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Authors: Mr Mike Berry

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BOOK: Xenoform
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Debian waited the five minutes and then left. He glanced up as he departed the bar. The flying knife was perched above him, silently but keenly fluttering its tiny wings. Debian shuddered, thinking of what the thing would do to human flesh, and stepped into the street.

Squalid tenements squatted in the rain around him, festooned with spools of ancient data-cable like flayed robotic ligaments. Somewhere to the southeast a fire was burning. Smoke coiled lazily across the skyline, bunching heavily until it reached above the buildings, where the wind took it and shredded it. A discarded vid-paper blew past, animated headlines scrolling across its crumpling surface. There were very few people on the streets now – just stragglers trawling from one bar to another, looking for the next moment in the bottom of a bottle.

Debian noticed movement in the mouth of an alley opposite the Sunken Chest – nothing clear, just the impression of a figure retreating from sight. Indeed, his HUD showed a heat signature fading behind the brickwork. There was no net signature, though. A meathead? Someone net-stealthed? Had Hex remained to watch Debian depart for some reason? Or was it someone else equally well protected from the sort of prying Debian excelled at? If so, then who?

Hex’s words rang in Debian’s head:
We think their backer might be a government
.

The infrared trace was gone now, anyway. Debian set off, stepping around the puddles. He decided he would take a circuitous route home.
Just in case,
he told himself.
Just in case
.

CHAPTER
THREE
 

The lights were bright enough that the air itself seemed brilliant with whiteness. Machines buzzed and fussed around the prone and pallid human form on the stainless table. Technically he was still alive at this point. The surgeons were well practised at utilising the body’s own life support systems, with some help from the machines, to maintain freshness of the raw materials until they were rushed to cryo.

The two surgeons operated the robotic laser-scalpels by simultaneous keyboard and DNI, hands flying over the keys, eyes absorbing data-streams from several screens at once, bodies and minds dancing in synchronisation with the robots. The scalpels moved with flickering rapidity – they dipped and cut and cauterised, ducking and diving around each other. When required, arms darted in between them, dexterously removing organs and tissues from the body of the slightly overweight man on the slab. These materials were shuttled to cryo-boxes, which trundled themselves off to the storage archives when filled, humming tunelessly as the cryo fields initialised. They analysed and categorised their own contents, updating the master HGR database as they sped from the theatre on tiny rubberised wheels, passing through a sterilisation chamber as they went.

As the process advanced, the body gradually became less and less able to survive unaided. The life support systems took up the slack as this happened. Still, though, there were signs of brain activity, autonomous nervous response. Blood began to flow through hoses as the heart was disconnected. It was oxygenated and returned to circulation. The robot scalpels didn’t spill a drop. The body was lifted on a suspensor cushion and turned over. The scalpels flayed the legs and back, extracted bone marrow from bone and bone from flesh. Still the brain survived. Who could say what nightmares capered through its terrorised imagination? The two surgeons, almost robotic themselves, didn’t dwell on such concerns. They were fully interfaced with the system, part of the equipment of the theatre.

The hum of mighty transformers seemed to electrify the air of the room. Stainless steel and sterile ceramicarbide surfaces shone cleanly everywhere. The large window was circular, ribbed with concentric bands of ceramicarbide, framing the reddening sky where gyrocopters circled the tower like angels. In the middle distance a ship was taking off from the spaceport, roiling exhaust plumes folding back on themselves under gravity, diffusing over the city skyline. It drove into the air like a grey fist.

Suddenly, the two surgeons stopped their hectic activity in unison. They both stepped back from their stations, turning to face each other. The robots stowed the parts already removed in cryo-boxes and then stopped, awaiting further instruction. One of the surgeons disconnected his DNI cable, yanking it roughly from his skull-socket. His eyes were wide with surprise.

He crossed to the slab where the body was floating motionless on the suspensor cushion. The other surgeon moved to join him there. They craned their necks to look into the colourful depths of the body. They exchanged equally blank expressions.

‘What the hell is that?’ asked the first. He didn’t bother to indicate the area to which he referred. His companion had been privy to the same data stream and knew as much as he did.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. If the machines didn’t know and the database didn’t know then nobody knew.

‘Should we call Mrs. Smith, do you think?’

‘I guess. Do we continue for now?’

The first surgeon peered closely into the flayed human form. Nestled against the spinal column of the man on the cushion was an almost perfectly spherical green object. It seemed to have thin, sticky tendrils worked into the spinal cord itself, clearly deeply entwined with it. The green object was pulsing faintly with the blood flow supplied by the machines.

‘I don’t know. MRI-scan it.’

‘Okay.’ The second surgeon returned to his console and without bothering to plug back in began rapidly tapping buttons on the keyboard. The robot arms moved in response, slower without the DNI, but still with their usual smooth precision. The first surgeon watched closely at the body’s side.

‘Well?’

‘Nothing…’

‘What do you mean ‘nothing’?’

‘No image…’ The second surgeon shook his head.

‘Diagnostics?’

‘Fine. MRI-scan reveals all surrounding tissues, but not our mystery item there. Go to x-ray?’

‘No. Get Smith. Meanwhile, continue removal of other recoverables from around it, but don’t touch
that
thing.’

The second surgeon mentally paged Mrs. Smith while restarting the tissue recovery process. The spidery metallic limbs resumed their dance of dissection.

‘Hold all cryo-boxes here until Smith arrives,’ ordered the first surgeon, still watching the proceedings closely from the side of the dissection table. His colleague nodded absently – he was plugged into the console again, deep in its control system.

There came the whisper of the sterilisation chamber cycling and Mrs. Smith entered the theatre. She was short and slim, dressed in a simple grey suit, no obvious body-mods, strange for someone in her line of work. Her greying hair was scraped back into a militarily-precise bun and her thin brows were drawn sharply together above her facemask. There was now a reasonable queue of cryo-boxes waiting at the doorway and she regarded them suspiciously, clearly wondering why they were not filed away. Their contents hung frozen beneath the glass, readouts listing their every detail.

‘What?’ she demanded simply.

The surgeon at the console stepped away from it, unplugging again, fearful of reprimand. Mrs. Smith didn’t need much reason to belittle an underling. The surgeon at the table turned to her and spoke.

‘Er, we have an
anomaly
with the product. Er…’ He briefly faltered beneath his superior’s wilting gaze before rallying again. ‘This.’ He indicated the green orb against the spine of the body. ‘We have never seen one before. It isn’t in the database. It seems somehow to resist the MRI-scan. We don’t know what it’s doing, can’t even guess, but it seems intrinsically linked with the spine. Probably some new organ from the black market. Certainly,
those
came from an unofficial source.’ He indicated the cryo-boxes containing the bright red and gold wings, one in each. Smith peered into them.

‘At least those are of value,’ she said with a trace of actual approval. ‘As for that green thing in there, I have no more idea than you. Of course, Human Genetic Recycling must strive to remain at the forefront of new developments, even those of an unofficial nature. You were correct to call me. Did you try to x-ray it?’

‘Not yet. We thought we’d wait for your say-so.’

‘Good. Do it.’

Mrs. Smith stepped behind the lead-glass screen, which slid from a wall to curve across the room. The two surgeons joined her there once the machines had been told what to do. There was the cough of electrical discharge as x-rays soaked the room.

The screen slid obediently back into its hidden niche and the three stepped back into the room proper. The second surgeon returned to the console, plugging back in, ready to analyse data and display the x-ray images. Mrs. Smith and the first surgeon craned over the prone figure floating above the table. The green thing seemed to be dissolving, its tendrils melting away, steaming and bubbling as they visibly withdrew from the spine. The sphere crumpled in on itself as they watched in amazement. The surgeon caught a whiff of the vapour and had the unfortunate experience of his head being suddenly filled with a sickeningly thick aroma like rotting fish and cabbage combined. He doubled over and was noisily sick into his facemask. Even Smith recoiled, scowling, from the body.

‘Nothing…’ said the second surgeon, staring in disbelief at the readouts in front of him.

Smith shook her head, bewildered. The first surgeon was dry-retching now, his mask hanging like a flap of skin from his neck. The green organ had completely disappeared.

CHAPTER
FOUR
 

Whistler calmly re-assembled the gun and blew down the sawn-off barrel, clearing the swarf from it. She clicked the pre-loaded magazine into place and a series of diagnostics LEDs lit up, from red to green. It was a smartgun, with a tiny but very intelligent computer on board. Although Whistler was a meathead, the gun itself would make up for some of this disability. Movement sensors compensated for the shaking of its wielder’s hand. It would automatically detect and prioritise targets, influencing its own aim and rate of fire within pre-defined parameters. With the barrel and stock sawn off it would fit comfortably into a coat pocket.

She pointed it at Spider, grinning around a reeferette. She winced as the smoke stung her eye, but Spider didn’t flinch. Whistler squeezed the trigger with a loving delicacy:
One, two, three…

The armour-piercing rounds darted towards Spider, who stood face-on to Whistler, his four segmented arms twining like snakes. He deflected the rounds off his blurring limbs –
one, two, three
. They ricocheted dangerously off into the dark depths of the warehouse. From somewhere there came the sound of liquid spilling.

Spider laughed, actually doubling over, all four arms to his sides as if they might split. Whistler narrowly avoided shooting him unprepared as she, too, collapsed in laughter. Another round zinged into the ceiling before she could put the weapon down. She coughed the roach out in a shower of sparks. Her pointed teeth unintentionally squirted venom as she attempted to rid herself of the gun. She brushed it from her hand as if it were something alive.

‘What’s with this pyrotechnic display of fuck-wittery?’ asked Tec, appearing up the stairs. His skull glittered with coloured lights synched to emotional state. They were blazing with peachy shades of restrained amusement, hectic flashes like one-liners itching to be free.

‘Hey,’ Whistler greeted him, still suppressing giggles.

Spider flexed his arms and crossed the floor to where Whistler sat, the lines on her grey face glowing faintly like the blueprint for an electronic component. Spider retrieved the gun from the floor. Its tiny computer brain recognised his grip and scent and accepted his command to enter sleep mode, the electronic equivalent of a safety catch. He laid it on the scarred metal of the tabletop and checked his arms for bullet-marks. They were unscathed.

‘Hey Tec. Time to go, I guess.’

‘S’right. No rest an’ all that.’ Tec’s head was lit with the sustained white of serious business now. ‘I guess you slackers are high again, am I right?’ He didn’t wait for a response, just threw a stubby of Get-Up to Whistler. She clicked it in the palm of her hand. She knew when duty called. Slowly, the fuzzy edges of the world solidified. Whistler handed the stubby to Spider, who pressed it against the skin of his neck.

‘Even the wicked must rest sometime, Tec,’ said Whistler once she felt properly grounded again. ‘So where’s Roberts?’

‘Running diags on the van. The satellite reception has been fading in and out. He says he’ll meet us down there.’

‘Nobody told me about that.’

‘Oh. Sorry.’

‘Just nice to be in the loop.’ She looked around for things to gather up prior to departure. There was only the gun, which looked like an amputee now, the stump of its stock lying forlornly next to it. She dropped it into a pocket. ‘Let’s roll.’

The three retreated down the stairs from which Tec had emerged, leaving behind the booming cavern of the main warehouse. The big room, as it was known, was mostly taken up with the storage of rusting machinery and crates of stolen clothing. The basement level was where the team spent most of their time. Their individual quarters were down here, as was Tec’s workshop.

The van was also garaged underground in a secure hangar inside a Faraday cage and a microwave scrambler field, effectively cutting it off from the net. Although the vehicle could be disconnected manually, a sub-verter in its systems could secretly re-connect it and ransack its databases when it was unattended were it not stored in isolation.

BOOK: Xenoform
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