Authors: Helen Stringer
“Inc.,” added the grizzled man.
“Apparently,” the woman leaned forward, her voice suddenly conspiratorial, “Someone got into their offices today—”
“Offices!” snorted a one-armed man on Sam’s right. “More like a fortress!”
“—and stole something.”
“Must’ve had a death wish,” said the skinny man.
“That’s the thing, though,” continued the woman. “They killed him. Over by the old town. Killed him dead. But he didn’t have it any more.”
“Have what?” asked Sam, all wide eyed innocence.
“The thing. Whatever it was he stole. And I gotta tell you, whatever it is she wants it back real bad. She’s got troops tearing through the whole city, even right by City Hall. Like the mayor was nobody.”
“The mayor is nobody,” said the one-armed man.
“Yeah, well, if they don’t find it today, they’ll find it tomorrow,” said the grizzled man. “This town’s too small for secrets. And when they do, whoever’s got it ain’t going to be long for this world at all. I was talking to Anton earlier. He works for her too, and he said she’s got herself some stone cold killer. Some kind of assassin. Arrived today.”
“An assassin?” said the woman. “What for?”
“Killing people, of course! Don’t ask such fool questions.”
“It ain’t a fool question. Seems to me she’s got nothing but stone cold killers on the payroll.”
“Yeah, well. Seems this one’s different. Doesn’t do no soldiering. Just killing.”
Sam looked from one to the other, then at the men at the bar. This all sounded really bad.
“Are we playing cards, or what?” he asked, hoping that his voice didn’t betray the fact that he just wanted to win his money, hide until morning, and then get out of town as fast as the old car would go.
The grizzled man nodded, knocked back his drink and threw some money into the pot. This time Sam didn’t hold anything back. The knowledge that the grizzled man was a cheat was a gift—it meant he expected to win, so he’d let the pot go as high as he could, confident that it would all be his.
But, of course, it wasn’t. As Sam showed his hand, the grizzled man’s face revealed disbelief, then anger, followed by the realization that he couldn’t do anything, immediately followed by anger again. Sam smiled nicely and gathered up the money.
“Well, I’d like to thank you people for a really nice evening.”
“You’re leaving?” spluttered the grizzled man. “You can’t take all our money and not give us a chance to win it back! That ain’t how it’s done, kid.”
“Sorry. Way past my bed time.”
He shoved the notes into his pockets and hurried over to the bar where Nathan was having an absolutely marvelous time.
“Come on,” he said. “Time to go.”
“Just one more…”
“Nope.” He scooped up the box.
“Who is this?” asked the real Jeb Belloq, his too-loud voice betraying his alcohol intake.
“This is my friend, Sam,” slurred Nathan. “He has a very pretty car.”
“A car? What kind of a car?”
“Can we go for a ride?”
“Can we go for a ride, Sam? Jeb would like to go for a—”
Sam just rolled his eyes, gripped Nathan’s arm and hauled him out of the bar.
“What did you do that for? Ohhhh…”
Nathan turned a weird shade of green as soon as the cold night air hit him.
“I thought you didn’t drink?”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Great,” muttered Sam. “The perfect end to a perfect day.”
t was a beautiful room
. Deep cream carpets, really good imitation mahogany furniture and a huge bed the size of a small farm back in the Wilds. At the far end was a gently curving window leading onto a balcony that looked down onto the city twinkling far below…and to the left was a bathroom.
Sam had only the vaguest memories of sleeping in a bed in an actual bedroom, but his recollection of a fully fitted bathroom was practically non-existent. He imagined that there must have been one in the San Francisco house, but he’d only been five when they’d had to run for the Wilds so he really wasn’t sure what was there. Only that it had been safe. Except that clearly it hadn’t.
He took off his coat and hung it over the omnipresent Muthascreen and examined the room closely. He’d found five cameras in Nathan’s room when he’d left him there so there had to be at least as many here. He closed his eyes and listened.
Six. He located each one and carefully smeared soap over each tiny lens.
Then he had a shower.
It took an hour. A whole hour of luxuriating in torrents of steaming hot water and foaming masses of actual honest-to-god soap. It was the single most decadent thing he’d ever done and it was fantastic. The heat and the steam penetrated every cell in his body and slowly eased out the tension, leaving him as relaxed as he’d ever been, breathing in the humid bathroom air and emerging into the bedroom, cocooned in the complimentary bathrobe and feeling like a kid again.
He looked at his clothes, thrown over the back of a velvet wing backed chair. Now that he was clean, they looked even worse, and there was a stain on the left side of his vest where he’d failed to avoid the backsplash the last time Nathan threw up. The idea of putting them back on was kind of revolting. He walked back into the bathroom. There was a box-like thing with a sign that said it cleaned clothes. He’d been reluctant to use it at first, but now he grabbed everything off the back of the chair, opened the door, and flung them in.
He helped himself to a cold drink out of the freezer and wandered out onto the balcony. The lights of the city reminded him of the stories of the stars. He looked up into the dark night sky and tried to picture it pinpointed with light. It had probably been beautiful.
Down below, the lights started to go out. First one section of town, then another, then another. The hotel was one of the last. Sam turned and watched as the lights in his room winked out, leaving a single small lamp on the nightstand. He looked back down at the city, where now the only light came from the gas street lights, the misty yellow glow marking out the routes between the buildings and out to the far west where the flare above the oil refinery blazed in the distance.
Sam watched it, fascinated. So that was where Century City got its wealth—oil. But not enough to keep the electricity running, apparently. He went back inside, closing the window and drawing the curtains. Now he was back in his temporary heaven, his toes sinking deep into the carpet and the warmth from the central heat wrapping itself around him. He clambered into the huge bed and nestled beneath the silk sheets and fine wool blankets, asleep almost as soon as his head hit the corpulent down pillows.
The pounding began at around three in the morning. He listened to it for about fifteen minutes, then got out of bed, stalked across the carpet, and flung open the door.
“What d’you mean, what?” Nathan stumbled into the room, his eyes bloodshot and his already pale face like a sheet of paper. “Where the hell are we!?”
“The Hollywood Hotel,” said Sam closing the door.
Nathan just stared at him.
“We had to get off the streets,” explained Sam, “and I thought they’d be checking all the flops first, so our best bet was to go somewhere nice. Plus, you were really, really drunk. They almost didn’t let us in. I had to give the night manager a pretty hefty encouragement.”
Nathan was still just staring.
“If you’re going to be sick again, I’d really appreciate it if you’d do it in the bathroom.”
“I’m not going to be sick.”
“I just don’t remember anything after leaving the bar.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“And I’ve got the worst headache in the history of the universe. Can I have one of your pills?”
“Your pills. The little green pills you keep popping. You said they were for migraines.”
“You’ve got a hangover.”
“It’s a really bad headache, Sam.”
“You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“Nathan, you’ve got a beautiful room. There’s a shower, with hot water. Really hot water. It’ll make you feel better, honest.”
“Yeah. And soap. And a thing that’ll clean your clothes. I’d take advantage of that last one, if I were you.”
“Get some sleep. We should get an early start.”
Nathan nodded and dragged himself to the door. “Okay. ‘Night.”
Sam locked the door again and scrambled back into bed. He slept fitfully for a couple of hours, then lay staring at the ceiling and thinking about the digivends and the buzzing in his head.
His dad had told him that the headaches were probably caused by an environmental allergy. He’d said that some people had similar reactions to radio waves, certain frequencies of sound, and even synthetic materials. For Sam, it seemed to be the frequencies used by Mutha. It had sounded perfectly reasonable at the time, and for years afterwards. But as he got older he thought more about that last question.
“Did you hear voices?”
Was the buzzing in his head actually voices? He thought about it for a while, trying to remember if anything had been distinct. It hadn’t. It was probably just a part of the headache thing, like the way migraine sufferers see lights. But why had his dad asked the question? Voices in your head aren’t a sign of an allergic reaction; they’re a sign of psychosis.
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep again, but it was too late—his mind was too busy to drift off. He opened his eyes and looked across the room at his coat. After about fifteen minutes, he got up and had another shower (on the basis that there was no telling when he’d be able to do it again). Then he retrieved his clothes from the cleaning box. It had worked—they were like new. He put them on, fastened his pocket watch in place and regarded himself in the small bathroom mirror. Not too bad. Cleaned up fairly well, if he did say so himself, though his hair was all over the place and his face seemed a little too pointy. The different colored eyes thing was a bit weird, though. It was kind of disconcerting, even for him, and they were his eyes.
He turned around, then turned back and looked at himself again. What had the old monk seen? Was it the eyes? Or something else. Or perhaps nothing at all. After all, he’d lost a lot of blood and was only moments from death. Sam thought about the other deaths he’d witnessed: the swift, the lingering, the violent and the peaceful. Each one was unique, but in their final moments some of them were elsewhere. His dad had died in a freezing cave, high in the mountains, yet was comforted by the belief that he was back in the San Francisco house, lying in his own bed with Marion making bread downstairs.
Whatever or whoever the old man thought he saw, Sam was certain it wasn’t him. It must have been a memory, dredged up from the mental records of a long life. A final nightmare.
Sam sighed, walked back into the main room and looked at his coat. He carefully took it down and stared at the Muthascreen. It was supposed to be voice-activated, but he knew that was out of the question. If there was one thing his dad had really pounded into his skull, it was that none of them should ever use their voices to communicate with any net screen, Mutha or not. He reached into one of the deep pockets in the back skirts of his coat where he kept the junk he hardly ever used, but might need at some point (like now, for example), and pulled out a worn rectangle of plastic. He unfolded it carefully and lay it on the dresser beneath the screen.
It was an old QWERTY keyboard. No one had used them for decades, but there were still a few floating around, mementoes of grandparents and simpler times. Sam had hooked his up to a simple wireless adapter. He turned it on and touched a key.
“Welcome to Mutha.”
The voice was female, soft and full bodied. It was supposed to sound reassuring, and for most people it was, but it always sent a shiver up Sam’s spine. It was the same voice he had heard in muffled argument with his father through the heavy study door of the San Francisco City house when he was five, right before they’d packed up all their belongings and run for the Wilds. And it had been the same voice, reaching out of anything with a chip: in desert gas stations, small town cafes and flea-bitten motels. Always soft, always wheedling. Urging his dad to return to the fold, go back to San Francisco, resume his work, it had all been a terrible misunderstanding, it would all be alright. But Elkanah had always responded the same way: packed up his family and headed deeper into the Wilds until the voice could no longer reach them. Or so they had thought.
“How can I help you?” The tone was solicitous, concerned, anxious to be of use.
“Carolyn Bast,” typed Sam. “Devastation Engineering and Tactical Havoc.”
“I see you are using an old text input device,” cooed the screen. “Would you prefer your response verbally or in text?”
“Text,” typed Sam, eager to silence the voice.
A picture of a sleek, low-lying office building appeared on the screen along with a headshot of a woman with close-cropped blond hair, her face half-turned away from the camera. She was attractive in a steel-hard way, her eyes pale and cold and a slight smile playing about her thin lips. She appeared to be wearing standard business clothes but they didn’t seem to fit well, as if she were more used to wearing something else.
“Carolyn Bast. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Devastation Engineering and Tactical Havoc, Inc.”
Sam examined the picture and guessed that she probably didn’t spend too much of her time languishing behind a desk.
He read on. Apparently Ms. Bast was born in the city of New York and began her career in the regular armies of the great cities of the Plains where she worked her way up the ranks to Brigadier General. She then elected to leave the regular army and work in the private sector where she distinguished herself in handling the security of many corporations before founding her own company eight years earlier.
Elected to leave…
Sam drilled down and stumbled across some old news reports of atrocities in a few outposts of the Wilds, near where new natural gas deposits had been discovered. After a few days, words like “exaggerated” and “so-called” began to appear in the coverage and within a few more, all reference ceased. And so, apparently, did the military career of Carolyn Bast.
Except that her first non-military security job was with a company closely related to the would-be developer of those same natural gas fields.
Sam sat back. He didn’t need to read any more—the story was all too familiar. After the Fourth Collapse, all pretense at controlling the activities of the suppliers of energy and other commodities had ceased. The charade of a central government had been abandoned at around the same time and the great city states had become more and more powerful. The world had changed, and anyone unlucky enough to be neither wealthy nor strong was left with the simple choice of eking out a living in the Wilds or submitting themselves to the rule of the few in cities in which they would only ever be very small cogs in a machine they could barely comprehend.
None of which explained why Carolyn Bast had stolen the Paradigm Device. It couldn’t be of any interest to anyone in Century City. According to his mother, only a handful of people had even known of its existence, and most of those were dead. Sam remembered his dad saying that most of the ones who had known about it hadn’t been privy to its function—they just knew that it was dangerous. Bast seemed little more than a successful thug, so presumably she had a client.
Sam tried to remember all the people who knew. His mom, Marion, had told him, but he’d only been ten at the time and although he had dutifully repeated the names back, they hadn’t really meant anything. He hadn’t understood why they were important, but the recitation had pleased his mother, and for as long as she was around they stuck. But then she was gone, and Sam was alone and there were more important things to learn and retain.
He sat back, lost in times past, remembering warm nights and caring embraces, hot milk at bedtime and laughter in the morning.
Which was why he didn’t notice it at first—the scratching at the back of his brain again as if someone were trying to get in. It was more subtle this time, more careful, but it wasn’t long before Sam felt it and it was joined by the whispering and the inevitable headache. He shook his head and reached back to where his coat hung on the back of the chair, but as he did so the Mutha screen went blank, then blue, then words appeared:
Sam jumped up as if he’d been hit, knocking the chair over. He dropped to his knees, scrabbling in the coat pocket for the pill box. He finally found it and, hand shaking, opened it and removed a tablet. He threw it into his mouth and waited for the effect, but even as the scratching and whispering faded, he heard the voice. The one that had haunted his father and destroyed first his career and then his life.
“I’ve missed you.”
And then silence. Sam sat quietly for a moment. It was the muthscreen, right? Just audio, not… He stood up and walked to the window. He needed air.
He drew the curtains and breathed deeply. There was a yellow strip of light on the horizon. Dawn. He had to get out of the city. Back to the Wilds. Back to where he belonged. He’d never thought he belonged there, but now he understood that he did.