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July 2084 - One and a half years ago

Really, what we want now, is not laws against crime, but a law against insanity.

    --Mark Twain

The decrepit medical frigate materialized in the fog, its running lights reflecting red and green in the misty air. A pulsing signal lamp flashed weakly from the conn tower. The water around it glowed a sickly yellow, waving lazily in the current. The warped deck sprouted frayed cables, adding to the sense of decay.

I rolled the Cavallino to one side, circling the refurbished vessel just outside their sensor range. The car responded nimbly to my touch, slicing through the cloudy air. I concentrated on the visual boosters in my grav suit to get a better look. The sensor-enhanced image clarified as I ramped up my focus, narrowing in on the target.

The ship had started its existence as a military grade stealth cruiser. Dual hulls plowed through the water in front, rising into an octagonal deck designed for medevac landings. The trapezoidal bridge hunkered low behind the deck. The hooded conn lights and main gun resembled a sniper waiting in cover. Bulbous aftermarket weapon pods blistered around the deck’s rim, clashing with the otherwise angular design.

Although the fusion reactor and desalination plants would last for decades, the rest of the ship was in terrible disrepair. The black and gray camouflage wore thin where it hadn’t been scraped off entirely. Some armor panels were simply missing. Carnivorous barnacles packed themselves shell to shell on the hulls, their barbed tongues dragging the water in a luminescent halo around the edges of the ship. They looked like long hair flowing around a swimming head.

I focused the sensors to see through the landing pad, using a combination of field effects to examine the hospital section below. Around thirty people occupied the medical bay in various states of distress. A supervisor sat in an office nearby, reclining in a sleepernet chair. She lost herself in a virtual concert, eyes closed and body relaxed. Her feet twitched as she danced in the mental simulation. A medical bot monitored the patient beds, tending to their various needs as they occurred.

Inside the bridge, the boss conducted business on one holographic display while watching something depraved on the other. I had trouble locking onto his sleepernet connection. I tried to pull more resolution from the business display, but couldn’t get a good signal. Still too far away.

Back in the car, Sleeper Titan appeared in the holographic projector between the seats. He wore his usual tuxedo, hands clasped behind his back. He inclined his diamond-like head in my direction. “Congratulations, sir. You have found the target.”

I let go of my concentration. The boosters bled heat into an exhaust system behind the seats. “It only took, what, eight months?”

“Important things take time, of course.”

I shrugged. “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, I suppose.”

I pulled back on the wheel, flooring the accelerator. The nose pitched up. The fusor snarled with a harmonic roar, pushing me back into the seat as I accelerated away.

Titan projected a course map in front of me. “I would suggest coming in from the following heading at the indicated speed. Once you drop from the vehicle, you should fall in an unpowered dive with only minor visibility risk. Your landing will take you directly behind this missile cluster. There is an access tunnel that leads to the lower deck from there.”

I looked over his plan, running it forward and backward to study the details. I rotated the model absentmindedly. “Are they running active detection equipment?”

“Their stealth, what remains of it, dictates a need to use passive sensors only. On inspection, I am uncertain that their active equipment is functional in any meaningful capacity.”

I scanned the data inside the ship, looking for defense machines or guards. There were a few derelict bots scattered about. “Seems poorly protected on the inside.”

“Given how long it has taken us to discover the ship’s location, protection from boarders might be considered an expensive redundancy.”

I examined the medical charts of the various patients, clenching my fist unconsciously at their various states of decay. One was almost certainly near death. Another struggled weakly, apparently freshly captured. Serum filled the storage vats behind them to half capacity, enough to supply a dozen users for several years.

The office supervisor continued twitching in her sleepernet trance, fully immersed in the world of the concert. It contrasted strangely with the unimaginable suffering she oversaw in the next room.

I pitched the car to the approach vector, setting the desired speed. “Guess I’d better be going then.”

Titan straightened in the display. “Good hunting, sir.”

“That’s the plan.”

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I grabbed the handles in the ceiling, pressing the switch to open the hatch underneath the seat. The chair folded away gracefully. The floor irised open, filling the cockpit with the sound of rushing air. I took the weaponizer staff off my back with one hand, letting it drop out the hole.

Taking a deep breath, I let go of the handles, falling into the wind like a human projectile. The force of the air spun me into a headfirst dive. I caught the staff, forming a shield bubble at the tip. I dropped toward the ocean. I concentrated on the visual boosters again, seeing the trawling ship burbling along obliviously. I shifted my body and the staff to refine my trajectory.

Sooner than I would have thought possible, the rotting ship rushed up to meet me. I rotated to a feet-first approach, briefly scanning the defenses. It looked like Titan had spoofed them all.

I flared the grav boosters on landing, slamming into the hull in a preprogrammed crash. Bright orange light exploded from the boosters, reflecting sharply in the foggy air before darkening again. I ended up kneeling in a small dented crater behind the missile cluster, leaning on my staff. After checking to make sure I’d landed undetected, I vented heat from the suit. Dense cold air blasted across the heat sinks, turning into a noisy rush of steam behind me. The overwhelming roar of the barnacles churning the sea muffled the sound.

I switched to flashing with Titan, allowing us to trade thoughts silently.

“I’m in.”

Titan flashed a sense of accomplishment. “Well done, sir. The hatch is approximately three meters to your left.”

Not surprisingly, years of built-up cruft had rusted the hatch shut. I formed a plasma scythe on the tip of the staff. I could focus the blade into any shape, fitting the contours of a cut down to the millimeter range. I carefully sliced off only the crusty parts of the hatch. It cracked open with an audible pop.

The access tube inside had once been pristine white with brushed luminum trim. The style was fashionable twenty years ago but looked dated now. This particular example of the trend hadn’t aged well. Mold and filth grew on the surfaces. The old luminum glowed an anemic orange instead of the bright blue it once produced. I felt dirty just looking at it.

I dropped down the tube, landing on the deck below with a soft thump. The hallways were narrow, in roughly the same shape as the access tunnel. I wondered if the ship had spent some time as a yacht before it fell into criminal hands. The layout was relatively simple, with a circular hallway leading around the rim of the sick bay. It was easy to find the forward entrance to the chamber.

I hugged the wall next to the double sliding doors, reaching into my visual boosters. I spent some time looking through the doors into the room itself. Everything looked clear. The office was in the back, its occupant still enjoying her concert.

I eased the doors open, slipping inside. Here, the walls were clean and white. The fresh luminum trim glowed a pleasing white-blue. It still looked dated, but at least it wasn’t disgusting.

The rows of beds were filled to capacity. The hair-sized carbon microtubes attached to all thirty occupants throbbed slightly with the fluid they harvested. Bile rose in the back of my throat. The living patients shivered sporadically on the beds, more so if they hadn’t been here as long. Their eyes were open but vacant, showing a state of semi-consciousness.

The idea that they might be aware in any way while their brain tissue dissolved sickened me. Did they feel the absence as memories of life and loved ones were stripped away one at a time? Could they sense the difference in their emotions as the facets of their personality disappeared piece by piece? How long until they faded into nothingness, all so that some ghoulish old freak could spend one more year cheating death?

Physically, the distillation process caused their hair and fingernails to grow at a phenomenal rate. It also siphoned the muscles and pigment from their bodies, turning the longer-term victims white and skeletal. You could see the progression in their hair, which was colored at the tips but slowly turned chalky the closer it got to their head. Their irises faded to red as swollen blood vessels overwhelmed the disappearing pigment. Combined with the muscle loss and pale skin, it made them look like terrified skeletons.

I gripped my staff angrily, making my way between the beds. The medical bot turned from tending the agitators in the serum vats. I slammed a shutdown hack on its brain with a forceful thought, resisting the urge to destroy it completely. It made a startled yelp, gibbering a bit before crashing into a jumbled pile.

I stepped into the office, towering over the supervisor in her sleepernet trance. She looked young, although that could be deceiving. Her blonde hair flopped jauntily in pigtails on either side of her head. Her lab coat was open to the waist, maximizing the view of the animated tattoo between her breasts. The expensive color-shifting ink displayed a stylized beating heart pulsing through a riot of colors. Her nail polish thrummed along with it.

Her virtual concert reached its climax. I couldn’t help myself. I knew how this particular simulation ended, so I grabbed her debugging stream. I eased into her feed, making some alterations.

The concert featured a boy band called the People’s Republic of Cowboys. The five members, each chosen to represent a particular caricature of personality, strutted around onstage wearing ruby cowboy hats and golden dragons. The leader, whose name I couldn’t remember and couldn’t be bothered to look up, raised the microphone.

“Tonight we have a very special guest.” His accent was a fascinating mix of Mandarin and Southern drawl, mesmerizing in how naturally they flowed together. “I think she knows who we’re talking about. Tasha, come up on stage!”

The spotlights focused on the young office manager in the crowd. Tasha clasped her hands to the animated heart on her chest. “Me?” She looked around incredulously, unable to believe they had chosen her. The crowd lifted her, carrying her to the stage while she squealed with delight. They deposited her in the middle of the band. The singers circled her, turning her to face the audience.

“Yes, tonight, folks, we have a genuine mass murderer in our midst!”

The crowd went bananas. It took her a moment to parse what he’d said.

Her face fell. “Wait. What?”

He looked at her quizzically. “Perhaps you’d rather be known for your work torturing their minds beforehand?”

The cheers from the audience deafened everyone once again. The band surrounded her more tightly, as if trapping a startled animal.

She tried to squirm out of their grasp. “What are you talking about? What’s going on?”

The leader tipped his hat at her. “Why, the vampire juice, of course! Should we call it Lazarus serum? Perhaps you prefer life extension treatments.”

The band all smiled at her at once, displaying the characteristic dripping misshapen teeth of long-time serum users. “Give yourself a hand.”

Tasha startled herself out of the simulation, bolting awake on the chair. She found me leaning over her in my shrouding cloak, plasma scythe crackling with energy.

I let her get a good look at the skull-like mask under my hood. “Morning.”

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Tasha had just enough time to scream before I hit her with a neuromagnetic pulse. The nemp blast knocked her out cleanly for up to six hours.

I made my way out of the office, waking up the medical bot. It wobbled uncertainly to its feet, rubbing its head.

I pointed my staff at it. “You.”

It beeped its confusion at me.

“Yes, you. Put her in that open bed and keep her sedated.”

The bot buzzed inquisitively.

“She’s not your supervisor. I am until further notice. Disconnect these other patients from the serum tubes and keep them comfortable. Do you understand?”

It swayed uncertainly, so I punched it in the head with more programming. “I said, do you understand?”

It perked up noticeably, nodding and tipping a nonexistent hat at me. It trundled to the office to bundle up Tasha and put her to bed.

I strode to the aft doors, heading to the elevator. I sent a flash to check in with Titan. “Has the big guy noticed I’m here yet?”

Titan paused before answering. “Not at present. He appears to be quite distracted by his displays. I have programmed the elevators for silent running. I have also prevented him from disconnecting from his credentials. Once you make physical contact, I will be able to extract the information from his datastream.”

I stepped into the elevator, pressing the button for the bridge. The doors closed with a quiet bong. As always, I felt mildly ridiculous doing something as mundane as riding an elevator in a combat grav suit.

The doors opened on the command deck. In contrast with the rest of the ship, opulent dark brown butterwood paneling covered the walls. Dark red drapes covered the bridge windows. Various shiftsilver sculptures rested on pedestals, displaying stylized antique nautical instruments.

Behind the luxurious crystalwood desk, my old informant Donnie looked up, startled to see me. He desperately tried to shut down his suddenly unresponsive displays.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to see him behind this particular operation, but it was a new low. He stood up, knocking his chair back into the wall. His voice grated on my nerves, sounding like an anthropomorphic rodent.

“Hey! You. Uh. Hi! Wow! What a pleasant surprise. Ha, ha. Wasn’t expecting to see you here!” He ran his hands through his greasy black hair, nervously glancing at the data still scrolling past on his display.

I reached out with my grav boosters, clenching an invisible fist around his collar. I yanked him across the room, holding him up to inspect his face. My eyes flashed bright orange on my mask.

His bloodshot eyes darted around wildly. He licked his lips with a wet wriggling noise. “Looking good, there, pal! Is the eye flash new? Got to say, very intimidating. From one professional to another, that’s really well done. Fits with this whole grim reaper thing you got goin’ on.”

I used the tip of my staff to open his mouth and inspect his teeth. Sure enough, his upper teeth were misshapen pointed lumps in his mouth, dripping downward like stalactites. Lowering his collar, I found the characteristic red scars on his neck from the serum injection sites. Vampire juice.

I pulled his face close. He might have wet himself in fear. It was hard to tell, what with the rest of the body odor. “I come in here to find you not just using but selling? I’m disappointed in you, Donnie. I thought we had an agreement.”

His black eyes darted around my face. “Oh, oh, you mean this? Oh, this is all just a misunderstanding. Ha, what a terrible misunderstanding! No, I’m just watching this place for a friend.”

I hurled Donnie back across his desk. He crashed into his chair, landing with a startled gasp. He scrambled to get back to his feet.

With a flick of a grav booster, I shoved him down again. “You lie to my face when you know I can see the truth right there in your datastream? I’m even more disappointed now, which hardly seems possible.”

“Look, well, okay, maybe I kind of took it from someone who wasn’t really a friend. And maybe, just maybe, I might’ve gotten a little carried away. But we’re buddies, right? Old partner? Friend? I can feed you information, right? Just like the old days!”

I towered over his desk. “Start talking and we’ll see how charitable I’m feeling.”

“Okay. Okay. Well.” He licked his lips, looking away briefly. “You’re not gonna like this, but word on the street is that your boss is dirty.”

“The street, you say.”

He perked up when he realized I hadn’t immediately shut him down. “Yeah. Yeah, man. Your old pal and Sleepernet Chief Executive Hero Reggie Talbot’s been doin’ illegal stuff with the government, man. Ain’t you never wondered why you vigilantes are allowed to run free while the military wonders what it’d be like to get their hands on a sleeper supercomputer?”

“That’s his job. To keep the government out of private matters.”

His gaze flicked to the side of my head and back again. “Yeah, man, but don’cha think he’s a little too good at it?”

Titan flashed a warning. “On your left, sir.”

I sensed the micromissile bot hovering behind me, firing its missiles. Booster-assisted reflexes took me out of the way of a dozen intelligent warheads. They streaked through the space previously occupied by my head. The warhead systems were simple enough to reprogram. I let six of them brush their exhaust across the left half of Donnie’s face on the way past. The other six lightly burned the right half of his face.

I sent them back to the robot that fired them without bothering to turn around. The drone made a startled shriek, turning to flee before exploding into a clattering heap behind me.

Donnie screamed, clutching his cheeks. He looked down at his hands in terror. “My face! You burned my face!”

I reached across the desk with my staff, pushing his head back up by his chin. The burn marks looked like whiskers. “Quit wasting my time. I come in here looking for useful information and you try to sell me some half-baked garbage about a guy I’ve known for a decade and a half? Thought you were smarter than that.”

“Hey man, I ain’t the one with the truth fetish here. I’m in it for the money. If it was true, wouldn’cha wanna know about it?”

“Try harder. And if you try to kill me again, I cannot overstate how catastrophically disappointed I will be.”

He rubbed his face uncomfortably. “Well, okay then, how ’bout my customer list? Bet you wanna know who’s illegally extending their life, am I right?”

“Again, I need to remind you that I can see your datastream.”

“Yeah, man, but ain’t no personal information in there. Bad for business, you know? All done anonymously through agents. But hey, I tell you what. Let you in on a pretty big secret. One of the guys that buys from me, he’s some big huge government honcho. That’s right, real mover and shaker. Any time I got me some legal complications, he makes ‘em disappear. Almost like he orders the military around, ya know what I’m sayin’?”

“Consider me shocked. Who could have guessed those sorts of people might want to live forever. I don’t suppose you have a name? Or an office?”

“Naw, man, ain’t like that. Could be the president for all I know. I bet he’s at least a member of the Cabinet.”

“More rumors without evidence. One more chance.”

“Uh. Well. Oh! Hey. How ’bout this. You tap my ship. Classic crime deal, am I right? I sell out to you. You get the big fish, you let me go free. It’s one of those win-win sort of deals, ain’t it? Don’t see those come along too often. No sir.”

“Tell me. The thirty people downstairs. How’d they get here?”

He shifted nervously again. “Those chumps? They, uh, volunteered.”


“That’s right. Wanted to kill themselves. We pay off their families or their debt or whatever. They all got their reasons.”

“And if they change their minds?”

He guffawed. “Well we ain’t gonna give the money back, that’s for sure.”

I stayed silent long enough for it to become uncomfortable. “So. They volunteer. Come to the ship, get hooked up to the machines. Takes six weeks to finish them?”

“Huh? Naw, man, maybe thirty years ago. Takes about two weeks now. And we ain’t takin’ no babies or children no more neither. Turns out mid-twenties to mid-thirties are best. Only problem is they gotta sorta be awake the whole time.”

“Do they?”

Donnie leaned back, relaxing a bit to talk shop. “Yeah man. All those years of education and experience. You can’t just up and replicate all the energy that went into makin’ that brain, you know? The way I see it, we’re just takin’ all that an’ makin’ sure it don’t go to waste if someone don’t like their life all that much. ‘Sides, you seen the population count lately? Ain’t like we got some kinda people shortage.”

I leaned forward on his desk. A flash of fear returned to his eyes. “Let me get this straight. You want me to put a bug in your shop and watch you torture people to death over a period of no less than fourteen days. Let’s say two months and multiple patients to get any interesting data. Then I get to spend my time trying to trace back through the layers of obfuscation to figure out who the customers might possibly have been, all while these people continue dying. Is that what you’re proposing?”

“Uh. Well, yeah.” He licked his lips again. I wanted to knock them off his face. “You know. For the greater good.”

I reached out with my boosters, grabbing him by the collar. I yanked him across the desk, dropping him on the floor.

I dragged him toward the elevator. He struggled in my boosted grip. “Hey! Let’s not be hasty here. What’re you doin’?”

“Thinking I might go tie you to the deck.”

He yelped as I hurled him into the elevator, pinning him to the back wall. I stepped inside, turning my back on him.

I pressed the button for the landing pad. I briefly savored the ridiculousness of not just riding the elevator in my grav suit, but feeling Donnie squirming on the wall behind me.

He clutched at his collar, trying to loosen the invisible grip. “Wait, wait. What’cha gonna do with the serum? That’s top quality stuff, man, you could make a fortune!”

“Thinking I might feed it to the barnacles.”

His breath exploded out in an expression that was hard to pin down. “The barnacles? What would ya do that for?”

I looked over my shoulder at him, letting my eyes flash. “Hoping they might reach up and eat you off the deck.”

He began struggling in earnest. “That’s it? You’re just gonna leave us to die out here? You can’t do that, man! You ain’t no killer! I know you, you ain’t no killer!”

I leaned in close, trying not to flinch at the smell. “Thought you weren’t a killer either. But here we are. You’re right, though. I don’t think the barnacles will kill you. I’m going to set this ship on autopilot to the biggest media event I can find. Splash it on the news so hard that even your high-powered government buddy can’t cover you up. Then I’m going to use your datastream to go after your competitors.”

His shocked look proved that I’d hit the mark. I smiled at him. “That’s right. I bet there are all kinds of reasons you don’t keep customer information around. But competitive analysis? That’s another story. Probably enough data in there to find a couple more producers before they wise up. Kind of curious, though. Why didn’t you try to sell them out?”

His eyes went so wide I thought they might bulge out of his head. “Are you kidding? Those guys are animals. You got any idea what they’d do to me?”

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