talkie. “We're about to tumble into Tartarus.”

She padded up to the first person sagging at the end of the line – a tiny body Valentine could have bench-pressed. She leaned in, getting as close to the hood as possible so as not to trigger any hidden microphones. “I'm here to get you out.”

The thing under the hood twitched. “Heeeelllppp… mee…”

“First step is getting off your hood.” Valentine hesitated. She knew how this went in games: remove the hood, their skin would be ripped off their faces, or they'd have been transformed into Borg, or
something
.

She yanked off the hood, bracing herself.

Yet the face underneath was perfectly normal. The prisoner wore a helmet underneath her hood, but the faceguard was clear plastic. The person underneath was not one she recognized from the soccer field – a generically middle-aged white housewife.

The housewife's face broke into a Tom Cruise-crazy grin.

A hand closed around her wrist. A sharp pain: needles. Electronically-assisted needles, seeking out her veins, injecting something fast acting.

Valentine pulled away, but the woman was as strong as a soldier.

The hooks above released with a series of hisses, fifteen leather-clad people dropping to the ground in perfect unison, removing their hoods with dance recital precision.

“Ms Valentine DiGriz,” the woman capturing her said – but the Unimancer spoke with a reverberating male voice and clipped Indian tones. He spoke merrily, as though inviting her to his vacation villa.

“General Kanakia, I presume?”

“Please don't run. We're here to help you.”

The hangar slid to the left – no, whatever they'd injected her with did that. She lurched to one side, but the Unimancer held tight with a wrestler's grip. As long as one of them was a trained wrestler,
all
of them were.

They surrounded her in a perfect circle, arms raised, ready to intercept her.

“Where is Paul?” their commander asked through the young woman's face. His voice was filled with concern, her face with disgust. “We know he's here. The psychological profiles guaranteed this op would hit all his buttons…”

“You
planned
this?” Valentine tried to uncurl her left hand – her fingers tingled–

The woman bowed demurely. “Improvised. America's long sent its best SMASH agents overseas to deal with the real crisis in Europe. Today, they decided dismantling Project Mayhem was worth risking a broach expansion. Now you're dealing with the
real
professionals.”

“Real professionals?” Valentine huffed. “What's your health care package? I need my Valtrex topped off…”

She clawed weakly at the Unimancer's face. The Unimancer's expression was a merging of two expressions – the commander speaking through her was sympathetic, but the woman underneath was red-cheeked furious. Which made sense: Valentine had killed a
lot
of Unimancers the first time they'd gone toe-to-toe. They'd been so furious, they'd ignored orders to let Valentine go…


Not gonna work, bitch
.” The Unimancers around her spoke as a chorus, their voices distinct, but speaking in measured contempt. “
She's wearing a helmmmmmmmmm…

“I knuh.” Crap. Her voice was slurring. What would
that
do to her one-liners? “Think
we
didn't bring… tricks?”

And as her left hand peeled away from the Unimancer's helmet, it left the spiderweb of an infinitely interesting doily.

The Unimancer's eyes crossed – if she saw the intersecting threads,
all
of them could. The remaining Unimancers surrounding Valentine leaned forward, staring in random directions, each bending the power of the hivemind to trace this fascinating set of knots to its center…

She staggered out of the hangar, pulling a green foaming bottle of antidote out of her inventory. She gulped it down – why did “antidote” always taste like NyQuil and India Pale Ale? – and felt her sobriety returning, her flux levels rising.

Floodlights snapped on.

Bullets tore up the runway, headed in her direction.

The helicopter had waited in ambush. They didn't need to fly – they just needed to fill the air with bullets. Its rotors spun up, the copter rising into the sky…

She brought up her force shield in time, a red health bar and a blue shield bar appearing above her head, the blue shield bar rapidly depleting. Her flux spiked, and she cursed a literal blue streak; if she'd been fighting cops, she could hold a force shield all day. But the networked Unimancers believed the only 'mancy should be their hivemind, and so their presence spiked flux to near-fatal levels–

They had to be rubber bullets, but with this much flux even nonlethal weapons had fatal ramifications.

Valentine pushed past the fusillades of bullets, making her way back to the hangar's shelter, hoping the Unimancers weren't back online yet. But no – they worked in conjunction like a human centipede, grabbing each other to orient themselves, finally making their way back to the housewife to pluck the doily off her faceplate.

Facing down fifteen angry, magically-fuelled soldiers?

Time for Batman.

With another shudder of flux, she felt the cape flutter across the back of her knees. Kicking ass was as instinctive as breathing to Batman. She'd fight her way past these schmucks,
Grand Theft Auto
up an escape…

She leapt at Housewife, figuring she owed that bitch a face full of Batboot. She was gratified to see Housewife bring her hands up to block the incoming Batman, and have it be useless: Housewife was, after all, a 110-pound woman, and BatValentine was 240 pounds of muscle.

Housewife went flying. Valentine rebounded off her, spinning into a kick to take out the next Unimancer, knocking a hulking black dude on his ass for a two-hit combo–

“She's utilizing the
Batman Arkham
series,” the general said. “Activate countermeasures.”

As one, the remaining thirteen whipped out cattle prods.

“Goddammit,” Valentine yelled, furious – the game only allowed one or two stun-prod guys in each group, they were fucking annoying but you could leap over them to kick them from behind–

She hurtled over one Unimancer, but three stepped in to press the shock-probes against her–

She tried to list the games Imani had drilled her in. But Imani hadn't quizzed her while she was shaking off whatever concussion cocktail they'd filled her full of – what might work?
Mortal Kombat
?
Robotron 2084
?

She shifted into
Robotron
mode, and got zapped again.

“Oh, come
on
!” she screamed. “
When the fuck isn't Batman enough?

The commander answered as though the answer was self-evident. “When you're facing troops who've faced down the
real
enemy in Europe.”

Shit
, she thought.
What if they
do
take me down
…

The flux slipped effortlessly down that thought, riding her fears. She tripped, falling into a cattle prod.

She passed out.

Eleven
Outgunned, Outmanned, Outnumbered, Outplanned


S
ir
, with all due respect, no one told us this was a SMASH operation – we thought it was a straight containment and transfer…”


Because if you
had
known, you would have informed Ms DiGriz in a cutscene
.” General Kanakia's voice boomed from fourteen different throats as the remaining Unimancers carried Valentine out to the field – a fireman's handoff, this complex peristaltic motion where they handed her body from one to another.

The squadron's sergeant tagged alongside the Unimancers, looking from face to face, unsure who to talk to. “Sir, we have no training in fighting 'mancers–”


Also purposeful
.” One of the Unimancers, a lanky blond man with cropped hair, waved to a drone flying overhead. “
If Mr Tsabo had determined who'd been assigned to this airfield, he would have seen inexperienced troops – easy pickings to entice him in.”
The sergeant jumped in surprise as one of the other Unimancers clapped him on the shoulder. “
Rest easy, sergeant, you're in good hands
.”

The drone landed with a clumsy
thump
on the tarmac. It was a clunky mechanism the size of a refrigerator, and made a whirring noise as it propped itself up obligingly on hydraulic stilts. One of the Unimancers pulled the drone's door open, revealing a padded coffin interior, complete with pillow.

They placed Valentine inside, slammed the door shut. The remaining Unimancers took position in a defensive ring around the drone, assault rifles at the ready, leaving the blond at the center to stand next to it.

They faced out in all directions, an organic omnidirectional speaker.


Mr Tsabo!
” they shouted, their voices blending into a reasonable approximation of the man controlling them. “
We know you can hear us! You wouldn't have left; you want to rescue Ms DiGriz. And why wouldn't you? Your loyalty is a laudable trait – I assure you, the Unimancers value no quality more than loyalty.

“You believe we are the enemy. Your thinking is small. Once you're a part of the collective, once you've seen what we must do, you'll understand how insignificant the rights of a few American iconoclasts are.

“You are a good man, Mr Tsabo. I am here to ask you to contemplate you may be on the wrong side.”

The Unimancers scanned the horizon. Some squinted into the setting sun, others peered into the grass.

Nothing happened.


Paul
,” the Unimancers said. “
We know your Contract was destroyed. The witnesses didn't understand what happened on Washout Field, but we did.


We also know you're brimming with flux. We've seen your ‘disable the quality control' trick before – we know how badly it costs you. The black opal sensors were a decoy to disable you.

“We're not sure if you brought Aliyah with you. That depends on how defended your nearest safehouse is, and that we do
not
know. But if she
is
here–”
The Unimancers racked their rifles with a simultaneous
ka-klack
– “
then she'll have to fight her way past an assault helicopter
and
a trained team of Unimancers. The same team, I may add, that took down Ms DiGriz in under two minutes.

“Please, Paul. Do the smart thing and surrender. I guarantee you it will be the best decision of your life – no more worrying about flux, no more worrying about broaches, no more living on the run. Let us turn you into a force for good.”

They watched the skies this time. Nothing. The blond near the drone harrumphed and hovered his palm over a big red button.


You see this, Paul? This is our latest anti-Tsabo technology – we call it the Snow White Surprise. Whoever's put inside is fed anesthetized gas to disable them – and when I press this button, a rocket here will launch it at 250 mph towards a radio signal we've set up. There's no input settings, Paul – no records for you to alter. Just a single button – and when I push this, Valentine rockets off over the horizon. If you fiddle with the quality control off the assembly line, well… We made it finicky. If something fails, you risk gassing her to death, or the rocket explodes on takeoff
.”

Another dramatic pause. The Unimancers got more agitated as the sky darkened, the sun slipping away. The helicopter rotated, preparing for an assault.


You cannot win, Paul. We have factories devoted to your destruction. The minute I send Ms DiGriz off, I will have to assume you are a hostile – and the hunt starts.


With as much flux as you're carrying, capture attempts skew fatal. You might get hurt. Your wife might get hurt. Your daughter might get hurt. And despite what you've heard, we have no more interest in hurting civilians than you do.


You're alone. Outnumbered. And outclassed.
So please, Paul. Surrender
.”

The blond Unimancer's face remained expressionless. After a moment passed, there was a collective exhale, as if the general had let loose one regretful sigh.


So be it
.”

The blond moved to slam the button.

A kite string bisected him.

BOOK: Fix
3.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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