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Authors: Mr Mike Berry

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BOOK: Xenoform
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The three harvesters stopped outside Sofi’s door. It was closed and the telltale absence of noise came from behind it.

‘Is she sleeping?’ asked Whistler. Tec shrugged. Spider pushed forwards and hammered on the door in a rattling drum-roll loud enough to wake the dead.

Several seconds passed. Whistler spent them looking unimpressed. The door burst open and Sofi flapped out of it into the corridor, pulling on clothes as she blinked with the grogginess of the freshly woken. Stumbling slightly and managing to hold onto a stun-gun, she pushed past her fellows and off towards the garage as if she had been waiting for them all along.

‘Come on then,’ she called, her three parallel mohawks somehow immaculate despite having been recently dragged out of bed along with their reluctant owner. Tec shrugged again and followed Sofi.

‘I’ve never known anyone sleep fourteen hours a day,’ Whistler remarked in tones of mock astonishment. Sofi’s long hours of slumber were a well known in-joke amongst the harvesters and they had all come to expect it by now.

The group of four followed the narrow passage past Tec’s workshop-slash-lab where heaps of computer components and interconnected boxes of unfathomable purpose sprawled across every available surface alongside bottles and jars of drugs and chemicals. A small arachnid robot crept through the mess looking for somewhere to park itself. The robot, jokingly named Spider Junior, was Tec’s pet. It was pretty unintelligent and didn’t actually do much but he seemed attached to it for some reason.

They passed under a sentry gun in a corner of the ceiling, its dark muzzle silently roving the shadows as if sniffing for prey. This, together with the scrambler-bait opposite it, constituted an inner ring of defence. Actually, if an intruder had penetrated this far into the warehouse then they were likely to be tooled up enough not to worry much about the gun. And the chance of a spyfly getting this far was effectively nil.

Sofi’s fingers flew over the security keypad of the ancient and heavy sliding door. It whispered back into the wall and a waft of oily air greeted the team. The bright lights of the garage were beyond, and beneath them squatted the matt black silhouette of the van, like a hole in reality. Roberts was standing with one hand flat on its almost frictionless surface, plugged in, and evidently finishing his diagnostics. He didn’t notice the others at first. He was muttering under his breath, lost in thought.

The garage was effectively featureless apart from the vehicle, Roberts himself and a covered turnstile of spares that stood in one corner like a massive tree. Its smooth, clean walls were in sharp contrast to the clutter and decay of the rest of the building and clearly differentiated the hangar as a state-of-the-art facility. The van floated a foot off the floor, totally motionless – a sleeping panther.

Roberts was wearing his usual dark combats and dark brown trenchcoat. The steel tube of the nerve-shocker would, as always, be concealed within its folds. Except for the scar across his serious, craggy face he was the least distinctive-looking of the team, and as such was distinguished by that if nothing else. He was tall and solidly if not heavily built, with short dark hair sprouting around his head sockets. Roberts was an ex-cell commander from the days of the political insurgency. He had spent years fighting in block-to-block skirmishes with government forces through the city streets and had been captured, briefly imprisoned and tortured. Since joining Whistler’s team his troubled, violent past showed only as a vaguely detached and grumpy demeanour.

He unplugged from the van and turned to face the others. Whistler stood regarding him with one hand on a hip, her body arranged in a pose designed to indicate impatience. Spider’s arms twined unconsciously in the air. Tec’s lights were flashing. Sofi just looked surly.

‘I think it’s sorted,’ said Roberts.

‘It fucking needs to be,’ answered Whistler. ‘How come I didn’t know there was a problem with the sat-link?’

‘Tec said you were
busy
,’ responded Roberts, dead-pan as always. ‘And I knew I could fix it by myself.’

‘Yeah, well, I
was
busy,’ she said sulkily.

‘Shooting spiders in the warehouse,’ laughed Tec, glints of amusement darting across his scalp.

‘I assume you did fix it?’ queried Whistler, re-asserting authority.

‘Course.’

‘Okay, good, whatever,’ Sofi interjected. ‘Are we off, then, my leader, or did you just wake me up out of spite?’

‘Yeah,’ said Whistler. ‘Let’s tool up and go shopping. Everyone armed and ready?’ General nods and murmurs. She knew they were. ‘Then let’s go.’

The door of the van irised open at a mental command from Tec and the five harvesters filed in, assuming their relevant positions. Whistler slid into the driver’s seat. Tec had been the last to drive the van and Whistler had to retract the DNI-console into the dash. It was replaced by a set of analogue control levers.

‘Fucking meathead,’ accused Tec.

‘Fucking buttonhead,’ she replied, checking the readouts relating to communications systems, fusion cell, weapons, life support. She glanced around briefly to assess the readiness of the crew. The huge form of Spider dwarfed the slim figure of Sofi on the back bench. Tec was already plugged into the net console in the main body of the van, even though it couldn’t connect to a satellite through the shielded hangar. Although most buttonheads were equipped to access the net directly, the console would augment and supplement this ability, as well as providing a high-speed interface layer between net, van and human. Opposite Tec, the stretcher was bolted to the wall, its arm and leg straps dangling. Roberts sat to Whistler’s left, face impassive.

Whistler started the van and touched a button to open the garage door. As it swung up and the edge became visible it became clear how massively thick and heavy it was – more like the door to a bank vault than a garage. The van smoothly climbed the ramp, passing beneath a set of heavy sentry guns, silent as a shadow. In the back, Sofi was grumpily checking the charge on her stun-gun, muttering curses under her breath.

‘So – where are we going?’ asked Roberts. ‘Any plan?’

‘Not as such. Just roll with it.’ Whistler bit her lip thoughtfully. ‘I’d wondered about somewhere in Market Garden.’

‘Yeah, the edge of it, I assume,’ said Spider from the back in his rich tenor voice.

‘Yeah, South Street, somewhere like that,’ answered Whistler, eyes on the ramp, relying on old-fashioned senses.

Sofi said something that sounded like, ‘Fine,’ but looked more like
fuck you all
.
Whistler glanced back at her. ‘What?’ she demanded.

‘Nothing,’ mumbled Sofi.

The ramp of the warehouse emptied into an underground car park where ten or twelve other mostly-abandoned warehouses and factories also had exits. This would mean that anyone who saw the van enter or leave the main door of the car park from outside would still not know for sure which address it belonged to. From inside the car park the team’s building was made to look completely deserted. To see the sentry guns an observer would have to be stood underneath them, which would likely make them dead. No-one had ever come to investigate the garage door as yet. It was generally assumed amongst the team that all the occupiers of the surrounding addresses were engaged in equally dubious business of their own. The only other entrance to the building was on the roof where heat and net-signature seeking missiles were arranged in the shadows.

The van coasted across the deserted floor of the car park, swerving cleanly around concrete pillars. A light was on above the door of one of the factories nearest the street. Whatever they made there, they did it in privacy. The harvesters had never met anyone from the building, just heard the pounding and thumping of machinery deep inside its depths, and left it at that. All they wanted of their neighbours was to be left alone, a sentiment which said neighbours apparently shared.

Whistler turned onto the main exit ramp of the car park and the van moved up it and out into the street. The area wore the brownish shroud of decay. Overloaded wheelie-bins jostled for position on the pavements, their contents spilling from their lids like vomit. The windows that were not boarded-up or covered in wire mesh were mostly broken. One doorway was showing a red light. A Cyclopean pimp lounged against the door frame picking his nails with a switchblade. An old woman was slowly walking a large rusty robot dog up the street. She ignored the van as it coasted past her. It was raining again.

‘I love the autumn,’ said Roberts quietly, mostly to himself. ‘The way the air smells.’

‘Yeah,’ retorted Sofi. ‘Slightly warmer rain than the winter.’

‘Signal,’ said Tec. ‘Setting the satnav for South Street.’

‘Direct me when we get closer,’ said Whistler. ‘Who’s got some tunes?’

Without replying, Tec started playing the latest Blue Screen of Death album, directly from his head into the van’s stereo. The repetitive bass thrummed like a heartbeat, compressing the air of the van in waves. For a while, no-one spoke.

‘Market Garden,’ said Whistler.

‘Okay,’ replied Tec, turning the music down. ‘South Street’s on the right in a few blocks. Where do you want to go?’

‘Let’s just drive for a while,’ she suggested. ‘See what we see.’

Spider pressed his nose to the skin of the van, which although dark, was translucent from the inside. One of his hands was toying with the shape of an electrified knife through the fabric of his pocket. Dark doorways filed past like rows of broken teeth. People on the streets, even this late. Birds circling the rooftops like ash in the wind. Rain running like the blood of the city.

‘Him?’ asked Sofi, pointing to a man on her side of the street. He moved arrogantly through the crowd on four strutting robot legs, his head sporting spiralled horns of anodised metal, the rain slicking his naked torso.

‘Extreme. I like him,’ answered Whistler, resisting the urge to slow down suspiciously as she watched him into the crowd.

‘Those stupid-ass legs run off a symbiotic DNI program though – they’re not a true bodymod,’ pointed out Tec.

‘Shame,’ said Spider. ‘Can we go somewhere quieter?’

‘Or louder,’ countered Whistler, chewing her lip thoughtfully with her pointed fangs as she focused on the road. The van wove between badly parked or abandoned gravpods, some of them resting on the ground, with the detritus of ages drifted against them.

‘What have you in mind?’ asked Roberts.

‘Wanna go clubbing, Rob?’ asked Whistler cheerfully, shoving him on the shoulder.

‘Not really,’ he said, and Sofi actually laughed.

‘Where?’ asked Tec. His lights were a blur of activity now. They always went crazy when he was plugged in.

‘I know a place…’

‘Classy I’m guessing,’ interjected Roberts.

‘Bit of a fuckin’ dive, actually,’ replied Whistler, laughing. ‘S’called Pharmacopia.’

‘Pharmacopia? Stupid name for a club.’

‘Just that. I think it’s down this way.’ She nodded to the left, looking for a turning in that direction. An open-top gravpod zoomed by them on the right, running the lights. A teetering young woman rose from her seat and threw a can at the van, screaming something which went unheard over the music. The can bounced harmlessly off into the road, pluming liquid which looked like either piss or cider. None of the harvesters mentioned it, considering the incident unworthy of their attention. They had work to do.

‘So that’s your plan, eh, boss? Go to some skanky club night?’ demanded Sofi.

‘Yes.’ She sighed. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time for you, would it, Sofe?’

Sofi, even in her present mood, knew better than to take the bait. She thudded back into her seat, face expressionless. Everyone knew she was seething inside. Whistler and the others tolerated Sofi’s anger. It never got in the way of her work, never made her careless or unpredictable, never got as far as serious psychosis. All of them knew that she would die for them, if need be, when the moment came. Sofi had come from a similar background to Whistler herself – true child of the streets born and bred, veteran of several gangs, ex-juke addict. Although they didn’t always get on Whistler felt a particular affinity with her because of this.

Tec queried the satnav and started directing them to the club. Had Whistler been a buttonhead, the route would have transferred directly to her mind, but she was used to a human navigator. She could still have programmed the van to drive itself, but she preferred to be in control. Tec pointed her under a concrete overpass and down a one-way street.

Spider left his seat and moved to a console next to Tec. He plugged in and started silently talking to the van, probably just updating its little brain about the plan for the evening, such as it was. The van, although possessed of limited simulated intelligence, was generally treated as another member of the team. Spider particularly babied it, and liked to keep it in the loop. Whistler vaguely protested at this habit. After all, the more the van knew, the more it could tell a hacker. But the others, who knew more about this sort of thing than her, assured her it was safe. Whistler’s unique talents lay in a different area, so she deferred to them in the matter.

They rounded a corner where people swarmed like insects beneath the towering blocks of brick and plastic. Tec pointed. Pharmacopia was just ahead and to the left, two huge bouncers like dolmens outside it. They looked more like the type to cause trouble than prevent it. A trickle of revellers were seeping in and out of the club in various states of inebriation.

BOOK: Xenoform
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