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By Aedh
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I was brought to by the telescreen, which I had programmed to bring up--among other things—breaking-news flashes.  It flickered to life with the vidware logos, like it always did, and cut in on Channel Four.

“… no other details as yet.  We repeat, a major police action has occurred.”  Over shots of a nondescript-looking building, the ‘caster continued:  “ConSec officers, accompanied by Justice Ministry officials late this afternoon, following some carefully assessed information, staged a raid on these premises on East Forty-Eighth.  Authorities were tipped to the existence of a smuggling ring.”  I was already moving, slipping on my mesh running shoes and reaching for my overcoat.  “They were looking for tobacco.  What at least five officers found instead was death.  Details are incoming, but unexpected gunfire erupted as the officers moved in.  Five are known dead.  Several more have been evacuated in critical condition.”  I was on my PDA, calling for a ‘cab down to the end of my street, but kept an eye on the captioned commentary.  “…awaiting an official announcement from a Consolidated Security spokesperson momentarily.  Back to you, Serena.”  Then a talking head appeared, saying something about the nick trade, nothing I didn’t already know.  I switched off, secured my own weapon inside my coat, and was off.

It’d be no good calling Officer Roy Roy or anyone else at ConSec.  It was after hours, and whoever was on duty would have their hands full with much bigger things than my MP case, which in any event didn’t actually exist yet;  though I’d have to report it if Irina didn’t show up soon.  The same went for MOJ, where my connections were more tenuous—officially, I was a health worker and had no writ there. My contacts in the court system were mostly retired now and wouldn’t know anything they hadn’t seen on the vidcasts or ‘netcasts.  Five citizen deaths by gun was Libria’s quota for about a year these days, and I couldn’t remember the last time five officers had died on duty all at once.  Six, seven  years, anyway.  This was definitely not normal.  One way and another, I’d been in on more than my share of nick busts.   The officers ordinarily went in with no more than tasers and batons.  Nickheads rarely got crazy;  the normal thing was simple flight, leave the stuff and live to smuggle another day—there’d always be replacement supply.  This, my instincts told me, only looked like a nick raid. There was something much, much bigger going on.  Either the cops had stumbled into a turf war, or somebody was making a deliberate political statement.

In the cab, my PDA buzzed.  It was Jak.  I flipped it open.

“Boss, you see the news?” she said.

“See it?  I’m en route, honey.”

“Is there a connection to the Madours?”

“Let’s hope not,” I told her.  “Otherwise, their little girl won’t be coming home quietly, which is what they hired us for.”
 
“Should I monitor the ‘casts and buzz you if anything new breaks?”

“Oh, sure.  By the way, I owe you a big one.  One of the files you forwarded me actually belonged to someone who popped up.”

“Just doing my job, citizen,” she said.  “You go now.  And … take care.”

“Thanks again,” I told her, and switched off.  That reminded me to set the PDA to vibe.

Where I was going, a buzz might be a very bad thing.





‘Cabs were spendy, but Nedra Madour—via my debcard—could easily afford it.  I had the ‘cab drop me off near a tube station on Gandhi Street.  This was an area of budget apartments and small shops, favored by immigrants, on the far side of Soho.  This wasn’t the red light district, but here the discerning person could pick up some cut-rate eros and herb sticks dosed with nick extract, which was a local specialty.  Two of those would set all but the hardest to puking.  But then, it figured.  Cheap vice seemed to be an interest  with Citizen Keef Herzog.

I checked out the data I’d loaded into my device.  His building was four blocks along.  I sauntered along, keeping as much out of the lights as possible, and when I found it I studied the layout;  a typical four-by.  He was Number Three.  No light on.  I was betting he wasn’t home yet.  I patted my water bottle in one pocket, my cement-like protein bars in the other, and my weapon inside, and, after clearing some trash away, settled down in the crook of a small tree on the edge of a shadowy garden area next to the building.

I was prepared for a wait.





Citizen Keef Herzog wasn’t as considerate as his comrade Citizen Petanko had been.  Herzog was keeping me up past my bedtime.  It was nearly eleven when I heard the purr and swish of a private car approaching the end of the block;  the motor softened for a moment, then powered up and receded.  This was, in all likelihood, my man.  No one else on this street was likely to know anyone who owned a private car, let alone own one themselves.  Sure enough, the male figure came walking, slowly, with a hint of pain in his gait.  I recognized it well.  I figured I’d done that walk more times than Irina Madour had outfits in her closet.

I took stance;  breathed, found the place.

He approached and turned into the doorway of the building.  With my soft-soled shoes, my approach was so quiet that I saw him opening Number Three’s slot to check for the usual advertisements and junk that was once called ‘mail.’  “Citizen Herzog,” I said.  “Easy now.”

He whirled, with an oath, and staggered a bit;  I chopped him where his hand was going into a pocket, and he slumped against the side of the entryway.  There wasn’t any more fight than that left in him.  It seemed like he had been considerably softened up by something, and I thought I knew what.

“Hard day at the office, citizen?” I asked, pulling his hand out of the pocket.  Sure enough, a nasty little gun was in it, a six-shot 7.65 semi.  I added it to the weapon I already had in my own, then showed him my badge and ID.

“I can’t believe it,” he groaned.  “I just can’t believe it.  I was fucking clear.”

“Out of the frying pan,” I said to him.  “Let’s go upstairs, citizen.”

He looked up at me, refocusing.  “Where’s your buddies?  Who the hell are you, anyway?”

“I’m a healthcare services provider,” I said.  “Let’s talk.  But first, let’s go up.”

He opened the door and we went up.  A couple of night lights burned in the stairwell, and one at each end of the corridor upstairs.  There wasn’t any garbage laying around, but the scent of stale cooking oil and cabbage hung in the air, and there looked to be some patched holes in the walls.

Citizen Herzog’s apartment was small, a commonplace bed-sitter.  He switched on the lights to reveal some threadbare furniture with throws over them to hide the holes, and the usual electronics.  But it was the smell that interested me the most;  a heady mixture of patchouli, sandalwood, and herb, none of which quite disguised the unmistakable undertone of nick.

“Have a seat,” I invited him.

“Thank you, I will,” he said sarcastically.  “After I have a piss.  If you don’t mind, officer.”  He nodded toward the bathroom door.

“Alright,” I said, palming my weapon.  “But turn the lights on, leave the door wide open, and don’t put your hands anywhere other than the usual.”

He complied, asking in mid-stream:  “So, you like to watch guys piss?”

“I like to be careful,” I said.  “Especially with gun collectors.”

He flushed and washed his hands.  One forearm was bandaged under the sleeve.  He wasn’t wearing his ‘band.  “You ain’t all that dumb, citizen.  But you didn’t get the ID right.  That’s a ConSec contractor’s ID, not an officer’s, and that badge ain’t shit.  You’re no more an officer than I am.  Less of one, actually.”

I gestured toward a plain metal chair at the kitchen table.  “Pull it out here.  Slowly.  That’s right.  Now have a seat …  You’d know something about officers, citizen,” I said. “You were there when five of them were killed tonight.”

“Who says?”

“I say,” I said.  “And the ID is jake.  I am a ConSec contractor.”

“The company outsourcing hit jobs now?” he asked.

I held up my weapon so he could get a look at it.  “You ever see one of these, citizen Herzog?”

He showed genuine interest.  “Can’t say I have.”

“It’s gas-powered,” I said.  “Five-five-six.  Magazine’s good for--not many rounds, but more than enough to kill you.  And the effective range is only a hundred feet or so, but then what handgun really counts beyond that range, unless it’s in the hands of someone trained as a Grammaton Cleric?”

“Damn few a’ them left,” he said.  “And your point, citizen?”

“If I’d come to hit you, I could have done it downstairs.  Nobody’d have heard a thing, and I’d be a mile away by now.”

“So what’d you want?  I got nick.”

“Don’t want your nick, citizen.  I just want a few facts.”

“Ask away,” he said.  He was studying my face very carefully.  Then he giggled.  “I almost said ‘fire away.’  That’n’ta been too smart.”

I was starting to like Citizen Herzog even less than I had, which had been not at all. I thought momentarily of the dumpster beneath his window and whether there’d be enough room in it to make him comfy before rigor mortis started settling in.

I said:  “Hands on your knees, citizen,” and slowly pulled out my PDA with one hand and flipped it open. I showed him Irina.  “You know her?”

“Maybe.”

Replacing the device carefully, I gestured with my weapon and said:  “You know, citizen, you’d be screwed if anything happened to one of your knees.  No more security job, and no more fake ‘bands.  That’d mean no more nick.”

He’d had a long day, so I gave that a moment to sink in.  “Now answer the question. You know her?”

“Yeah.  Star.  Star Bright.”

“What’s she to you?”

“Chilly.  She’s one of those BCI cows.  All the nookie you like—if you marry her.”

“What else?”

“Whataya mean, what else?  Someone’s obviously talked. You know what she did.”

“I want to hear you talk, citizen.”

“She brought the data for the ‘bands.  A guy ‘dotted it.  Then I’d get the ‘dots and run ‘em somewhere.”

“Where’s ‘somewhere,’ citizen?”

“Where they make ‘em.”

“And where do they make ‘em?”

“CSD.”

“Who at CSD?”

He was silent.

I hand-cocked my weapon.

“All right, all right,” he said.  “What’d you ask again?  Who did the ‘dotting?”

“I’ll take his name.”

“Petanko.  Sami Petanko.”

“And your contact at CSD?”

“Lanyok.”

“First name?”

“Officer.  What  th’hell, citizen--they don’t have first names down there.  Officer Lanyok.   That’s all I know.”

“In processing,” I said.  “That’s his department.”

“Yeah.”

“Not that I really care, but how'd they deliver the nick?”

“Somebody drops a keycard in my slot downstairs,” he said. “It’s to a locker at the community gym where I work out.  Never the same one twice.  The nick’ll be in there in a sealed mini del-pod.”  I knew what he meant.  Light but strong plastic containers for delivery by scooter courier, or ‘cabs would handle them for a price.  You could buy them all over.  There were Datapods for magcards and disks, Minis for small items like drives, Number Twos, Number Fours,  and the biggest was a Number Nine, which could hold a suit of clothes if you folded them right, with shoes to match.

“That’s what you were checking the slot for.”

“Yeah.  It should a’ come today.”

“Might not come,” I said.  “Star’s gone missing.”

He gave a little snort, then a flash grin.  “Too bad for her.”

I started walking around, slowly, keeping my eyes on him. “They’ll replace her, eh?”

“She wasn’t the first, citizen.  She won’t be the last.  We’re all disposable.”

“Is that what they told you?”

“Yeah.  It’s true enough.”

For once, I found myself agreeing with Citizen Herzog.  “You know what happened to her?”

“Nope.”

“How’s it feel, citizen, being disposable?”  I found just about what I was looking for behind him, and tested its heft.

“We’re all disposable,” he said.  “Me, you, Star, everybody.  Everybody in sweet fucking Libria’s disposable.”

“Some more than others,” I said, and whacked him carefully above the left ear with the heavy old glass ashtray I’d picked up.  He folded over like a flour tortilla and hit the floor.

I checked his vitals.  He was alive, but with the blow and fatigue, he’d be out for a nice long time.  Only a drop or two of blood above the hairline;  I hadn’t lost my touch.

I wiped everything I’d handled, donned a pair of disposable plastic gloves, and gave the place the once-over.  I found half an ounce of herb, about three ounces of nick, and two more guns, one fully loaded and under the cushion of a chair three feet from where he’d sat.  I extracted his PDA from his jacket and, avoiding the call buttons, used the cable at his workstation to download its contact numbers into mine;  everything else was password-protected, and I didn’t have time to go there.  Then I checked his wallet.  Among the usual stuff was a plain industrial magcard in a protective sleeve marked:  Property of TeleLibria. Classified.  Do Not Remove Under Penalty Of Law.  Bad man that I was, I removed it;  that, the weapon he’d pulled on me, and the clip from the loaded one.  Everything else I replaced.

I double-checked everything to make sure it was just the way I wanted it.  Then I left.

I hit the sack very late that night, close to one, but not before putting Herzog’s gun and the magcard away in a safe place.  I plugged my PDA into its charger.  For whatever reason, I later did something I very seldom do.

I dreamed.  I dreamed of a tall, slim girl with dark hair streaming behind her as she galloped a horse along under the light of a pale moon.





My alarm went off at six--I’d set it late.  I rolled over on my futon, stretched, and hummed along to the music;  some gentle, caressing horn by a pre-War player called Miles.  I shook the last of the dream out of my head, then got up, shovelled on some togs, and headed out to my big main room where I did most everything.  Nobody was standing there ready to shoot me down as I came out of the bedroom.  So far, so good.

The telescreen had popped on again.  It would be doing a lot of that.  The ‘East Forty-Eighth Battle,’ as they seemed to have named it, was all over the a.m. ‘casts.  I kept an ear open while I did what I had to do, but I wasn’t agog for it.  There’d be much, much more.  I did hear that twenty-three bales of nick, with a street value in the millions, had been seized, but all the suspects had evaded capture.  Investigations were ongoing.  ConSec spokespeople, including president Tyrone Brandt, weren’t saying much.  MOJ would be opening an emergency hearing on issuing firearms to all ConSec officers, rather than just the riot teams, which were the closest thing Libria had to an army.  I wondered what their old Chair, citizen John Preston—former Grammaton Cleric John  Preston—might have to say about that.  They might well be consulting him.  Their current Chair, citizen Lisa Preston, also might have some thoughts.  Brandt himself had had a Cleric in his family, though he had always disavowed any sympathy for the old methods.  But to a history-minded guy like me, things were looking interesting over my morning grapefruit.

I arrived an hour late at my usual stand at the MSA gymplex, officially used for the three Ministers and their sizeable staff, but also open to Bureau management and their staff.  Council Members were, naturally, welcome, and invited guests of all the above.  I was, technically, none of these, but I had been deemed worthy by reason of association.  It had no monitors of any kind, such as the law could set up most anywhere if it chose, so it was a good place for having little business chats while you swam, sparred, played squash, lifted, or did any of your other routines;  and its refreshment bar sold goodies like real coffee and Jak’s favourite muffins.  Being the home turf of the important and well-funded Health Bureau, it was probably the all-around best gym in Libria.

“You’re running late,” said Jonesy, better known as Citizen Jones, an administrator in the Public Works Bureau, a brown belt holder and crack singlestick fighter, as I joined him for stretches.

“Had a late date,” I told him.

He chuckled. “That’s two since the nones of February.  You single guys.  How do you get away with that, anyway?”

“Exempted,” I told him.

“I won’t ask why,” he said.  “They’ve always got reasons for that.”

“Yeah.”

After a few minutes, he looked over at me between his legs during a deep bend.  “Just tell me this.  She hot?”

I considered everything—everything—that had passed last night.  “You could say that.”

He chuckled again.  “Dawg.”

After a while we finished stretching, and I said:  “I’m not up for sticks this morning.  Why don’t we work on some combos instead?”

“Fine with me, Max,” he said.  We went over to the one of the martial arts areas.  I took stance;  breathed, found the place.  And so, we sparred.  Light, easy—by habit, we avoided even the practice of lethals.  Through the large windowed side of one wall, I saw that the usual cadre of office girls was at work on their BCI.  At one point, behind Jonesy, I saw twelve of them go into a move that involved standing on one leg and slowly bringing the other up, pulling it with an arm move so that their right feet touched their heads.

“Check that out,” I told him.  He moved his head and I touched him with what would have been a kidney blow.

“You don’t fight fair,” he complained with a grin, tossing his shock of blond hair.

“You can afford it,” I told him.  “You got fifteen years on me.”

We went for another half-hour or so with a little chat about the news, but not much else.  I liked it that way, and I suspected he did too.  After that, he saw another acquaintance who was willing to go some sticks with him.  I went on a treadmill.  The BCI girls had broken up to do some individualized routines, as usual, and one took up a treadmill next to mine, a freckled one with auburn hair in a bun, wearing a baggy tracksuit, instead of  the close-fitting synth ‘tards that most of them favored.  She seemed to be taking things slowly.  I could relate.  I was taking them slowly myself.  I thought:  OK, whatta ya got? –and keep it simple, Slater.

I had a missing schoolgirl, with a double identity as a data courier to a false ID ring, which was connected to TeleLibria through a programmer.  Another TeleLibria employee connected the false ID ring to ConSec, and also to the nick trade.  The nick connection had turned ugly with an armed incident involving both ConSec and, to a lesser extent, the MOJ.  On the other end, both the schoolgirl’s parents were powerful people, one with connections to the University, and another to the Libria Family Foundation.  The missing girl was the main thing.  Her double identity wasn’t hard to figure;  she and her parents had respectable connections to protect.  But why would she get involved in a fake ID ring?  Had she disappeared voluntarily, or been snatched?  And who would want to snatch her, and why?  The false ID ring was small change.  There were certainly others doing the same thing.  There was someone much bigger behind it, but would that someone want Irina Madour, and if so, why?  Did she know something about the nick?  That was rather heavier than the ID affair.  I had the nagging feeling that there was something else I should have put to citizen Herzog, but what it was eluded me.  Not who the big wheels were—he wouldn’t know that.  I’d certainly get answers when I found Irina.  But I needed answers in order to find her, and that would take some luck.  And I’d used up my share of luck getting to Herzog.  I had a link between Herzog and the gun battle that no one else knew about, but where did Irina fit in?  I was trying to keep it simple, but it was vigorously resisting my effort.

I went to the locker room feeling frustrated.  I didn’t lack for puzzle pieces, but they just wouldn’t come together right.  I did enjoy the atom shower, though.  It blasted you with dozens of little nozzles including both water and sanitary solution that more or less vacuumed all the perspiration and funk right off of you.  Then you got a whole-body blow-dry, and the whole thing took about three minutes.  You could get a massage afterward if you had an appointment, but while they let me use the equipment, I didn’t rate any attention from the personnel side, like trainers or masseurs.  Besides, it was getting late.  Most of the staff people had already gone to work, and it was past time for me to be doing the same.

As I came out of the men’s locker room, I stopped for a drink at the waterjet and heard a noise coming from inside the women’s.  Something wasn’t right with somebody.

I looked in, and the girl from the treadmill was leaning on one of the sinks, retching.  No one else was there, so I approached and put a hand on her.  “Take it easy, citizen,” I said.  “Should I call for help?”

She heaved once more and then stood up, a bit dizzily.  Like me, she had changed already and been about to leave.  I turned on the faucet to wash the detritus down, gave her my handkerchief.  She dabbed at her lips and said:  “No, thanks, citizen.  I--er, thanks.”  She leaned over a bit, as if about to fall, and I put one hand on her belly and another on her shoulder to steady her.

“You sure?”  I asked.

“Thank you.  I—I overdid it a bit this morning.”

I ran a cup of water and handed it to her.  She set it on the accessory shelf, unzipped her bag, and rummaged in it, coming out with a packet, which she tore open, swallowing the contents with the water.  I ran some more water, and she drank that, too.

“You alright to walk?”  I said.  “Let’s get you out.”

“I’m alright, citizen, really.”  I looked down where I had touched her on her belly, and back at her face.  She gave a slight nod.  “Touch of morning sickness,” she admitted, and looked a little bashful. 

“That’s fine,” I said, and meant it.  “Really good.  You should take care of yourself, citizen.”

“They tell you to keep fit,” she said.  “I know.  I’m careful.  I’ll be alright now.”

“You be good,” I said to her, and she gathered herself and walked off.   Then I realized I’d left the water running.  I sloughed out the sink and turned it off.  At that point I noticed a tiny foil and plastic micropak on the floor, such as pills come in.  She’d probably dropped it.  I picked it up and went out after her, but she was nowhere in sight.  It didn’t matter much.  She certainly had more meds, and could get them very easily if she were running out.

I picked up a bagel at the refreshment stand, then went out and over to the tube station across the street to go to work.

As I waited for the train, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the treadmill girl’s micropak, turned it over, and looked at the pill through the clear plastic side.  My day job required competent, if not intimate, knowledge of the Librian pharmacopoeia.  This, however, was something I had not seen before.  That reminded me that it was getting time for me to renew some of my own ‘scrips;  my PDA’s auto-reminder had gone off a few days before.  My pharma was in Fillmore Plaza near the station, a few blocks from the office.

When I got there, Raja was on duty.  She’d been my p-tech for a long time, and was one of the best.  I got the list of what I needed from the reminder on my PDA, as as we were finishing up, I handed her my find.

“What’s this?”  I asked her.

She pulled down her old-fashioned spectacles—for some reason she didn’t want her eyes lasered like most of us—and looked at the little pink thing under the plastic.  Then she held it up.  “May I?”  I nodded.

She opened the packet with a pair of tweezers and set the pill under a magnifier with a bright light.  Adjusting it, she asked:  “Where’d this come from, citizen?”

“I just found it,” I said, which was literally true.  “And you know me, citizen.  I’m the nosy type.  Curious.  I’d never seen it before.”

“Neither have I,” she said.  That piqued my interest.  She punched some keys on a board and looked at her terminal for a minute or two, then shook her head.

“It looks legitimate, with the packaging and all,” she said.  “I’m sure it’s in the updates somewhere, but it’s not a commonly prescribed medication.  Can I keep it and do a little work on it?”

“Help yourself,” I said.  “No big deal.  I just got curious.”

“It’s catching,” she said. “I’ll give you a buzz.”

“No hurry,” I said.


                                                  











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