Derwin Lester II
New Galle, Mars - November 2354
The night was cold and dark. Desert dust mingled with the air, forcing its way into your clothes and clinging to your hair. Coating your skin. Drowning your soul. The soul of Mars ran red with the blood of innocence, and on a night like tonight, there were always folks willing to spill a little more.
Special Agent Janet Harkov strode out of the night, scanning the street. She had close-cropped hair the color of sand, and wore a stark frown that betrayed her impatience for bullshit.
After taking in the scenery, her dark, taciturn eyes settled on a building to her right, on the south side of the street. It bore a faded neon sign proclaiming “Antiques” hanging over the door, which was turned off. Janet reached out and rang the doorbell. A muffled buzzing came from inside.
Following a long pause, the door creaked open. A weathered face appeared in the sliver of darkness, twisted into a scowl. “Can’t you see we’re closed?” the man said, nodding towards the dimmed open sign. His face softened slightly. “Come back when the sun’s up. We open at eight o’clock sharp.”
As he swung the door swung shut, Janet caught it with her right hand. “I’m going to have to insist.”
The man’s scowl returned. “Look, if you’re going to cause a scene then I’m going to have to call the—”
Janet deftly withdrew her ID wallet with her free hand and flipped it open. It displayed a silver shield and the stylized letters “A.L.C.A.” along with her agent’s credentials. The name “Harkov, Janet E.” stood out in well-defined black letters next to the stern-faced ID photo. “Don’t bother,” she said, in a voice like polished granite. “Someone went to the trouble already.” She peered past him into the building. “That’s why I’m here. This is an official A.L.C.A. investigation.”
Ignoring the man’s sputtering, she forced the door open and pushed in past him, returning her credentials to her pocket as she did. She looked around, taking in the interior of the store. The tables were weighed down with cellular phones, dusty circuit board computers, and video disk players. Most centuries old. A few of the pieces even looked older than the United Nations of Mars itself. Relics from Earth’s past had always been a source of fascination for Janet.
She grinned as she took in the scenery. “This is a nice setup you’ve got here.” She picked up a windup toy monkey off a display table, having only seen one before in vintage movies. She was half-tempted to wind up the little piece of history and see it clang away. “But the anonymous tip we received said you might be trafficking livelier trinkets than this.”
She turned to face him and neatly crossed her arms, eyes boring into his. “The artificial kind, that is.”
The old man licked his lips, unable to keep her gaze for long. He smiled, showing several crooked teeth. The expression was clearly forced. He couldn’t even bring himself to deny it. Janet smiled faintly, understanding. She turned on her heel, scanning the room in a businesslike manner. She spotted a door along the back wall of the main room, with a faded “Employees Only” sign tacked to it. She stepped toward the door. “I’ll just look for myself then. I’m sure you won’t mind.” She had her hand near her hip, already planning on what might await her beyond the threshold.
As she neared the door, the old man rushed to intercept her. He had found his confidence again. “No, I’m afraid that is out of the question. I’m sorry you came all the way here for nothing.” He put a commanding hand on her shoulder. “I’ll show you the door.”
Janet turned her head and looked disdainfully at his hand. The look on her face would have told a wiser man what kind of danger he was in. Then her placid smile returned. “I think I’ll stay, thanks.” Then she opened the back room door and stepped through.
She paid no mind to the old man’s protests, finding herself awash in a dizzying array of old tech and knick-knacks, layer upon layer in baskets that were stacked on shelves almost scraping the three meter ceiling. She strode down the center aisle and rounded a corner, her right hand instinctively reaching for the left side of her jacket. The old man kept pace behind her. He was shouting now. “Now listen here! This is my establishment and I have a right to privacy. You have yet to produce a warrant, and I will not allow—”
Janet wheeled on him, one finger raised dangerously. “As a matter of fact, you have no such rights. Article 18, subsections four through nine of the Harrison Accords state that I can search the premises for contraband of the artificial sort without any need of a warrant or prior alert of said search. That means if you get in my way, your right to privacy isn’t the only right you’ll be forfeiting tonight.”
As she spoke, someone came around the corner: a tall, athletic man who looked to be about twenty, wearing pristine blue coveralls and carrying a bundle of spare parts. He had dark hair and tanned olive skin.
The stranger said nothing, staring at Janet with widened eyes that broadcast an intense, uneasy tension. The old man stepped up next to Jane and continued his protestations. “Yes, he is my assistant,” he sputtered, putting himself between Janet and the other man. “He’s been here almost a year now.”
Janet shot a sidelong glance at the old man, then turned to the stranger again and put a hand on her hip. “So, what’s the story?” She pointed to his coveralls with her other hand. “Those are pretty clean for someone who’s been working in an antique electronics shop for a year.”
He said nothing, still glaring at her.
Janet stared straight back, slowly moving her hand toward her holster. “Show me your wrists, pal.” Then, quicker than Janet could whip out her pistol, he exploded to life. He threw the bundle of spare parts at Janet, then charged her, almost bowling her over as he made for the rear exit.
“Stop!” the old man shouted as the runner reached the door. “They’ll kill you if you run!”
Janet shoved him aside, pistol drawn. She practically leapt out of the rear door and down the stoop after him, only to find that the suspect had vanished. “Shit!” she exclaimed. Then she pressed the button on her wrist-mounted data device. “Zero, you there?”
A disembodied voice emanated from the piece in her left ear: “Roger. What’s the sitch, Harkov?”
“I’m at the back exit of the antique shop. Get the local MARSEC precinct on the line. There’s an old man inside who was sheltering the suspect. Have the local operatives book him when they arrive. I’m going after that goddamned zarky. Do you have a visual on where it’s headed?”
Not waiting for a response, Janet took off down the rear of the storefront, then rounded the corner into an alley leading back to the main street. She scanned for movement, then took off again. When she reached the street, it was more crowded than before. Late-night revelers were gathering, wandering around in the streets in search of one more drink before last call. Soon the Union Day celebrations would be starting. Zero’s voice returned a moment later: “I got it. It’s headed south down the street just ahead of you.”
Janet swiveled, craning her neck for a sign of her target. Its dark coveralls were like a spotlight against the bright outfits of the civvies. Janet pursued, the skyline looming ahead of her like glittering mountains. Reaching the crowd of revelers, she waved her badge over her head. “Out of the way,” she shouted. “ALCA, let me through.” The dumbfounded people parted like the pages of a book, allowing her enough space to continue forward. A sloppy drunk in a tattered dayglow smoking jacket grabbed at her ass as she pressed past him and got a broken hand in return. She pressed through more crowds of people, her eyes still straining to catch a glimpse of a running man in blue coveralls.
There—she saw her target ducking through a crowd further down the street. Shoving through a cluster of civilians, who swiveled to stare at her in consternation, Janet tore off again after her quarry. This was where she was in her element–hunting hostiles, just like the old days. Just like Titan, she thought, grinning.
A crackly voice sounded in the bud in her left ear. “I’ve got your location. Bad guy’s on the next street over.” His voice was casual—typical Zer0_Sum. His model had always been a bit too laid back for Janet’s tastes.
She pressed two fingers of her left hand to the side of her neck, activating the subdermal microphone located there. “I’m going to try and force the thing into a corner. See if you can find me a dead end somewhere.” After a breath, she went on. “It’s already bolted once. I’m legal to retire on sight.”
With that, she burst ahead at full tilt, almost knocking down an old man with a much younger woman on his arm, both of whom barely got out of her way as she barreled past. The street ahead reached a four-way junction, with an antique wrought-iron fountain near the center. A going away party outside the fountain had merged with three bachelor parties. All four groups had conglomerated into a raucous tornado of self-destruction. Janet didn’t concern herself with any of this, however. All she cared about was the cover the crowd provided for an artificial on the run, already all but indistinguishable from the humans around it.
It was further ahead now and rapidly gaining distance. Now it was time for desperate measures. She pointed her weapon at the sky. “Everyone get down!” she shouted. Then she squeezed the trigger. Dozens of people reflexively ducked or threw themselves to the ground at the sound of the shot.
As it echoed off the buildings throughout the square, she clearly saw her target. It was the only one in sight who failed to duck at the sound of the gunshot. It was now turning down one of the side streets—headed directly for a blind alley. Janet leapt down off the pedestal and took off again.
She activated the subdermal mic again. “Get the local precinct here pronto. Tell them to be ready for crowd control. And tell the Agency to bring a tag-and-bag team for when I’m done with this piece of shit.”
In her ear, Zero’s voice crackled. “I thought you were gonna take this one alive?”
Janet ignored him. She had made up her mind. The ones that caused trouble could spread funny ideas. For Janet’s money, it was better to cut the head off the snake before it got too big to wrangle.
Up ahead, Janet could see the zharan reach the dead end. It didn’t miss a beat, turning on its heel and aiming to take off past her before she made up her mind to shoot. That’s why you never give them the chance, Janet thought bitterly. She’d seen it go wrong too many times. She wasn’t about to make that mistake.
Luckily, the wayward zharan had taken a wrong turn and was headed right toward a dead-end in one of the side street’s divergent empty lots. Janet caught up to her target and came to a quick halt a half dozen paces away. She raised her pistol and aimed it at the artificial now swiveling its head in search of an escape.
“End of the line,” she said firmly. “Put your hands on your head and get on your knees, now.” She tightened her grip on the weapon. It had run, which meant she was within her right to terminate its life. All she needed, all she wanted, was a reason. She knew all she had to do was wait.
The zharan said nothing as it twitched toward another bolt. Janet didn’t hesitate. Double-tap, center mass. The zharan grimaced, its face twisting in pain as the shots tore into its torso. Then it toppled forward into a heap under its own weight. It was another textbook takedown for Agent Janet Harkov.
When the zharan was still, Janet stepped forward and nudged it with her foot. Its ragged, uneven breath still shook its athletic frame as it slowly collapsed inward into death.
She flipped the dying zharan over with her free hand, facing only a little difficulty with the weight. Its face was already pale, mouth open. Blood was pooling as shallow breaths shook its broken body. Its eyes found focus and stared up at her, as if trying to cut her to ribbons with the intensity of its gaze. Eyes that were clear and dark, not the usual zharan amber, though with a coldness you only saw in things that had been grown in a lab. Janet hated the unnaturalness of those eyes. She couldn’t bear to look. Eventually its breathing stopped, and when she looked back in its eyes she saw nothing at all. Not even hatred.
She’d only ever seen them this close when they were dying, and she resented that look they gave near the end. That cold, hauntingly inhuman stare. Like the gaze of a prey animal getting one last glare at its killer. Janet knew she should feel something for the dying creature. Empathy. Guilt for taking a life. But all she felt as the life drained from its eyes was a bubbling hatred that washed over her, consuming her as the joy that she got to do it again made her feel like she needed a smoke. God, and she hadn’t smoked in years.
Reaching down with her left hand, she picked up its left arm and scanned the underside, looking for any sign of the ID marker that would identify her target as an artificial lifeform.
There was nothing there. She picked up his other arm. Nothing there, either.
She remembered that there had been cases of rogue zarkies removing their IDs. A chained animal gnawing off its leg. At any rate, she had other means of properly identifying a dead zharan.
Reaching back into her inner jacket pockets with her left hand, she withdrew a small device, about ten centimeters long and looking roughly like an old-fashioned remote control. She pressed a button on its face, and a small needle-like probe extended out of the device’s front end. She stuck it into the dying zharan’s neck and drew a sample of its blood. Janet then removed the probe and pressed a few more buttons, causing the small device to hum gently. She waited impatiently for it to finish its analysis.
A few moments later, the device chirped, then whirred and buzzed for a few moments more. Janet sighed and clicked her tongue impatiently, but after a while, one of two indicator lights lit up near the top of it—green. She looked back into the zharan’s eyes, watching for a moment to see if there was any spark left there. All she found was a cold, hollow gleam. The look of death.
She nodded, then closed down the probe and returned into her pocket. “Well, that’s a positive result.” She stood up and re-holstered her weapon. “Another rogue destroyed, and by the books.”
Zero’s voice crackled in her ear: “Look, I’m glad you got the bad guy and all, but I’m not gonna lie: it creeps me out how easily you come to that conclusion, Harkov.” After a moment’s consideration, he went on. “What if it wasn’t so ‘by the books? Do you ever stop to ask yourself that?”
Janet smirked. “What, like if we killed a person by accident? Now how many times has that happened, Zero?” She didn’t wait for the A.I. to answer. “Something like a dozen times? Maybe two? And that’s over the whole last eighty years, right? Not a very big statistical probability, I’d say.” She cocked her head, knowing even as she did that he could not “see” her. “And besides, he ran. So I was good to shoot.’
“Maybe so. But I’d say you’re beginning to enjoy it.”
Janet gave a cynical snort. “Article 7, subsection eleven. It says in pretty clear terms that—”
“I know what it says. When they run, you’re allowed to kill them, no questions asked. Doesn’t mean we gotta be happy about it.” Janet knew Zero was aware of every detail of the Harrison Accords, more so than any human agent she would find. He was programmed to ensure its enforcement.
She grinned at the dead Zarky as she spoke to Zero. “Oh, don’t give me that. I didn’t really enjoy it, I was just kidding. You get it, right?” She looked back down at the dead zharan. Its eyes were frozen, staring at nothing. Janet nodded toward the dead artificial. “See, he gets it. Any word yet on my backup, Zero?”
“They’re on their way. Should be here within the next five minutes.”
The ALCA cleanup crew arrived three minutes later. The cleaners wore light green jumpsuits as they prepped the dead zharan for removal. One of them walked over to Janet after setting his subordinates to work on cleaning up the scene. Oscar Veranzetto spoke with his typical gruff, gravelly voice. “Harkov, why is it always you on these goddamned late-night hit jobs?”
She looked down at him with a smirk. He was a good bit shorter than she was. “Don’t you know? This is when all the best hunting gets done. All the bad ones come out at night.”
He shook his head and scratched at his mess of thinning salt-and-pepper hair. He had the look of a man counting the days toward retirement. His eyes were haunted by something that Janet couldn’t place and hoped never to be able to. “Didn’t know we were in the business of rounding up undesirables…”
“This one was working for an old antique vendor right here in this neighborhood.” Janet gestured to the next street over. “MARSEC has the old man in custody now. They’ll be questioning him on whether he’s helped any other runaways, and then we’ll run him in for trafficking. Hard to believe anyone would be so stupid, but hey, that’s zharan sympathizers for you.”
Oscar frowned at her, then turned his gaze back to where his crew was working on the dead zharan. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Too right.” Something in his voice said he had more to say that he hadn’t yet.
Janet stared intently at him, eyebrow raised. “Is there something I’m missing?”
He thought about that for a moment, then looked up at her. “Well, I don’t really know yet.” He nodded towards the van. “Come on, I’ll show you what’s got me distracted.”
Janet frowned. She didn’t like the direction this was headed. “What’s going on?”
His face shifted from concern to worry, but only for a moment. Then he moved off toward where his crew was beginning to clean up the blood off the ground, with her in tow. “Well, between you and me, we found a couple of really odd things about this zarky when we looked him over.” He hopped up inside the back of the van and pulled back the zipper on the body bag. He lifted the dead zharan’s left arm and showed her the underside. It was now marked as if the skin had been peeled back to allow examination of the subdermal layers. Oscar looked out at her. He said, “We looked for an ID. There’s nothing.”
Janet looked in at him from outside the van. “Yeah, so what? I couldn’t find anything either.”
Oscar shook his head. “No, that’s not what I mean. There is no sign of identification on him. None, nada, negatory.” He dropped the arm back inside the body bag. “We scanned him up and down with our subdermal scanners and there’s nothing. Even if he’d somehow removed the ID from the surface skin, there would be trace amounts in the hypodermic layers. They make sure of that nowadays when they imprint the ID on them, to make sure runaways can never fully remove it. But that’s not the worst of it.”
Janet frowned, feeling a sudden chill. A dead zharan having no form of identification alone was incendiary enough. What could be worse? She felt her blood chilling as she waited for him to elaborate.
Oscar zipped up the body bag and jumped down to the street. He got out a tablet, tapped a few keys, and turned it toward her. Data rolled by, but he was quick to make sense of it. “The markers in his blood? They’re not there.” The words hung in the air a moment, then fell like a sack of bricks.
Janet’s face blanched. She stared down at him, dumbfounded. “What are you saying?”
He stared back at her, his own face slightly green at the edges. “It was unregistered, Harkov.”
Janet’s breath caught. Where there was one there were sure to be more, and that was a deadly proposition. Standing next to her, Oscar slowly shook his head and stared blankly. His voice was strange when he spoke. “If the public found out, there could be riots in every city on Mars.”
Just then Zero chimed in: “What’d I miss? Sorry, I was busy coordinating with MARSEC.”
Janet was still staring at the body bag in the back of the van as she spoke. “Oscar tells me that the zharan I waxed tonight was unregistered. Unregistered, Zero. Whoever made this thing, they wanted it untraceable. Like it never even existed. I don’t know about you, but there’s a thousand things wrong with that and I like each one less than the last.”
Zero hesitated. Another worrying sign. Anything that made an A.I. hesitate was bad news. “If that’s the case then there’s sure to be more. Should I get back on the line with HQ?”
Janet thought about that one for a tense moment. “No. Not yet. This is pretty flammable stuff we’re dealing with here. Like, world-turned-upside-down flammable. I don’t want it to blow up in our faces.”
“All right,” said Zero. “How are we supposed to figure out where it came from, then?”
Oscar looked at her expectantly. Janet elaborated, the confidence in her voice feeling like a facade compared to the deep unease clawing at the bottom of her heart. “First thing, we need to get the evidence somewhere safe. Even if it is unregistered, this thing had to have a production center. We get a lead on that, and we can chase down this problem and snuff it out before it gets any bigger.”
Now Oscar spoke up. “There’s a small independent lab across town. They do some freelance work with domestic zarkies, modification and repair mostly. We could store it in their cold room for a while?”
Janet nodded at him. Then she addressed Zero again. “Tell HQ that we’ve dealt with the initial situation, and we’re opening an investigation into where it came from. But keep things vague.” She turned back to Oscar. “How many of your crew know what you told me just now?”
Oscar thought about that for a moment, frowning. “None. They know it’s unlicensed, but that’s all.”
Janet nodded, her forced confidence rapidly becoming more sincere. “Good. Don’t even let them know where you’re storing it. Just pretend it fell right off the face of Mars.”
Oscar said, “You got it” and turned away. He had work left to do, and it was late.
Janet watched him go, thinking of what lay ahead of them. It might get very sticky before we’re done, she thought as Oscar slammed the rear doors shut on the van. It all seemed like a bomb hiding under an unsuspecting world, just waiting for someone to hit the detonator switch.