ELEMENT ZERO Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE - RESURRECTION


 

NICO WACHALOWSKI—RESTAURANT DISTRICT

 

It was warm inside the noodle house, and the window to my left was fogged at the corners. The place was crowded, full of bodies and the blanket of conversation that bled through the noise screen at my table. It looked, as far as I could remember, the same as it had five years ago. The only difference was that this time I was alone.

            The last clouds of steam drifted up from the bowl of ramen that sat untouched in front of me as I looked out onto the street. It was dark, and the snow had piled up. Streams of people wrapped in coats and scarves moved down the narrow sidewalk between the restaurant and a snow bank that had reached waist height. At the intersection vehicles idled, big flakes beginning to accumulate on their hoods and roofs, while a crowd trudged down the crosswalk. To see it then, it was hard to believe any of it had ever happened.

            The permanent dark spot swam in front of my eyes as I stared out the window. The brain scans always came up green, but sometimes I thought that spot had grown larger over the past five years. The damage had made me immune to a type of mind control I hadn’t even known existed before then, but I wondered if there wouldn’t eventually be a price to pay for that. One more, on a growing stack.

            My eyes wandered to the other side of the table, where the chair sat empty. I found myself wishing I had used my JZI to record our last conversation. Too much had happened since then. Now when I thought of her, I saw her moonlit eyes staring out from the shadows of their sockets. Her warm, full lips had turned bloodless and cold. My memories of her were fading, replaced with the face of her revivor.

            Did I choose the wrong side, Faye? I knew what she’d say now. When she came back, the person she’d been was lost. Now she worked directly with Samuel Fawkes, the same revivor that had her killed, and that fact didn’t even seem to faze her. Now, like Fawkes, she believed any cost was acceptable if it meant destroying their enemies.. It didn’t matter that I found myself sitting in their camp, however uncomfortably.  I knew where she stood now, but I wondered what she would have thought back then.

            Five years ago, when I first met Zoe Ott, I found it hard to believe she had the power to alter people’s memories, and maybe even see the future. Even after I experienced it firsthand, it was hard to believe. Later, when I traced that first string of terrorist attacks back to Fawkes, and he told me that Zoe wasn’t unique, that there were hundreds or even thousands just like her, it didn’t seem possible. Now Zoe had been whisked away somewhere, out of my reach, and I was working alongside that very group because they offered something no one else could - the chance to stamp out Fawkes. The difference was that I was doing it to protect the city. They were doing it to protect themselves, and I knew it.

            I’d told myself early on that it was a means to an end - that I’d address the threat they posed after they had helped me stop Fawkes.  As the years went by, though, it became clearer that Fawkes might actually be right about one thing: he might be the only one in a position to stop them, but to do it  he would destroy the city, and everyone inside it.

            Did I choose the wrong side?

            The food in front of me was getting cold, but I wasn’t hungry. I don’t know why I’d come back to that place, what I thought I’d find, but it was the last time I’d seen her alive. We’d been apart so long, but her quick hug and the smell of her had brought it all back in an instant. All the reasons I’d had for staying away evaporated, and I’d never been able to get them back. It was a chance to change things, to fix things, but I didn’t.  No matter how many times I played back that meeting in my mind, it kept coming up the same, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I sighed, leaving my breath on the cold window glass. The trip had been a waste of time I didn’t have. Whatever I was looking for wasn’t there. All that was there was an empty chair where Faye might have been if I’d done things differently.

            Every day that passed was another day lost. It had already been three years since Fawkes had stolen the next-gen revivor prototype Huma. That was three years of distribution, and with the ability to create potential soldiers with a simple injection, we had no way of knowing where his numbers were currently at. We assumed he was administering the injections the same way he had before, to third-tier citizens through free clinics, but so far our canvassing hadn’t turned up anything. I’d personally visited more than I could count, and found no sign of Fawkes anywhere. He’d lived under our radar for far too long, and he had his thumb on a button that could claim thousands of lives whenever he wanted. For all I knew, half the people sitting around me were among them.

            I was just about to push my chair back, to get up, pay my bill, and leave when someone stepped close to the table and spoke from inside the noise screen.

            “Was there a problem with your order?” It was a young Asian man in a black, frog-closured shirt. He’d served me when I first came in.

            “No problem,” I said. “I just need to settle up.”

            “No charge,” he said.

            “Really,” I told him. “The food was fine, I just—”

            “I remember you.”

            I took a closer look at the boy, but he didn’t look familiar. He noticed the orange flicker in my pupils as I ran his face against my list of past contacts, and smiled slightly.

            “You won’t find me in your system,” he said. He was right.

            “Where do you know me from, then?” I asked.

            He looked out the window, out onto the street, toward the intersection where the line of vehicles had begun to move forward again.

            “The revivor stood right there,” he said, pointing. He was looking at the spot where, five years ago, the van had stopped and the revivor stepped out, strapped with explosives. I could still see its face and the way it looked around almost curiously when I tried to contact it over the JZI. I remembered its stony stare as it pinpointed the source of the transmission and made eye contact with me.

            Time to wake up, Agent Wachalowski. At the time, I’d had no idea what it meant.

            “I waited on you that day,” the boy said. “You and your lady friend.”

            “Oh.” I didn’t remember him at all.

            “I didn’t see the bomb at first. By the time I did, you had run outside to confront the revivor.”

            He stared out at that spot. His face was calm, but his eyes were intense.

            “You want to sit down?” I asked him. He glanced back at the front to make sure no one would see him; then he took the seat across from me.

            “It was hard to see what happened after the explosion,” he said. “I thought maybe you died that day. I’m glad you didn’t.”

            “Me too.”

            He looked out the window again and watched the people stream past.

            “We had run out of green onions in the kitchen,” he said. “My mother had run across the street to buy some, to get us through lunch. Coming back, she was caught in the blast and killed. She was fifty-one.”

            “I’m sorry to hear that.”

            “Thank you,” he said. “I remember that day so clearly. You know? I saw her, on the other side of the street just before it happened. You had raised your badge, and the revivor looked at you. Your lady friend tried to pull you away, and my mother watched as you suddenly turned and pushed the woman down behind a delivery truck. I knew the explosion was coming then. I opened the door and shouted to my mother, but she didn’t hear me.”

            He wanted answers. He wanted to make some kind of sense out of why the whole thing happened, but even if I could tell him everything I knew, I didn’t think it would help much. The truth was that while I’d never forget the attack that day, it was just one of many and it was already in my rearview mirror. The threats kept piling up, eclipsing the ones before them.

            “You really got to me that day,” the boy said. “I thought if I had been you, or someone like you, at least I might have had a chance to save her. I was determined that when I was old enough, I’d enlist, but my father needed me here, and as you can see . . .” He shrugged.

            I wished I could tell him that we’d at least gotten the ones responsible, but he knew we hadn’t. Samuel Fawkes’s main target, Motoko Ai, controlled much of the media through the Central Media Communications Tower and its mogul, Robin Raphael, but even they couldn’t cover up things completely. Only a small handful of people knew the truth, but our investigation was too big to keep invisible.  Something big was still brewing out there, and everyone knew it.  Whispers of mass arrests and secret detention centers kept circulating.  It was starting to happen faster than Motoko’s people could keep up with.

            “We almost went out of business back then,” the boy said. “A lot of places on the strip were struggling and the damage was too much for them to absorb. No one wanted to come here after what happened. It made no sense that there would be a second random attack in the same spot, but people were afraid.”

He pointed again out onto the street.

            “But when you look at it now,” he said, “it’s like it never happened. Right? We all came together in the aftermath. We helped each other. The damage was repaired, the streets are clean now, and everyone is open for business. Some are even better now after rebuilding, and there’s something here that wasn’t here before. Like a bond. You know? Now if a stranger or a tourist were to come here, they would never even guess what happened right there.”

            I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I hadn’t thought much about the area at all since then. As I watched the dark spot in front of my eyes drift across the falling snow, I knew there had to be stories just like his all throughout the city. Had I begun to lose touch? That had been both Fawkes’s and Ai’s mistake.

            The thing was, though, that the kid didn’t know everything. He had gotten caught in the crossfire of a conventional bombing that didn’t really even have anything to do with him. If Fawkes had pulled off his plan three years prior, there would have been at least three nuclear detonations in the heart of the city, one for each of Ai’s strongholds. How long would it take to bounce back from that?

            I opened my mouth to say something when my phone buzzed inside my jacket pocket. I took it out and saw the name Van Offo flash on the LCD.

            A year ago, Alain Van Offo became my partner. The assignment came from high up, and he reported privately to Alice Hsieh. Motoko and her people knew they couldn’t directly control my mind anymore, but they still had him shadow me. Van Offo was a good agent, but he was one of them and he never pretended to be anything else. Like all of them, he controlled the minds of the people around us as a matter of course. Sometimes he had a good reason for it. Sometimes he didn’t. I dropped the phone back into my coat pocket without answering.

            “You’re busy,” the boy said. “I should go.”

            “I wish there was something I could tell you,” I said.

            He waved his hand. “Maybe it’s stupid, but I wanted to tell you that we are okay. I wanted to tell you that even though you couldn’t stop the bomb that day, we are persevering. We’re strong. If another attack comes, we will overcome that too. If my mother was alive to see us still here, she would be very happy. You know?”

            “It isn’t stupid. And thanks.”

            Someone yelled across the restaurant in Chinese, and he glanced back before getting up.

            “No charge for the food,” he said.

            “Thanks again.”

            “When you find the prick that did it, though, kill him for us.”

            He wormed his way away from my table and back through the crowd.

            “I’ll do that.”

            Incoming call. The words flashed in the air between me and the empty chair across the table. It was Van Offo.

Whatever he wanted had to be important.

            Call accepted.

            Wachalowski here.

            You didn’t answer your phone.

            I know that. What do you want?

            The data sweeps just got a hit. They think it’s related to revivor tech.

            Where?

            Black Rock train yard.

            I brought up details on the location and found it off the projects of Dandridge. The satellite photos showed that a big chunk of it was out of commission. A graveyard of retired freight carriers sat half-buried in the snow, waiting for the scrap heap.

            It looks abandoned.

            A flyby picked up heat and a big electrical signature. Magnetic scan suggests at least one heavy-duty lock. Someone’s there.

            Got it.

            I browsed through the satellite footage and the more I did, the more convinced I became that we were dealing with Fawkes. Since he’d gotten out of stasis and rejoined the living, we knew he’d disappeared somewhere inside the UAC. That meant sticking to places no one wanted to go. Even when he’d directed things from his box on the other side of the planet, that had been his MO. The city’s underbelly was big, bigger than it should have been. It was easy to get lost in, and he knew that.

            Who were they communicating with? I asked.

            They were unable to track the remote location, so we’re going in. SWAT is assembling now. Get back here.

            Understood. I’m on my way.

            I got up and made my way to the front door, a little bell ringing as I pushed it open and stepped out onto the sidewalk. The temperature had dropped and the snow was picking up. I joined the flow of foot traffic and started back toward the garage to get my car.

            Any one of these people, I thought as I walked among them. Any number of them could be carrying the Huma injection. How many would Fawkes feel he needed before he decided to go ahead with whatever his plan was?

At the intersection, the light had changed again and I stood with the rest, waiting while snow began to blanket the vehicles that piled up along the side street in front of us. The spot where the revivor had stood was less than ten feet away from me.

            The kid was right, though. The wound had healed, and you couldn’t tell. The city had been bruised but not beaten.

            So far.

 

 

CALLIOPE FLAX—BRIDGEWAY TOWERS APARTMENTS, UNIT #1042

           

Every night, it was the same goddamned dream.

            The faces and the voices changed, and even the body I looked out of changed, but it was the same place every time.

I was strapped to a gurney while guys in rubber suits pushed me down a hall. I could see and hear, but I couldn’t move. A door crashed open and they took me through to some big warehouse or hangar. Sheets of heavy plastic, some specked with blood, hung from hooks to screen off work areas, and I could see metal tanks with heavy hatches down there, fingers and palms pressed against glass ports. More guys in those hooded suits moved through the rows, and in an open spot in the middle, dirty naked people were on their knees, their necks chained to metal posts.

They wheeled me through and shoved open one of the plastic sheets. The space inside was full of equipment—an oxygen tank and trays of probes and wires. Shapes in white coats stood over me. One prepped a hypo, and I felt it prick my bicep.

            Is he ready?” someone asked.

            He? I thought.

            “Yes, proceed.”

            Someone pressed a plastic mask to my face. Cold air went up my nose and things went blurry. One of them moved a bright light over me as they crowded around. Another one of them used a pair of shears to cut down the middle of my shirt, then leaned in with a fistful of long needles.

            Who I was in the dream seemed to change. This time my chest was smooth, with no hair, but it belonged to a guy. I felt a sharp prick as the first needle went in. An old man’s hand pushed it through the skin, then stuck a wire to the other end. Then he stuck the next one in, and the next.

            Thoughts that weren’t mine ran through my head: how it wasn’t my fault and I didn’t know why I was there. I didn’t know who the people were. No one would talk to me.

            The doc leaned in and shone a light in my eye. In back of him, hands pushed a big piece of hardware over my chest. I could make out a big tube with a glass lens in it as they adjusted the rig until it was aimed at my heart.

            Clear,” someone said.

            There was a loud snap, and a low hum came from the tube. My hairs stood on end. The needles that stuck out of me shook a little, and a sick feeling dropped into my gut.

            “Steady . . .”

            “Initiating stasis field.”

            There was another snap, and pain bolted through my chest. My eyes rolled, and bile burned up my throat. The docs faded, and the lights went out. . . .

            I jerked awake in bed and grabbed my chest. My heart pounded under my hand, and I wiped the sweat off my face. Static hissed in my ears, that white noise in the back of my head that never stopped.

            “Fucking thing . . .”

            The dream was real; that was the worst part. Nico called it passive feedback. It started after the tanker. I was dead for more than two minutes out there, and I didn’t turn revivor, but it was close. He shocked my heart and brought me back, but the static kicked in then, background noise from the other Huma carriers—Fawkes’s little army. Every time we grabbed one of them and took them wherever it was they went, later I’d have the dream.

            That receiver in their heads, in my head, waited day in and day out for Fawkes to give the order. When he did, that would be it; dead and back again in under a minute. For most of them. Not for me. At least, that was the plan.

            In the dark, I heard my phone beep.

            What time is it?

            Before I’d shipped out, eight was early, but in boot camp, I found out what early was. I marched and ran drills before sunup like a robot, and hated every second. Two months in, though, I got used to it. Six months in, I learned to like it. Over there, it was the only time of day that wasn’t like a furnace. By eight it was hot as hell, and the sun never let up—no clouds, no rain, just dust, sweat, and bugs.

            I yawned and rolled over. I wondered for the millionth time where that place in the dream was. Where they took the carriers we found and what they did with them.

            It was still dark out, but down on the street the traffic was gearing up. I grabbed my phone and checked the time: 4:38 a.m. It beeped again.

            The screen said Singh, Riddhi. I flipped it open.

            “What the fuck do you want, Singh?”

            “Rise and shine, soldier,” he said. He sounded up. I pushed the covers away and sat on the edge of the bed.

            “You’re an asshole. You know that?”

            “Yeah, I know.”

            Singh was part of my squad at Stillwell Corps. After the rat’s nest Nico stirred up two years back, the UAC got hard-core about home defense. Stillwell took the bid to watch the streets and got big, quick. Word got out they wanted firsts—ex-military types looking for action—and just like that I doubled my pay, with the full package thrown in. I got to soldier again, and found out I’d missed it. On the record, we watched for terrorist threats. Off the record, we spent most of our time on one threat: Heinlein’s little field test gone wrong.

            “Get to the point, Singh.”

            “We found another hot spot.”

            Hot spot. That was Singh-speak for Huma carriers, the M10-positive, third-tier dregs.

            “So tell Ramirez,” I said.

            “I did. He said to call you.”

            Singh always found them first. He never went in—that was me—but Singh found them first.

            “How do you track the damn things?” I asked.

            “I’m just that good.”

            “You’re full of shit.”

            “You got the biceps; I got the brains.”

            I made a fist. That was a nerve I didn’t like touched.

            “I’m going to pound the fuck out of you, Singh,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it.

            “Promises. You want the location?”

            “More than life.”

            The data came in and I laid it over the map. The mark was close to Bullrich.

            “What a shock,” I said.

            “How’s that?”

            I zoomed in. There were three, from the look of it. They were in Pyt-Yahk. The Pit. Great.

            “You know the area?” he asked.

            “I know it.”

            “How long you need?”

            “It depends. I’m on it. Anything else?”

            “That’s it.”

            “Then screw you, and I’ll see you later.”

            “You know, Ramirez uses you because he thinks you’re the best,” he said.

            “Yeah, right.”

            “Seriously, you’ve got a sixth sense for finding them once you’re in there. You—”

            I hung up on him. I was still sitting on the edge of the bed when the alarm went off. I killed it and got up.

My dead hand was cool on my face when I rubbed my eyes, but at least the twitch was gone; all part of the Stillwell package. In the two years since the tanker went down, Heinlein’s new toy went public. The easy way out was easier than ever, and it made Heinlein a fuck-ton more cash. Those veins were full of Heinlein-approved, version M10 nanoblood now, which was pretty much the same as Huma—newer and better. No more twitching, no more numbness or tingling. It almost felt real.

            They could even upgrade it remotely from Heinlein, so no more stints in the drainage chair. It was worth it for that alone.

            I got out of bed and called my guy Yavlinski in Bullrich. It took a few tries, but he picked up.

            “Flax, what the hell?” He sounded half-dead.

            “We got three in the Pit.”

            “What the hell time is it?”

            “If you want to keep getting paid, Yavlinski, it’s time for you to get up.”

            He sighed and swore under his breath.

            “Where?”

            “Open your ears—the fucking Pit.”

            He swore again.

            “You hear me?”

            “Yeah, I heard you.”

            “I got a lead, but I need to narrow it down. Any of your guys call anything in?”

            “Not today.”

            “My info says there’re three together. One of your guys has them somewhere.”

            “If he does, he’s probably waiting until the goddamn sun comes up to call me,” he said.

            “Yeah, well I’m not.”

            He grumbled some more, but he got the message.

            “I’ll call you back.” He hung up.

            It was easier a year back, but you learn to spot trouble when you’re third tier, and they spotted it. No one knew why, but word got out: they’re rounding up thirds. The ones that got rounded up didn’t come back. When an outsider came in and sniffed around, they scattered like roaches.

            I fell back on paid snitches. Yavlinski knew everyone because he dealt in every kind of smack there was, plus black-market meds. With most folks steering clear of the free clinics now, he was the closest thing to health care a lot of them had. That put him in the know, and he liked money enough to run the side racket of kickbacks for each verified carrier he sent my way. I gave him the clinic names and patient lists, and he had his dealers track them down. If he found a real carrier or helped me catch one Singh picked up, Stillwell paid me, I paid Yavlinski, and he paid his guys. Everyone was happy. Except the ones that got rounded up.

            I flicked on the light in the bathroom and brushed my teeth. My new place was a step up from the last, and a long way from Bullrich. It had hot water all the time, AC in the summer, and steady heat in the winter. I had five rooms all to myself. Not bad for a third from Bullrich.

            I had some time before I got a call back. I worked out, then hit the shower. I let the steam build, then got wet and lathered up.

            I was older, but my body was still lean and hard. A few more scars, but except for the hand, I still looked like I did in my fight days. I ran my hands over my scalp and laced my fingers across the back of my neck. Behind my ear, I felt the scar under my thumb.

            One night about a year ago, Nico showed up at my place. He told me get in the car and not to ask questions. He took me somewhere where a guy put me under and I woke up with the scar. A new piece of tech showed up on the JZI. They couldn’t dig out Huma’s kill switch, but the shunt would keep it from going off, when the time came. That was the plan. He kept the whole thing off the record. He never said anything else about it, and neither did I, but I thought he made some kind of devil’s deal that night.

            Seriously, you’ve got a sixth sense for finding them once you’re in there. . . .

            Singh and the rest of them didn’t know that I could hear them. Whenever one turned, I picked it up. The closer I was, the louder it got. If they ever found out, they’d round me up too, right alongside the rest of them.

I’d just toweled off when the call came back.

            “Flax, I got them.”

            “Where?”

            “The Pit, like you said. One of my guys picked them up late last night. He’ll meet you there.”

            He sent the coordinates to my GPS. The spot was deeper in than Singh thought, but not too far off.

            “Got it.”

            “The guy wants dope, on top of the credits.”

            “It’s a good thing I know you, then.”

            I hung up.

            Those guys were always after more, but the fact was they worked cheap, and it was Stillwell’s dime. I’d have the deal done and the targets trucked out in time for lunch.

            Part of me didn’t like it, but it was what it was. Every one of them I picked up was one more revivor off the street. They’d kept the average Joe in the dark so far, but behind the scenes no one sugarcoated it; it was coming, and when it did, anything was better than that many jacks tearing up the city.

            Anything.

 

 

 

ZOE OTT—THE BLUE OYSTER BAR

            “Another drink?”

            I looked up from the heavy rocks glass I’d been idly turning on a cocktail napkin. The bartender had come over and was smiling down at me. He was handsome and dressed to the nines. He smiled and his eyes were flirtatious, but it was all an act; he was just sucking up. Underneath, I could tell he looked down on me. When I went out these days, it was always to fancy, upscale places like the Blue Oyster, but I hated them all.

            “Just keep them coming,” I said. I looked out the window to my right and saw snow falling on the sidewalk outside. In the glass, I could see my faint reflection, and my eyelids had gotten heavy. I looked the part; my clothes cost more than some people’s cars, and a diamond solitaire hung just under the Ouroboros tattoo whose red eye stared from over my jugular, where the snake swallowed his tail. My hair was pulled back in a tight bun, speared through with silver chopsticks. I looked as good as I supposed I could look, but the drinking was getting away from me again. I hoped the guy showed up soon so I could just get it over with and go home.

            The bartender kept up the smile and nodded, then walked away. I watched the snow come down until I saw his hand put a fresh napkin in front of me, then put a new rocks glass, half-filled with ouzo, on top of it. He took the empty one away as I picked up the new glass and swallowed half of it.

            While I waited, I tried to remember how many people I’d killed. I always remembered the first one all those years ago because it was an accident, and I always remembered Ted because he deserved it, but after that it got fuzzy. Ai had taught me a lot over the past year, and directing that particular ability was one of the most important, probably. No more accidents, and no more guesswork. When it had to be done, I could do it quickly, easily, and painlessly.

            “You ought to slow down,” a man said as he passed. I looked up and saw an older guy with gray hair and a gold watch stop near my table and grin. He was doing the fatherly thing, I guess. Or maybe he had a fetish for weirdoes. There was interest brewing around his head; I could sense it, but I couldn’t tell what his game was.

            “Go away.”

            “Troubles?” he asked. Was this guy for real? The guy I was waiting for came in every Friday around seven. He stayed for one drink, then went home to his wife. It was almost seven now. I didn’t have time for this.

The room got brighter as I looked into his eyes, and patterns of color appeared around his head. His smile dropped a notch and his eyes got stupid.

            “Come here,” I said. He came closer, and I waved for him to lean in. “What do you want?”

            “Nothing, I—”

            “Did someone send you?”

            Genuine confusion rippled through the pattern of colors. “No.”

            “Do you know who I am?”

            “No, you just . . . You looked lonely,” he said.

            I focused on the little ebbs and flows of his mind but didn’t see anything like sympathy. What I saw in there didn’t have anything to do with me. He didn’t think I looked lonely. He thought I looked pathetic and that I might be an easy mark. He was the one who was lonely.

            “You’re barking up the wrong tree,” I told him, “Walk away, and forget you ever thought to come over here.”

            I pushed, and his eyelids drooped. He nodded.

            “You understand?” I asked.

            “Yes.”

            “Smile, then walk away.”

            I let him go. He smiled. I smiled back. He walked away. It was a good thing too, because just then, Marcus Landers walked into the bar.

            He walked in, comfortable and easy. He was known there, and he knew everyone. People smiled and waved and he waved back. He signaled toward the bar, and the bartender started pouring him the usual scotch and soda. He didn’t even notice the weird redhead who he’d never seen there before.

            This one was a politician of some kind. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was he did, but he was making a huge deal about unnecessary search and seizure. He was stirring up a lot of media attention around the search for the Huma carriers, and he was smart enough to know he had to go independent, off the CMC’s grid, to do it. Ai and the others had done a good job of sweeping it under the rug so far, but it was time to stem this one at the source.

 He was a piece of work, anyway; for all his screaming, the only reason he could walk in to a place like the one we were in was because he used a contact inside the FBI to funnel money impounded from weapon-smuggling rings into private, offshore accounts. He was a liar, and a thief too.

            On a more personal level, he had a year-old assault record for punching his wife in the face after a domestic dispute. That was all I really cared about. That right there was enough for me to sign on for the job.

            I watched him approach the bar and take the drink. He started talking to a pretty brunet with big tits who was not his wife. He kept glancing down at her cleavage like she was blind. There was no way she didn’t notice, but she didn’t seem to care.

            Get a good eyeful, jerk.

            He stayed for one drink, like he always did. Then he made a big, showy good-bye, like anyone there really cared whether he lived or died, as long as he kept buying drinks. He leaned forward to the woman with the big tits like he might hug her or kiss her, but he didn’t do either. He turned and left the bar, stepping out onto the sidewalk.

In the dim light, no one noticed my eyes change as I stared at Mr. Landers through the window. As he bundled himself against the wind, I saw the colors, that strange signature of his consciousness, bloom around his head. The patterns there looked content, like he was a guy on top of the world. I burrowed deeper, to where other patterns swirled—righteous anger, ambition, and fear of getting caught—then entered his mind. It was as easy as slipping into a warm bath.

            He stopped suddenly, perking up as he sensed me.

            Hello, Mr. Landers.

            His face went pale and he started to look around, until I made him relax. He stood there as people streamed around him.

            I want you to do something for me, I told him.

            He wasn’t equipped to resist me. Actually, he was one of the easier ones I’d come up against during the past year. His mind was easy to influence, and what I wanted him to do was hardly anything at all.

            Outside, he nodded, still not even aware I was there watching him. His eyes looked a little unfocused as he stepped to the curb and waited. Snow drifted down and collected in his hair and on the shoulders of his coat while he breathed slow and steady. He stayed like that, between the bumper and grille of two parked cars, until I saw what I was looking for.

            The oncoming driver was already speeding. It took only a very small push to make him accelerate. Landers didn’t even look over as the engine gunned and tires chirped on the wet blacktop.

            Now, Mr. Landers.

            He knew, I think. Right at the last second he knew, and I felt him resist, but it didn’t work. He took a single, well-timed step backward off the curb and into the street. The crash made everyone in the bar jump. The driver stomped on the brakes, dragging Mr. Landers for several yards before slamming into the rear end of the vehicle ahead of him. Blood rained across the snow bank piled up next to the sidewalk as his body was crushed.

            Someone outside screamed. People crowded around the accident, some of them using their phones to take pictures. I saw the bartender pick up a handset and dial as his customers began flocking to the window.

            I just sat for a minute and waited. If Landers somehow survived, I was supposed to finish him off. But when I tried to sense him, he wasn’t there. Mission accomplished.

            I paid my tab, and then without making eye contact with anyone, I left the bar.

 

 

 

FAYE DASALIA—TREATMENT INFLOW PIPE

            I swam through cold, black water at near-freezing temperatures, through the narrow pipe that seemed to have no end.

            The only light came from my own eyes, and even my night vision could barely make out what lay ahead of me. The rumble of the treatment plant’s centrifuge had faded behind me a long time ago. The sounds of the street and underground metro were lost through the tons of concrete above me. The only sound that far down was the electric hum from inside my chest.

            Three hours had passed since I entered the pipe, and my body temperature was far below normal, even for me. The void that yawned beneath my field of memories seemed very wide, very deep, and very close. With nowhere else to look, I stared into it while fear buzzed in some disused part of my brain.

            Will this finally be the day? I wondered as I felt my mind sink further, through the lights of my memories and toward the dark. Will this be the day that I finally die?

            Faye, you should be almost there. Do you see anything?

            The words appeared in the dark and floated there, as I watched a seam in the pipe pass by me. It was Fawkes, contacting me from the surface. I scanned ahead for movement but didn’t spot anything.

            No sign yet.

            Lev had been three hours in when we lost him. Whatever he’d encountered, it had to be close. I left a circuit open, hoping he would pick it up, but so far there’d been nothing.

            How are you holding up? Fawkes asked.

            Fine.

            It had been one year since Samuel awoke, since he stopped being just a voice in the dark. He walked now, and talked here with form and presence. He’d been part of my life for a long time, but now he seemed real to me in a way he never had been before. Before the tanker sank into the ocean, he’d left stasis and stepped into the real world, where he was both more and less vulnerable. He had one more plan, one more chance to stop them. Whatever happened, it would be over soon.

            A signal it up at the edge of my sight. Sonar had picked up movement down the pipe in front of me.

Wait, I’ve got something.

            A gray shape appeared from out of the blackness. Metallic ticks vibrated through the cold pipe as the shape changed position.

            What is it? Fawkes asked.

 It was dense, and maybe a third of my size. I scanned it and found electrical current.

            It’s mechanical.

            I tuned the sonar, creating an image. Up ahead the pipe was filled with sediment, and just past that was some kind of small machine with many spindly legs. It used a sensor to probe ahead of it as it scuttled through the pipe.

There’s some kind of servo down here. Stand by.

            The servo reached out with a wire-thin claw and poked through the sediment in front of it, kicking up small, fleshy cubes.

            Faye. The word flashed in the dark in front of my face. Lev had picked up the circuit. He was still down here somewhere.

            Lev, where are you?

            Just ahead. Don’t approach the servo yet.

            The robot scuttled forward, kicking up more of the soft, uniform cubes. I watched them float down into the sediment.

            It’s revivor flesh, I thought. The pieces were Lev’s remains.

            What happened? I asked.

            It’s some kind of maintenance ’bot, he said. It must be designed to carve up blockage. It came up behind me and severed my spine before I could stop it. I’ve kept it from the rest of me, but I can’t continue the mission.

I strained my eyes through the dark, and there, maybe twenty feet or so in the distance, I could just make out his eyes. They shifted in the darkness, staring, I thought, into his personal void.

            How do I get past it? I asked.

            Watch the claw, but your best bet is probably to just grab it. It’s not designed for combat, and it’s not heavily shielded; you should be able to penetrate its skin.

            Understood.

            The servo moved through the chunks, heading in my direction. When it locked on, it moved surprisingly fast; a claw brushed my face as I lunged and grabbed the leg at its base. Through the water I heard the whir of motors as it tried to pull away.

            The cutter flashed in front of me a few times as its little legs scrambled, trying to make a retreat. I found a seam in the thing’s outer chassis and placed my free palm on it. I fired my bayonet and it punched through, into its electronics.

            The robot jerked in my hand and my body seized as a jolt of electricity passed through it. The current arced from my back and down the pipe as I turned the bayonet. I heard a metallic crunch; then the servo stopped moving.

I retracted the blade and dropped the machine. Pushing through the chunks of flesh, I stirred up fingers and toes until the water cleared on the other side. I swam close to what was left of Lev Prutsko.

            I’m here, Lev.

            His eyes had dimmed in the dark. All he had left was his torso and one arm. His gaze stopped shifting around and made eye contact with me.

            I’m glad it was you who came, he said.

            Glad?

            I think so, he said. Yes.

            Over the channel we shared, he began to stream something, a thin trickle of embers, over to me. It was one of his memories. When the stream ebbed out and died, he signaled for me to lean closer to him. I moved in until our faces nearly touched.

            He never expected me to make it, he said. I knew that. Whoever goes down this pipe is expendable. Did he tell you?

            I had suspected it, but I shook my head.

            There’s a lot he doesn’t tell you, Lev said.

            He doesn’t trust me?

            You shouldn’t have told him about what you remembered.

            We hadn’t spoken of that in a long time. After reanimation, memories that had been erased would return. It’s why Ai feared us. But long ago when I awoke on the tanker, one particular memory had returned—a piece of the puzzle that never quite fit. As a detective, I’d processed one of them, a woman named Noelle Hyde. Back then, she’d tried to kill Fawkes, but she wasn’t ordered to; it was just the opposite. They’d killed her for what she’d done.

            They didn’t want Fawkes dead, I said to Lev.

            They lie. He thinks you give too much consideration to their motives.

            I know what I saw. At the time, I thought they feared something else, something besides Fawkes stripping them from power.

            Lev’s eyes just watched me from the murky darkness.

            I still think that, I said. Lev managed a nod.

            Maybe they do.

            “. . . It will start here, but it won’t end here . . .” Ai had said once. “Fawkes will destroy this city, and then one by one, the rest will begin to fall. . . .”

            They need to be stopped, I said, but he should have listened.

            There’s a lot he doesn’t tell you. Just remember that.

            I will.

            Do you want to continue your existence?

            I think so.

            You think?

            The darkness that waits for me, I told him, it’s the only thing left that really scares me. I don’t want it to take me. I’m not ready for it to take me, not yet.

            You may come to terms with that someday, he said.

            Have you?

            A long time ago. He will shut you down, you know. Someday soon.

            I know.

            I wish I could stop it, he said.

            You do?

            Yes.

            I moved closer to him and hoped he could see my face. Using our private channel, I told him something I hadn’t told anyone else.

            I found a way to sever his command spoke.

            He didn’t respond right away. The shunt I’d fashioned over the years would work—I didn’t doubt that—but Fawkes’s reaction, if he knew, would be extreme. It would mean the end not just for me, but everyone on Fawkes’s network who knew of it.

            Will you run, then? he asked.

            Under my tongue, I felt the small glass capsule. Lev would have had one as well.

            Do you still have the Leichenesser? I asked.

            No. I swallowed it in the struggle.

            I placed one hand on the side of his cold face and the other over his Adam’s apple. Peering through his flesh, I found his command nodes.

            Good-bye, Lev.

            Good-bye, Faye.

            The blade pushed through his skin and into his spine. With a small twist, the command connections snapped. The circuit between us dropped as black blood bloomed out into the cold water, blotting out the light from his eyes even as they faded, and went dark.

            Alone, I brought up the memory he gave me. With no pathways associated with it, it wouldn’t last very long. I wanted to see it before it decayed.

            I looked into it and saw myself, alive. From the subtle distortion, I knew he’d been looking through a Light Warping field as he stood and watched me. I was in my apartment. My skin had color, and I still had hair. Real blood still pulsed through my veins, and I could almost sense sadness in my eyes.

            This is the night I was killed.

            The heat in my veins stood out as he’d watched me and monitored the steady beat of my heart. He kept tabs on a second heartbeat as well; my old partner, Doyle Shanks, was there with me.

Target Shanks is here. The words appeared in the air, and though I realized he’d been talking to Fawkes, his stare remained fixed on me and not on Doyle Shanks.

            Kill them both, came the reply, but Lev had hesitated.

            I can remove the target and leave the other, he offered.

            Kill them both, came the reply, and the memory scattered. The ember, Lev’s last thought, faded away, gone forever. I didn’t look back as I swam on ahead.

            Fawkes, I’m through.

            Good. The perimeter is roughly five hundred meters ahead.

            From the security perimeter’s edge, it would be a half mile. Well past the point of no return, I swam on. Eventually, I saw a broadcast message from the surface far above:

            You are entering a restricted area. No unauthorized communications are permitted in or out from this point forward. No unauthorized scans, visual, audio, or data recordings are permitted beyond this point. No unauthorized personnel, or authorized personnel with a security clearance of less than 3 are permitted beyond this point by order of the UAC Government. . . .

            The words scrolled by in the dark, but they didn’t concern me. It was a stock message, given to all visitors. They had no way to detect my presence, and if they did, I’d get more than a warning.

            . . . by continuing, you forfeit your right to refuse any and all searches, including of your vehicle, its contents, and your person, up to and including full internal scanning. Any property including identification may be confiscated at the guard’s discretion and held for an indeterminate period of time. Failure to comply with security will result in action up to and including lethal force. . . .

            It took thirty minutes to close the distance. The pipe ended abruptly, and a connecting pipe led toward the surface. That muted pang of anxiety faded, and the dark void receded, just a little.

            I’m at the junction.

            I looked up into the dark. According to the blueprints, the pipe was a straight shot up to the surface. I pushed off the cold metal and began to swim upward. The water pressure eased the higher I went, until I came to a ninety-degree bend. The pipe was running across the tarmac now.

 . . . entering a restricted area. No unauthorized communications are permitted in or out from this point forward. No unauthorized scans, visual, audio, or data recordings are permitted beyond this point. . . .

The words warped and then winked out. As part of the security protocol, my communication node had been shut down.

            I swam, measuring the distance, then stopped. I snapped open my left arm and took the handheld arc cutter from inside. When my hand rejoined, I placed it on the pipe, feeling the cold metal in front of my face.

            The cutter hissed as I carved out a circle three feet in diameter. I lowered the plug down into the water, and dim light seeped through the hole. I turned off the night vision and looked up through the surface of the water at what looked like ceiling struts high above me. I reached up and gripped the edges of the hole, cold air chilling the skin of my exposed hands, then pulled down until my head broke the surface.

            I slipped through and lowered myself to the floor. I was in a huge hangar where a fleet of large vehicles hunkered. Over on the opposite side of the room, a large glass window looked into an office, but the lights were out inside. I listened, but I didn’t hear anyone.

            I stood, naked, and surveyed my location. I saw twenty or so large trucks parked inside. The pipe ran along the base of one wall. Crouching, I followed it to its exit point, and through a grimy window I saw it continue across the tarmac to a large water tower in the distance. Snow was falling, large flakes swirling in the wind.

            The tower held four thousand gallons of water used as coolant down in the processing plant. Every six months it was flushed through the pipeline to the water-treatment plant, where I began my journey. The large silo stood several hundred meters out in back of the main plant, directly across from a storage depot. That depot was my target.

 I found the door and stepped out into the snow. The lock clicked shut behind me, and a gust of freezing air whipped over me. I saw no guards or cameras. The security system on the tarmac keyed off heat signatures, which made me effectively invisible. I kept to the shadows and moved fast. At the depot’s back entrance I found a plain metal door with a scanner next to it. I pulled a small, tightly rolled magnetic strip out from under an incision in my scalp. Unrolling it, I held it to the scanner until it beeped and the LED turned green.

 

Ice flaked down onto my back as I pushed open the door. The facility was dark and filled with metal boxes. Each box was the size of a human body, stacked and awaiting shipment. Each had a lot number and a shipping code, and was stamped with a certification:

Product of Heinlein Industries

I followed the map Fawkes had provided and crept down one of the rows all the way to the end of the shipping bay, where a single doorway stood. I stepped through, down a long, dark corridor, to an annex designated SST, for Series Seven Testing.

            The magnetic strip got me through the door and into a refrigerated locker where wheeled metal racks were assembled in rows. Rows of revivors hung from hooks on each rack, their arms and legs dangling.

            There were ten revivors to each of the racks, dormant, but ready for reanimation. Counting down by date and time, I found the rack that would be processed that morning. I lifted the first revivor off its metal hook and hoisted it down onto the concrete floor. I spit out the glass capsule and slipped it into the corpse’s open mouth, down between its rear molars. I struck him beneath the jaw and heard the capsule crunch.

            Mist boiled from between the revivor’s lips, and a few seconds later his face melted like hot wax. Teeth and bone collapsed and oozed into the hole as I stood and stepped back to a safe distance. His chest sank in on itself, followed by the rest of him, as the substance consumed the necrotized flesh. When its job was done, it turned upon itself. All it left behind were revivor hardware and a cloud of thin white mist that was already being pulled through the vents. I took the tag that had been around his wrist. I slipped it around my own, then hid the bayonet and revivor nodes behind an equipment rack.

            The bodies swayed on their hooks as I pulled myself into the empty slot. The hook pierced my skin and I eased myself down until it dug into the bone of my skull. Carefully, I released the bar above me and let myself hang. In another minute, the bodies were still.

            Using the trigger Fawkes had given me, I made myself go dormant. The light from my eyes flickered and then went out. If our contacts there were right, I would reawaken in the next few hours.

            Until that time, I would sleep.

 

 

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ELEMENT ZERO is available for pre-order now, and will be released on April 05, 2011