If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
Okay, all. Next of Kin is finished, my rewrites await, and life is finally getting back to normal. In the middle of the hellish crazy, I got to metaphorically sit down with Michelle Browne, my coauthor for Euphoria/Dysphoria, and make some new friends. Check each site on the day of to hang out with us in the comments, and see bonus stuff, including a flash fiction, several disgusting recipes, interviews, and more.
Sapphyria's Book Reviews
The Creatively Green Write at Home Mom
Lisa’s World of Books
Deal Sharing Aunt
Anya Breton Author's Blog
The Reader's Hollow
Share My Destiny
Paranormal Romance and Authors That Rock
CBY Book Club
Next time you hear from me, I'll have even more news on upcoming releases for you. Nexus 2 is nearly ready for your eyes, and I've got some exciting collaborations coming up.
Chase took custody of Jim. “I watched the confession as you broadcast,” he said. “If the biometrics hold up, that should be enough for a conviction. Means you're a free man.”
“Not free,” I said. “If anything, I think I've got a better understanding than ever of my cage.”
“Well, for what it's worth, at least you aren't going to be under public surveillance for much longer. That's at least something.”
“Much longer?” I asked.
“Once we've verified the biometrics,” he said. “You were in a dead zone; who knows what kind of tech could have been interfering. Not that I think that's likely. But it's the first damned thing a defense lawyer will tot out, and if we can't plan ahead for that, than we all might as well toss in the towel.”
It was over. But I felt lousy. It didn't take much thought to figure out why that was. I called Jenel. “Hey,” I said, when it stopped ringing.
“I didn't really ever expect to hear from you again.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That would probably have been the smart move.”
“But I suppose I know you well enough not to expect that from you.”
“Most days I might have complained that was a low blow, but today, it feels more than deserved.”
“Easily,” she said.
“How are you holding up?”
“Didn't sleep any,” she said. “Pissed at myself as much as you, maybe more.” She sighed. “I definitely know I let you make me a worse person. But maybe the point I should take away from that is that it's easy to be a better person in theory. It's tougher when you're faced with murderers and violence, and especially people who would use that civility against you. I'm glad Jim's going to pay for what he did. I just wish you wouldn't have needed my help.”
“Still friends?” I asked.
“Maybe. You do still owe me a meal. We'll see, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Bye.”
I was halfway to Tara's apartment, without ever deciding to drive there. I checked her location, she was home. So I decided to stop in. The moment I called through she ran through the front door and threw her arms around me. “You're okay,” she said. “After you left with him, I just thought,” she frowned, and decided not to finish. “Is he?” she asked.
“He's fine. In custody, but fine. I had his pirate wares removed, and he copped to everything. John, shooting me, everything.”
“Why'd he do it?” she asked.
“He was so scared of losing what he had, that in trying to preserve it, he destroyed it instead.”
“I'm going to miss John,” she said.
“Me, too.” She realized we were still on her porch.
“You should come in,” she said, stepping to the side. Max was playing in the front room.
“How's he holding up?” I asked.
“Last night scared him. He's never been that close to a firing gun before. And Jim was... like an uncle. So he was scared even before you showed up, but.... I'm glad you did. Um, could I get you anything? Tea, maybe?”
“Sure,” I said. “Tea would be lovely”
She scurried back into the kitchen. I kept half an eye on Max, the other on my interface. The chat was already starting to clear out, virtually the only people left behind were the regulars, a few of whom were discussing the possibility of meeting in real life to commemorate the thing they'd all just lived through. For a fraction of a second, I contemplated stepping in, and seeing if any of them lived locally. But even though it had been my investigation that brought them together, I hadn't been a part of their community in any real way. I was the floor show.
I got a message from Chase. “Biometrics confirm the story Archer gave you. Which means as soon as you're ready to lose your special advocate access, you can terminate it. The camera spores will fall off in the wash or whatever. So if you want to take one last moment to see if your neighbor has a history of getting parking tickets outside men's bathhouses. Or women's. Both can be informative.”
When I closed his message, a big blue button appeared telling me I could disconnect from the DCA with a push. I glanced one last time at the chat window, and brought up an input. I sighed, and put my hands over the virtual keys.
“Thanks, everybody, for coming along on this ride with me, and for your support,” I typed. Then I disconnected from the DCA feed.
I offered to give Jenel a ride home. She left so fast I'm not sure she heard, though I'm fairly certain she wouldn't have taken me up on it.
I ended up sleeping in my car. Eventually, I got a message from the doctor, telling me Jim was out of surgery and awake.
Jim looked like a ghost, because he'd lost a lot of blood. “Is Tara okay?” he asked. I would have assumed it was bullshit, but without the pirate tech his biometrics showed genuine distress.
“She's fine,” I said.
“Christ, I don't know what happened.”
“Why don't you try to walk me through it?” I asked. He thought about lying to me, about trying to send me on another merry chase. Maybe he realized it wouldn't work, without the black tech in his brainpan. Maybe he was just a broken man, because he slumped in his hospital bed.
“It doesn't fucking matter, at this point, does it?” he asked. “I don't know that you'd understand. You never appreciated having a family. Not John. Not even your mom. But I didn't have what you had, growing up. I was an only kid. My parents divorced. Mom got custody because she was marginally less of a druggie burn-out than dad. But I was little more than a pet she was constantly forgetting to feed. It taught me self-reliance. But it also left a hole in me.
“John filled that hole. When we both had nobody, we'd eat Thanksgiving together, or do Christmas. And when he met Tara, I didn't get shoved to the side, like I had a hundred times with other friends. It was more like my family just got a little bigger. And that's gone, now. It's fucked up and I'm never getting it back. So fuck it. I shot your brother.”
“You want to tell me why?” I asked.
“I lied,” he said. “It wasn't John who made a deal with the Latins. It was me. We were struggling. We'd always been struggling. The suppliers warring kept margins razor thin. Our only hope was to grow the Latins as a reasonable alternative, to force come competitive pricing. I set up a high-scale deal off some Latin supply- or at least what I thought was Latin supply. But it was the good stuff, twice as pure as what I thought I was selling- so I sold it for half of what I should have. John asked me where the brick I sold went, and I was proud when I told him I sold it. I thought I'd finally set us up a score to get us out of the slums.
“The part that fucking killed me is he didn't get mad. He was disappointed. He said he knew he shouldn't have trusted me. That partnering with me this long had been a mistake. He was ending things, just like that. Throwing me away like my mom and pop had years before. I left in tears, blubbering worse than his kid.
“I saw Tara come, with Max. And then I started to panic, that this was the last time I'd see them like this, that the only way I could ever see my family was sneaking a peek through windows. That thought crushed me. And I did go walking. Eventually I made it back to my place on foot. But there was no way I was sleeping. So I turned around and headed back to John's. I just wanted to talk, to try and talk him down.”
“Then why bring the gun?”
“Cause I thought he might shoot me. Look, I don't expect someone like you to understand, but there is some honor amongst thieves. If everybody's packing, everybody's polite.
“He let me in, when I got there. Tara was gone, and that only made me feel more alone- more isolated, and more panicked. So I was a mess when I got there. All the plans I made, ways we could get the money or turn the situation around, I forgot all of it the moment I set foot inside.
“He told me we were through. That he knew how I felt about him, and that he'd always pitied me. That it had grown, and now he saw me as pathetic, that I made him sick.” He shuddered.
John always had a talent for personal destruction. He was just attentive enough to recognize the things that would hurt you the most, and when he decided to, to twist them. He was a sadistic idiot savant, and I'd been on the receiving end of that enough to empathize with Jim.
“I lost control. I've always had a temper, but especially when people look down on me. I thought I would just point the gun at him, ask, 'Who's pathetic now?' I thought maybe he'd piss himself, just to make the whole think complete. But I knew he wasn't backing down. If he said I was gone, that was it. And Tara was wrapped around his little finger, which meant losing her and the kid, too. So standing there, pointing that gun at his back, it was my one chance to leave him before he could leave me.”
He closed his eyes tight, and a tear escaped from his left.
I exhaled, and it felt like the weight of the entire continent was off of me. But the investigation wasn't over. “You shot him.”
“Okay. But why'd you go to Tara's last night? What were you thinking?”
“She was family. And she was hurt- and I know I'm the one that hurt her, but- I wanted to be there for her; it killed me, waiting until last night. But I was guilty. I was trying to get up the nerve to come clean to her, to tell her the truth. Because I loved her, even before John got to her. And fucked up as the whole thing was, I wanted to help her. To help her with the rent, to help her raise Max. To be a better dad to him than John could have ever been. But I knew that to have that I couldn't not tell her the truth. She had to know, to forgive me. But once I got there, everything came out wrong. I told her too much, and of the wrong things, and always the worst way. She was horrified. And she looked at me with that same kind of pity and disgust and... I hadn't even got to the part about John, but I knew how big a mistake it had all been.
“Then you showed up. I knew the layout just well enough to sneak into the bathroom. But the windows weren't the kind that opened. And when I saw you I thought there was just a moment before you would see me, and you had the gun and-”
He frowned. “I think, in that moment, I blamed you. Like for that split-second, I convinced myself that if only you would have let shit go, that I could have talked to Tara, made her see how much I cared for her and Max, made her see that, in a way, all I'd ever been trying to do was build a better life for the pair of them. I am sorry for that,” he said. “It wasn't you. It was me. It's always been me.”
“Then why'd you shoot me in the first place?”
I saw the wheels turn. He wanted to lie to me; it was just his nature.
“I panicked. Until that moment I thought I'd got away with it all. I still had hopes that I could turn Tara around. You were a sudden, existential threat, to everything. But you were also John's family. That's why I didn't shoot you in the face, or more than the one time. I didn't want to shoot you at all, but in that second, caught between everything I could want to have and letting you put me in jail, stranding Tara and Max without support. I couldn't let you interfere.”
“So you don't feel bad about shooting me?” I asked, since he hadn't apologized for that.
He sighed. “I am sorry,” he said. “But when I shot you, I was making a choice between the life I wanted, and the one you were trying to saddle me with. I'm sorry that decision ended with you getting hurt. But the reasoning was sound. Attacking you in Tara's apartment, though? That was self-delusion. You didn't deserve that beating. Because what was standing between me and my future by that point was me.”
“Anything else to say?” I asked. A tooltip popped up, with his Miranda rights. I shared the message with him. “You want me to go over these with you?” I asked.
“No,” he said sullenly. An orderly brought his belongings in a bag, and a wheelchair, and helped him into it.
I wheeled him out of the dead zone in the wheelchair on foot. I called Chase. “I've got him. You should pick him up at my location. And bring something wheelchair accessible.”
“I'm going to need to borrow your shower curtain,” I told her.
“Take it,” she said, “It's torn.”
I used the curtain to drag Jim out to my car. My own gunshot wound wasn't healed, so every step hurt. I was thankful for it, because it was the only thing I could feel.
There wasn't any love lost between Jim and I, but I shot him. On principal, I'd always hated guns for their destructive potential. And I'd used that potential against another human being. I realized the numbness was probably itself a blessing, keeping me from vomiting on Jim as I dragged him.
He groaned as the seam between her front door and the sidewalk rippled beneath him, which at least meant I wasn't dragging a corpse.
Chase was standing beside my car, with a shit-eating grin on his face. “You've definitely got him on assault this time,” he said. “Probably two counts, if the lady's story can hold up. But you still don't have him on the murder.”
“I will if you can help me put him in the trunk.”
“I like the trunk part,” he said. “The lifting sounds like the kind of thing my chiropractor would frown on.”
“How long will two counts of assault put him away for?”
“Months, but definitely not years.”
“Can you live with that number?”
“I've lived with worse, kid.”
“But you don't have to, this time.”
“All right, all right. You don't have to keep guilting me. But if I herniate a disc, you owe me a massage. And I only take mine with a happy ending.” We lifted, and together, the weight of him wasn't so bad.
“That's not funny,” I said, once Jim's weight was off me.
“It might have been; I imagine the weight of that much man, metaphorically, threw off my delivery.”
“Nervous now?” he asked.
“There was never going to be a happy ending.”
“Kid, I been in this business long enough that these stories usually end with a body in a trunk.” He slapped me on the back, suddenly deadly serious. “And I got a feeling that what comes next will go smoother without me around- and that I wouldn't be there, anyhow.”
“Yeah,” I said, and shut the trunk. He must have believed we were at the endgame, too, since he wasn't mugging for the cameras.
It wasn't until I was behind the wheel that I noticed that my rating had peaked, and the chat was full of people doing victory laps; a surprising number of them believed that they actually helped me get to this point.
There was also a steady drumbeat from Randal demanding torture, and suggesting resources for an amateur's improvised devices.
I wasn't about to get literally medieval on him, not if I didn't have to.
And thanks to the dead zone, I didn't think I'd have to. I called Jenel. “I'm going to need a favor. I caught Jim. He was shot in the process.”
“He's good for it, if you want us to patch him up.”
“I want something more than that. I want the reverse of what I got.”
It took her a moment to piece together what I meant. “You want us to remove his pirate tech?” she asked slowly. “And I assume he's not going to consent to that.”
“He was unconscious when I got him into my trunk. Hopefully this side of dead. He killed John. I know it. And tried to kill me. He might hurt have John's son and the kid's mom, too, if I hadn't got there when I did. He needs to pay for it- all of it. And I can't see to that while he's still got a head full of alternate parts.”
“You tried interrogating him?”
“Yeah. Even with root access, our wares basically canceled each other out.”
“I can't,” she said. “It violates every principal I care about.”
“Not every one,” I said. “Because you care about people. And that's why you'll help me, because if you can't convince someone trained for it, I'll do it myself. And I've never performed brain surgery before, so I'm probably going to take some pieces he's attached to.”
“Goddamn it, fine. I'll make a call. But if I can talk the surgeon into this, you don't say a word. Not one.” She hung up.
I continued driving towards the dead zone. I was getting close, without hearing from her. Just as I was about to need to switch over to let the pirate tech navigate the dead wifi, I got a GPS location. I drove through several alleys before reaching it.
Jenel was there, with a man in white, and two more in scrubs, with a stretcher. I pulled up to them and popped the trunk. The orderlies rolled the body onto the stretcher, and cut the shower curtain away. One of them pushed fingers against Jim's neck. “Pulse, but weak,” he said, and they pushed the stretcher inside the building.
Jenel nodded at the older man, and he followed them.
She couldn't look at me. “Still think I'm not a bad guy?” I asked.
She pondered for a moment. “We're all bad people, pushed into the right set of circumstances. What makes you good or bad, is what you do after. If you feel guilty over the people you hurt, if you try to use that guilt to make sure you don't do it again- that's the difference between someone like you and Jim. And if I didn't believe that, you wouldn't be breathing right now.”
I couldn't sleep.
When I noticed Jenel was in the chat, I opened up a private window. My typing was bad enough that she realized I was still hammered. “This is the closest anyone's ever come to drunk dialing me,” she said.
We chatted idly. I didn't believe Jim, that she had anything to do with John's death. He'd screwed over more than his fair share of women, and none of them had tried to kill him. But implausible as it seemed, I couldn't ignore it, either. It kept our conversation in this strange limbo between friendly and official.
Perhaps that was because my mind was on other things. Martens' talk about Tara and Max had only added to my paranoia. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw them in a scene from Les Miserables, and ridiculous as that was, it made me feel guiltier, still.
I opened a call to her, and was about to hit send on her name. But it wasn't the kind of conversation you had on the phone. Worse, I couldn't shake the feeling that Martens might have sent someone there, someone she wouldn't be able to tell me about.
I tapped out my concern to Jenel. “You should check on her,” she wrote. I wondered if she could pull up cameras, or even hack her interface, but the moment I thought it I realized that it would have been shifting my responsibility onto her, and possibly violate Tara's privacy in the act.
I was sober enough to drive by then, so I started up my car. It was only once it was running that I remembered that IA had it last, and that if they wanted to put a bomb in it, that was their opportunity. But they were on camera picking me up, and the officer was almost certainly on camera in possession of my car. No, they'd have to be more subtle than that.
Still, I tested out some diagnostics on my new interface. The car was running fine, but it did detect a few extra protocols running in the car. It routed all GPS and destination data to IA directly, and would try to connect with the interface of the driver and relay that information, too. A message popped up on my interface. “Law enforcement has tampered with this vehicle, and is attempting to access your interface. Should I: Provide unfettered access, or Provide them with a clean access, essentially emulating a stock, standard interface?” I chose the emulation. A second warning appeared. “Are you sure? Emulation can take as much as 10% of your operating resources.” It then listed the memory requirements. The 10% required for emulation was more than the total available memory on my old stock interface. I chose emulation.
It was late enough the chat was largely dead. Nobody was putting on a sext show tonight. I noticed a particular message. “DukeGagger: Musak?” I'd forgotten I still had a receiver. I'd gotten used to having one only sporadically, usually when I knew I was going out and might want the option to play music with someone.
I tuned the receiver to a pop station. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but it wasn't just for me. “DukeGagger: TY”
It settled my nerves a little. It was late enough I felt badly for showing up on Tara's doorstep. But I needed to know she was all right. I wanted to apologize, too, but my guilty conscience could have waited for morning. My anxiety couldn't.
I parked outside her apartment. Because of the identical construction, it felt a lot like coming home. I felt nervous, walking up the sidewalk, though I couldn't place the reason, exactly, other than feeling like it didn't have to do with my overarching paranoia.
A scream from inside pulled me back to reality. “Override,” I said at her door, and removed the gun from my waistband. I flinched when I saw it glint in the light coming from a streetlamp, because the last time I'd looked at it, it was spitting fire and metal through me.
I checked the safety, made sure it was off, and stepped inside. The lights were all on. I heard some kind of kitchenware shatter from the next room. Then the lights went out. I recognized it as an emergency override, something residents could use in the event of a home invasion- or that somebody operating a pirate interface could use.
Then somebody ran into me, with enough force to tell me they were trying to get away, but not trying to buffalo through me. I got hold of their shoulders, they were shorter than me, and not as broad. Her shoulders were feminine.
My lenses tried to compensate, but the windows blacked out with the lights, so there wasn't enough light coming in to amplify. The woman didn't like being caught. I felt her twist from side to side, trying to break free. Then she reeled back, and I recognized too late she was taking a swing at me. It hit me in the chin, and we both swore together.
“Who's here?” I asked.
“Jim?” she asked.
My interface was a step ahead of me, smashing through his GPS trickery, and locating his IP to within a few feet. He was still somewhere in the kitchen in front of me. “It's Conrad,” I said. “You can raise the lights.”
“Give me a second,” she said, and slowly, the lights came back on. The kitchen was empty.
I was holding the gun Chase gave me. I scanned the kitchen with it.
“He was right here,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “But why?” I asked.
“I'm not sure I could explain any of it. He burst like a dam. Said he loved me. That he loved John, too, but knew it could never happen, but that me, and Max, we were the closest he could hope to come- especially now.”
One of the spaghetti straps on her shirt was torn away. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“He didn't hurt me. I don't think he wanted to. He was- he'd been drinking, I could smell that much. But he seemed more confused than anything. He wanted- he seemed surprised when I didn't welcome him with open arms. He grabbed me, and tried to kiss me, and I screamed.”
Max burbled from his room, and she ran down the dark hallway towards his room. I was a half a step behind her.
I realized the folly a second too late. Out of the hall bathroom stepped Jim as I passed, and threw a punch that caught my face against the wall. I hit hard enough that the wall was slick as I slid down it. I tried to catch myself before I hit the floor, but my hand was full.
The gun. Jim brought up a big foot and was about to cave my head in with it. I got the gun raised as high as I could and pulled the trigger. The shot hit him in the guts, and he was off balance enough he went stumbling back into the bathroom. He grabbed the shower curtain as he fell, and wrapped himself up in it, tearing it loose from its curtain.
“Conrad?” I heard quietly from the end of the hall, as I staggered to my feet.
“I'll live,” I said.
“That kind of depends on what I hit.”
“On second thought, I won't be needing that car.”
Martens stepped out of the passenger side. The officer driving got out from behind the wheel, and walked over to my door and opened it.
“Let's you and me go for a drive,” Martens said, and walked around to the driver's side.
It's a little known fact that squad cars have metal detectors in them- provided you get into the back. And I had a gun used in at least one attempted homicide- even if it was my own, and I wasn't sure whether or not there might be a weapons charge associated with carrying it.
Since the passenger door into the front was open, I got inside before he could decide to have me get in the back.
“You've been a busy little beaver,” Martens said, and pulled away from the curb before I had a chance to buckle my belt.
I latched my belt, but it was too late. Our interfaces both went red, accompanied by a chime, and a message popped up on my screen, “Moving traffic violation, failure to properly utilize safety equipment.”
“Cancel that,” he said, and the message disappeared. “Finicky damned machines.”
I relaxed back in my seat. The last time I'd met with Martens, I was still a relative innocent. But I had a head full of gray tech, and I'd been mingling with dead zoners.
“I saw you interrogate Archer. It was kind of fun. But I'm going to have to ask you not to do that again.”
“Why's that?” I asked.
“Because the arrangement we had with your brother, we now have with him.”
“And that arrangement was...”
“Police override, not that I expect that to actually take, now.”
It hadn't. “Why's that?” I asked.
“Because you went under the knife in a dead zone. I imagine they scraped every last bit of our tech out of you and replaced it with cheap African knock-offs. We've already started changing up all the passwords, so if you need access to anything that's suddenly locked off, that's the reason. Come to me, I can get you access. That is, provided it's not about pursuing Archer.”
“But what was the arrangement?”
“I can't go into details, because I'm pretty sure you're still broadcasting, or at least potentially recording. All I can tell you is you need to lay off him.”
“And if he killed my brother? Are you telling me that if I believe it's him, that I need to quit the investigation.”
“I couldn't tell you that. It'd be against the law for me to advise you to stop a lawful investigation. What I can tell you, is I'm pretty sure your head is a turduckeon of malicious machinery, and that I wouldn't have to try hard to prove not only that you knew they would put that crap into you in the dead zone, but wanted it to happen. Our IT department doesn't get many chances to root around inside black tech, I'm sure they'd relish the opportunity. You have any idea the kinds of penalties that come along with operating a pirate interface?”
“Enlighten me,” I said.
“Black tech can get you fines northward of several years of your typical income, and jail time into the decades.”
“Seems harsh,” I said.
“A pirate interface can act almost like patient zero. It can be used as part of a bot network, used as a hotspot for illegal pornography, criminal communication, distribution of viruses. You name the illegal conduct, and it can be jury-rigged to aid and abet it. Sometimes all it takes is a single pirate interface to create a new dead zone. So we take them seriously, as a threat to our society. Just like we'd take it seriously if you continued to threaten our operations by going after Archer.”
“And it's not just you we're worried about. Tara and the baby. They're going to need help. Nobody wants to see her slip back into prostitution- though admittedly, you airing that dirty laundry in the investigation probably is going to make it harder for her to find gainful employment. All the more reason she's going to need the support of her family. We understand each other?”
I realized how a big a liability the gun in my waistband really was. I'd stopped worrying about him finding it, and now really wanted to use it on him. I was half-way convinced that my new interface could override his systems as well as the camera, that I could get away with it.
I needed to get away, before I did something stupid.
Thankfully, we pulled up outside of me apartment. My car was parked there already, with the uniform that drove Martens to me leaned against.
Martens held the door locked. “Yeah,” I said, “I got it.” He released the lock, and I got out.
Jenel made soup with the rest of the vegetables. We ate in relative silence, until she said, “They aren't goons.”
“I'm not sure they qualify as friends, either. But they're associates, like-minded folk who protect me, when it's necessary. Because we're a community.”
“But they protect you,” I said, spooning a parsnip into my mouth.
“I'm an evangelist, and a thinker, sometimes an ambassador. You could maybe even go so far as to call them acolytes. But they do it because they're stupid enough to think I'm worth it. And that's not- I'm not fishing. But fundamentally, at a base level, I don't think I'm worth more than they are.”
“Other than not being stupid enough to think that you are,” I said with a smile.
“True. But ideological blindness, at least where it leads to a slight excess of loyalty- there are a lot worse faults to have. But I don't have goons, was my point. I can't loan them out to you, not even to keep you safe. Because they aren't mine. They protect me out of what feels like misguided loyalty. But that doesn't extend further, or I would lend them to you.”
“No,” I said, “that's okay. I was just being flip, earlier. I mean, I still kind of think the advocate program is crap- in particular because wealthy people can just hire a surrogate advocate, an army of them, if they want- to see justice done. It kind of takes the democracy out of it. But even acknowledging all of that, it's still my fight. I feel lousy how much you've gotten caught up in this. I wouldn't drag your friends in, too.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. We finished our food.
She gave me back the gun- the one I was shot with. “I'm not sure if I'm safer with or without it.”
“Gun to my head...” she said, and I winced. “Too soon?”
“Maybe, just a little.”
“Take care of yourself,” she said, “because I cooked for you, and I'm expecting you to return the gesture. And you can't do that if you're dead.”
I was lying, and I knew it the moment the cold air stabbed through my clothes, and I felt it like a blade in my bulletwound. I didn't care who it inconvenienced, or how awkward things might have gotten; I'd have taken some help from her goons, if it was on offer.
But for that moment's weakness, I was glad it wasn't. John and I had never really gotten along, going back to our childhood. It had been a long time since I'd done anything for him. John was the kind of man who couldn't just accept a favor- the moment you'd done one, you suddenly became contracted for another, and another, and another. He saw life as a casino, and when one of the slots was paying out, he camped on it until it quit.
Now felt like a chance to be a big brother again, the way I almost never got to.
I closed my eyes and focused. The new apps in my interface were going to take some adjusting to, but the one I needed now was supposed to be simple enough. I pulled up a map of the city, and my interface showed several different-colored dots.
Jim was using a GPS hopping utility that randomized his location within an area. My interface zoomed in on one dot after another, and each changed to blue in turn, zooming out between so I could glimpse the overall city map going blue, until only one other dot remained. It glowed red and pulsed.
My interface zoomed, and I saw data usage statistics, telling me he was streaming video while talking on the phone. This was all listed under the name Daniel Murphy. So he was ghosting an ID, too. He was in a bar called the Event Horizon, situated very specifically so the bar was bisected by a dead zone. You sat on one side, you could get pirate wifi, you sat on the other, and you were part of the grid. Jim was sitting on the edge, and accessing both.
My car was where I left it. I wondered if IA had found it. If they wanted to, they could. I'd heard rumors there were police override programs that let them track the GPS of a vehicle, even on that was parked and powered down.
I accessed footage from three cameras aimed at or near my car, and played them in reverse to when I left it. Nothing. Nobody got near it.
As I approached my car, several warning messages popped up on my screen. My car had been left in zone for too long, and had been wracking up fines for the last twenty hours. I checked my account, and sure enough, the funds had been autodeducted. I swore, because I wasn't happy about it, but I felt like I had more important things to focus on.
I started up my car, and tensed. But it didn't explode. I sighed, and pulled away from the curb.
The Event Horizon was across town, at another dead zone. It was a biker joint. My DCA software spat out a list of underworld figures known to frequent the bar, including a gang known as the Spawn of Cthulhu. The bar was a dive built from the wreckage of older dives; on the inside it was wall to floor to ceiling repurposed wooden slats. Normally, that kind of wood construction was expensive, but these boards were all warped, misshapen, and gnarled. A warning message, programmed to show to anybody entering, popped up that said, “Floor uneven. Walk at your own risk.”
I walked up to the bartender and ordered a bottle of Jack, a cola to water it with, and two glasses with ice. He deducted the funds from my account. “I'll meet you at your table,” he said.
I spotted Jim, and sauntered over. “Nice to see you walking around,” he said, as the bartender set the two glasses down.
“I'm going to need root access,” I told him as I sat. “And for you to execute something for me.”
“And if I refuse?” He leaned back, and I noticed a half-dozen men in leather listening intently. My interface identified them from insignia as members of the Spawn of Cthulhu.
“Then I hit the big button on my interface that says, 'Obstruction of Justice,' the cops bust in and arrest you, and we talk with you handcuffed to a desk.”
“And this doesn't count as intimidating a witness?”
“That's for court. You're a scumbag; no rules against intimidating a scumbag out in the world.”
“Something tells me that your executable falls outside of obstruction.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I tell the cops I'm 90% sure it was you who fucked me up and shot me, and we talk in the station. They'll shut down your interface, then- so no possibility of cheating. Actually, that doesn't sound half bad.”
“Slow down, there, cowboy,” he said, and opened the bottle to pour himself a drink. “Ah,” he said after a sip. “Not the good stuff, but it's not the cheap shit, either.” I poured some rum over the ice, and filled it the rest of the way with the cola.
He accepted the program, and shared root access. “Have you lied to me?”
“Of course. You're an advocate. You know what I do for a living. But if I were to say out loud to you what it is exactly that I do, I'd be arrested. Puts us in an awkward situation. I have to lie to you.”
“And previously, were you using clandestine programs to circumvent the lie detection software I was using?”
“Clandestine? Yeah, clandestine I can cop to- so to speak.”
“Why don't you tell me what you lied about before.”
“Nope,” he said. “Not the game we're playing. You ask questions, and if I can answer them in good conscience, without incriminating myself, then I will. If not, I plead the fifth, and exercise my right not to incriminate myself.”
“Have you been talking to a lawyer?”
“Any time I think I need to,” he said.
“Did you leave when you said you did?”
“Yes,” he said. No deception registered.
“And he was alive when you left?”
“Absolutely. But you should know that. Tara visited while I was gone.”
“How'd you know that?”
“I've been watching along. Riveting television,” he said, and smiled. “But it kind of strengthens my alibis, doesn't it?”
“Not really,” I said. “Your alibis is still that you were drunkenly wandering the streets, while ninjaing between cameras. Your alibis is tissue- and nothing short of a corroborating witness would change that.”
“Fair enough,” he said, and shrugged, and poured himself another drink.
“If you've been watching along, you likely know I was shot.”
“Yeah. Unfortunate,” he said. “But you've been playing hide and seek in the dead zones. It's a dangerous game.”
“Where were you when it happened?”
“I'm not sure if you expect me to play dumb, here. But like I said, I've been watching, so I know when it happened. I was in my apartment.”
“And a timestamped GPS can confirm that?”
“You know I don't have my GPS functional,” he said.
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
“You screw with your GPS so the cops and presumably your rivals can't track you. But it's your tough luck that it also deprives you of an alibis- not mine. I don't have to prove that you weren't where you say you were- just that you can't prove that you were.”
“I have a question,” he said, and leaned forward. “Why do you think I shot you? Because if I understand the circumstances right, that hacker pointed you at someone. They reacted badly to you stalking them through a dead zone, and in the confrontation you got shot. Whoever they were they were blurred, and hiding their GPS. So why would you believe that was me?”
“Are you claiming it was somebody else?”
“I'm asking why you'd believe it was me. Because I'll admit that I'm a liar, and that some of the things I do don't fall into the normal societal grooves. But you're not doing much to question your source, either.” I frowned. “The hacktivist.”
Jenel? The idea of it made me want to laugh. “Given the choice between the two of you, I'd trust her. You've admitted lying to me. So far as I know she never has.”
“And unless you press her, you never will.”
“Why do you think she'd be lying to me?”
“Maybe she knew John better than she let on. You know he had a way with the ladies. Maybe something happened with this one.”
“Enough speculative bullshit. Was it you?”
He hunkered down, and looked me in the eyes. “It wasn't me.” I looked to his biometrics. They were inconclusive.
“Have you got an alibis?” I asked.
“I was alone, so no.”
“Same thing I do every night around that time, playing with my balls.”
“If you're innocent- if you didn't shoot me- why come here? Why hide at the Event Horizon?”
“Because I knew you'd come, eventually. And being innocent, and not going to jail are two very different things.”
“My brother. Did you kill him?”
“I left him alive.”
“Of course you did,” I said, “because Tara visited after you. But when you came back.”
“I didn't kill him. He was alive when I left.” The repetition of phrasing. He was being very specific in his word-choices- very deceptive. His biometrics were inconclusive. Which meant either he wasn't exactly lying, or our software was canceling each other out.
“DukeGagger: MAKE him talk. Break his fingers, one at a time. Slowly.” I rolled my eyes, and caught a man a full half of Jim bigger than Jim glaring hatefully at me. He wasn't the only one. The balance of the bar behind Jim seemed to be thinking the same thing he was. I was a den of rattle snakes.
It unnerved me enough I didn't notice the tender walk up beside me.
“You ought to leave,” he said through a graying moustache. “Having an advocate on the premises is riling up my customers. I ain't telling you for their benefit, understand? Last advocate who showed up here, they found hung from his own intestines, just the other side of the dead zone. You ain't walking out with this man; wouldn't matter if he sodomized the baby Jesus during the nativity, with his mother as a witness.”
“I think we were hitting a wall, anyhow.”
I went to take my bottle of Jack, but the bartender was quicker. “Believe me, this is a better use for it. Our departing friend bought the next round,” he said loudly, and held up the bottle. “Until the bottle runs out.”
In the hustle for free drinks, I slipped out. I was sauced enough I wasn't driving anyplace, but I got to the relative safety of my car, and then called a designated driver service. They pulled my location off my GPS. “It'll be fifteen minutes, please stay where you are.”
I was about to tell them thank you, and that I would, when I noticed a squad car pull up beside me with its lights on.
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My post apocalyptic title Homeless will be on sale $.99 November 23rd-29th, as well as these other titles.
Apparently I got a sympathy bump, for having got shot. There was a lag to it; people who watched it happen kind of turned on me. I got blamed for getting my ass kicked and shot with my own gun. But those that came in after were more forgiving. I hated that it was the first thing I noticed after the anesthesia wore off. Well, that and realizing I wasn't dead.
The next thing I realized was that I was back in Jenel's tent, lying in her cot. It was comfier than it looked- though it looked like a medieval trampoline. Jenel wasn't there. There was barely any light. I wondered how long I'd been out, and made the mistake of moving my chest.
The world turned fluorescent for an instant. “New mods are settling in,” I heard in my ear. “That was a new diagnostic, tries to make sensations less subjective and more obvious, so if you're having any kind of implant rejection it's easier for the techs to figure it out. You'll also taste purple, provided it's bright enough.”
“You're not here.”
“I don't spend all day in my tent. I'm picking up some food at the market.”
“Am I safe?”
“Your spores are active. You're the safest person in the dead zone. And I've got a couple of my goons nearby.”
One of the shotgunners from earlier poked his head inside the tent. He seemed less pleasant than last time- and on that occasion he pointed a gun at me. “You didn't tell them I called them goons, did you?” I asked.
“They heard,” she said. “Fresh fruit question. Orange or tangello? A warning, answering this wrong could very well end our burgeoning friendship.”
“We're friends?” I asked.
“Quit stalling for time.”
“I've never been able to bring myself to buy a tangelo. I just... couldn't get past the name, or that one time I did, I thought, can I really afford to buy a fruit I'll be afraid to try, only to throw it out? Come to think of it, that may also come from not understanding where it comes from. Is that a mix between tangerine and yellow?”
She laughed. “Okay, I didn't expect you to take it down the Island of Dr. Moreau crazy hole, but yeah. Oranges, all the way. I know tangelos aren't gene-mod, but I always kind of had trouble feeling like it was something that belonged in nature.”
“They aren't genemod?” I asked.
“it's a cross-breed, like a shorkie-”
“Or a bull-shit?”
“Exactly, smart ass. I don't have anything inherently against genemod; I mean, we wouldn't be able to feed everyone without it- a problem largely of our own making, given how poorly we've made birth control and legitimate sex ed available. But I give the genemod corporations the same side-eye I give the tobacco industry- clearly they've been manipulative about how they want their products shown to the public- though I don't think they're hiding a huge link to cancer or anything, just playing PR games.
“But the tangelo is a particularly strange creature. A tangerine is a dark mandarin orange- not actually a botanical classification. And a pomelo is a green grapefruit. The fusion of the two feels... unholy.”
“You've never eaten a tangelo either, have you?”
“Nope.” She sighed. “And now I feel bad, like I've been profiling my fruit. So we're both going to try a tangelo.”
“All right, but if the tangelo becomes sentient and later bursts out of my torso, I'm blaming you.”
“I think I can live with that. You know, unless both halves of the tangelo have a torso-bursting monster in them.”
“Okay. Well, I'm at the checkout, so...”
“I can wait,” I said. In the background I heard her talking to the fruit vendor, before giving him access to her account. I shifted, ever so slightly in her bed, and I felt pain from my shoulder to my side.
“You still there?” Jenel asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “What did the doctors say, about, uh, getting back to work.”
“I don't know how to tell you this,” she said, and her voice trembled, “but you'll never tutor again.”
“I meant the investigation.”
“I know,” she said. “And that's a tougher question. Because essentially the doctors want you on light duty. If you can manage to get Jim on the other side of a table peaceably, then that's fine. If there's going to be fighting... it could kill you.”
“And if I was going to rest.”
“Weeks,” she said.
“By which time Jim will be gone, and the case will be unsolvable. I'm not even sure why he stuck around this long.”
“Well, he thought he'd get away with it, for one. You two never got along, right, you and John? Knowing that, even I'm surprised you've seen it this far. Two, though, everyone he knows is in this city. If he's going to up stakes, he needs to gather contacts, and try and find some other place he can start over plying his trade. Otherwise he'd be starting completely from scratch.”
“How long do you think that's going to take?” I asked.
“Less time than it'll take for you to heal,” she said quietly.
“I guess that's good,” I said, and realized I was going to have to explain that better. “If it was in some gray area, I think that would be more difficult. But it's black and white. I have to go after Jim.” I sat up, and the blankets fell away from my shirt. “What happened to my shirt?” I asked, and hoped I didn't sound too accusatory.
“They had to cut you out of it,” she said. “Which is probably irrelevant, since it was pretty fucked up with blood, and had a large gunshot hole in it.”
“Yeah,” I said. I liked the shirt, but I don't think that was a recoverable state.
“And my underpants?” I asked.
“No, I took you out of those. They just looked too constricting.” She paused for a moment, to let me picture that, and feel awkward at the idea. “For the surgery, they needed you out of any unclean clothes.”
“I don't suppose you have a comically oversized bathrobe I could borrow for the ride home, do you?”
“Well, it was supposed to be a surprise,” I heard the words and then a partial delay before they came again. Jenel lifted the tent flap and walked inside. She threw a parcel into my lap. I opened it. It was a pair of clothes. “I used some archived footage of you to get your measurements, so they should fit well enough.”
“Thanks,” I said, and started to put the shirt on. “Ah, ah, ah,” I said, when I tried to raise my arms. “Okay, that was a stupid, stupid idea.”
“Here,” she said, “I'll go set the fruit down while you wriggle into the pants. Then I'll help you with the shirt. Okay?”
“Yeah. Just, uh, do me a favor, and think of baseball, or, really anything other than me changing.”
“I'll just hum my favorite opera,” she said. I leaned back into the bed to put my legs through the pants. It hurt, considerably, but nowhere near as badly as raising my arm had. Then I noticed she was pulling fruits and vegetables out of a bag, in a very specific order. Already on the counter was a squash and a plantain. Next she removed a cucumber, a parsnip, and finally, a single baby corn.
“Did you plan that?” I asked.
“Kind of,” she said. “You decent?” she asked.
“I'm pantsed,” I said.
“Just to be clear, does that mean you've got them all the way on, or they're around your ankles? I'll help you get them up, if you need that, I just, want to mentally prepare.”
“Good,” she said. She set the remaining fruit on the counter, and walked to me. She picked up the shirt. “Raise your arms as high as you can without pain.” I lifted my hands about an inch off my lap. “Okay, hurt yourself a little, then.” I raised them about chest-high. It hurt, but it was a manageable strain, rather than the eye-stabbing agony of raising them over my head. She threaded my arms through the holes, then my head, and rolled the shirt down my chest. “There,” she said.
They were a nice fit. I glanced from the clothes, to the food she bought. Then I realized that all of this paled in comparison to the cost of fixing a gunshot, let alone putting new tech in my skull. “How'd you pay for this?” I asked, touching my good hand to just below the gunshot.
“You did. Or you will, anyway. I mean, technically they wouldn't do it until I agreed to cover it, if you flake. But you're not the flaking kind. And even if you were, I know your social security number, mother's maiden name, all of your passwords and your inseam. You couldn't flake if you wanted to.”
“But why am I here? Not that I don't like being here, just, I don't want to inconvenience you, and I kind of would have thought that even a dead zone hospital would have a few beds.”
“They wanted to dump you on the street, when they were done; they weren't happy being sort of forced into your surgeries. I had to talk them into bringing you here, instead.”
“You didn't have to do that.”
“Have you ever slept on the street?” she asked, and I knew what her answer would have been from the way she asked it. She knew it, too, and deflected. “It's no place to recuperate from a gunshot.”
She went to the side of the tent with her stove and started to cut the fruits and vegetables up.
“Is there anything I can do to help.”
“Rest,” she said. “I don't usually cook for anyone. So rest, and appreciate that it pretty much takes a lot of guilt and a gunshot wound to get me into this position.”
“Guilt?” I asked.
She spread the fruits out on a plate, and brought them to me.
“It's probably stupid, but I can't shake the idea that if I'd been more cooperative earlier...”
“I didn't get shot because of you,” I said. “I got shot because Jim's an asshole. And because I got close enough to the truth of things that he freaked out.”
I hated not being able to see her face. “Did I see you?”
“You can right now, right? We didn't hit the part of your brain that interprets vision, did we?”
“I see just fine. Except that you're pixelated. And you weren't, when they were taking me away on the stretcher. Did you do something?”
She hesitated, and I hated the pixelation all the more. “Maybe your interface lost power. It draws most of its energy during operation from heat and circulation. So it's possible your vitals got weak enough it powered down.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. That's probably it.”
“But this,” she pointed to one of the slices of fruit, “is a tangelo.”
“It's got a nipple on it, like a lemon. This seems more like a bastard fruit the more we learn about it.”
She took up a slice herself. “Okay, we're doing this together. On two. One,” she lifted hers up to her face, and it disappeared in the pixelation.
“Wait,” I said. “I can't see for the pixelation. How will I know you've eaten yours?”
“Trust but verify,” I said.
“I know you think you saw my face, but... I need to protect myself.”
“And I would never ask you not to. I think I've got a solution.” I pushed my slice towards her. “I'll feed you, and you can feed me.”
She thought it over a moment. “You so much as hum one bar of the Lady and the Tramp and I'm out.”
“One, twooo,” the second word elongated as she moved her face close at the same moment as I pushed the slice of tangelo into her mouth. My fingers touched her lips and lingered, only an instant, and she pushed a slice into my mouth. I bit into it. It was sweet, and juicy, with more tang.
“It's good,” I said.
“And it doesn't feel like a monster's going to erupt out of my stomach.”
“Also good.” I set the plate down in my lap. “Whatever happens, thank you. For everything. I don't know how all of this gels with your whole ethos, and I know some of it pushed well outside of your comfort zone. And I really am thankful for everything you've done for me.”
“People have to help each other. That's what society is. My ethos is really just that it's dangerous for your society- your world- to get big enough that people become abstractions, that you can take them for granted, or worse, use them because they aren't an individual to you anymore. And fucked up as the circumstances, I'm glad you're a part of my world, now. And you will be, from now on. Those new mods. You can only get serviced here. Like it or not, you're part of the revolution, now.”
I smiled. I wouldn't have thought it even a few days earlier, but I thought I was going to like that.
“Investigator Tip: It is common for a bullet wound to render the victim unconscious due to a sudden drop in blood pressure. However, audience members tend to react poorly to any activity that can be described as 'fainting' or 'swooning.'”
I was moving fast, inside a car. “The good news, is I was able to trace the pay car,” Chase told me. “The bad news, it was an associate of his, not a usual pay car, hence why they'd pick up a guy who just shot somebody on a street corner.” I couldn't focus past the pain. “And of course, the worse news, that you're bleeding to death, you already know about.”
I realized I had my hand against my shoulder, that it was wet and warm, and I pulled it back to be able to look at it. The hand was keeping a hole plugged up, and without it there, blood spurted from the wound, and my blood pressure fell enough that I got faint, and smacked my head against the dash. “Ow,” I said.
“Keep fucking pressure on it; I don't want you to bleed out in my front seat any more than you do.”
“Hospital?” I asked.
“I'm afraid you aren't that lucky,” he said.
I tried to pull up a map to see what he meant, but couldn't get a signal. We were already in the dead zone.
“Did he shoot me on camera?” I managed to ask over the course of what felt like a half an hour.
“Yes and no,” he said. “He did, but he's using an app sold as the Reasonable Doubter. It basically systematically alters recording of a crime. It starts out subtle, like right now, it's just added crazy amounts of shadow to your attacker. But it's a progressive thing- attacking the footage in waves. It will try to make sure that the footage is completely unusable. And you might not have noticed it at the time, but he was ghosting another ID, and using a facial blur. At least for the spores. I've got forensics trying to back up your video feed, to see if he wasn't blurred there, but they're fighting with what is essentially a virus in their server, so, who knows what they'll be able to salvage.”
Suddenly the car stopped, and he was outside my door pulling me to my feet. I felt like a marionette, dangling but for the strings holding me up. We limped inside, and it wasn't until the flap fell off my eyes that I recognized we were back at Jenel's tent.
“What the fuck?” she asked, getting up from a folding table in the corner.
“You ought to know,” he said. “I'm pretty sure you've been keeping as much of an eye on the kid as I have.”
“When I saw you pick him up I canceled my call to the ambulance. I assumed you'd take him to a hospital. I apparently gave you far too much credit.”
“This was bound to happen,” Chase said, and lowered me into a chair. “Archer can see his every damned move. He knew he was coming- and when he got close, he mauled him, and shot him.”
“Both you and him need to get out of here.” She pointed a gun at him.
“You want to shoot me, sister? Go ahead. I already know my lenses are off, and I'm disconnected. So you want to put a bullet in me, go ahead- now's the time. But that will bring tactical down on your head- if they don't get a signal I'm okay in the next few minutes- and fancy as you are with a computer, there's no way in hell you've cracked that system. Not that I want a confrontation here- but you know better than me that it's protocol. Anytime an officer sets foot inside a dead zone that the clock starts ticking. You know what won't bring tactical raining down on you? Agreeing to save that stupid, bleeding-to-death bastard right there, and letting me walk out of here. I'll tell them you're cooperating with the investigation by saving our advocate's life, as soon as I'm clear and have a signal.”
“Tell them now,” she said.
Chase sighed, and used the line she opened for him. “You know how I'm calling from the dead zone; don't play dumb right now. Yeah. I picked him up. I took him here because here was one minute away, and the hospital was five or more. It was a judgment call, and it's already been made. The locals have him, and they'll save him if they can, and if they can't... I'll believe they did what they could.”
A moment later, I was being loaded onto a stretcher, and I realized that for the first time Jenel's face wasn't blurred out. She was beautiful, and I didn't think that was entirely the blood loss. I don't know if she let it slip, consolation for a dying man, or if my system was utterly down. Or if I was hallucinating. But I wanted to stay and just stare at her, but they wheeled me away.
“Could you help me find him?” I asked Jenel.
“Seriously? You're a human hemorrhoid; you keep new finding ways to be a pain in my ass.” But she knew that if he had half as sophisticated a mod package as she thought, I'd never catch him on my own. He'd be able to track me and always stay a hundred feet ahead of me.
“Fine,” she said. “I'd start with his GPS.”
“Isn't that likely to be bogus.”
“You'd be surprised. About a third of the time, criminals install all of the fancy, expensive pirate mods and apps, and then don't turn them on or calibrate them properly. But probably. Unless you think he's downtown. Moving too slow to be in a car, too fast to be on foot. He strike you as much of a cyclist?”
“No,” I said.
“Didn't think so.” She shared the GPS map with me. We watched him pull up to a residence. She brought up the street camera correlating with the address. We watched a skinny Asian kid who couldn't be more than seventeen saunter up to the door with a pizza.
“What now?” I asked.
“The nice thing about starting a trace with GPS is it's tied into his IP. Most of the data pushed to our interfaces is routed using an IP. There's only so much you can manipulate an IP before the public servers get wise- and it's higher level, computer Jedi shit. I do it. Our servers do it. But I wouldn't expect a drug pusher to.”
Suddenly a blue dot appeared on my map, inside the dead zone. She was even kind enough to share a map of the dead zone, so I had some landmarks to track him by. He was less than a mile away from where I talked to him last.
“I'd get to him fast,” she said. “He's bound to figure out you're onto him. And the more time you give him, the more dangerous he'll be.”
“You mind if I take the gun?” I asked.
“You'll probably need it a hell of a lot more than I will,” she said. I slid it behind my back, and tucked it under my waistband. I nodded at Jenel as I left.
Walking away from her tent, I noticed I was back on the grid; I wondered how long I had been. At least since I left Jenel- that much was certain from the conversation in the chat. My approval rating was higher than I expected, but the chat had turned actively hostile. I lost another point for 'walking too slow.'
I tried to speed up, but without increasing my speed enough the audience would know they'd gotten to me. I was starting to hate them. I wanted to catch my brother's killer. But I wanted to be free of them even more.
Jim was moving. The trace Jenel had on him was updating in real time, which meant he wasn't more than a few hundred yards ahead of me. But if he made it out of the dead zone, he could get a car and be well and truly gone.
My car was a mile in the other direction, and my account was redlining. Most drivers refused to pick up someone in my situation, because there was no telling if you'd get them to their destination only to find they couldn't pay for the ride. There was an alternate method, for linking a fare to the passenger's account, so when it went dry the ride stopped, but it was complicated, and led to more confrontations than it was ever worth. A paid car driver could simply do a passive credit check, make sure the passenger's account wasn't redlined; it just made things easier.
Jim couldn't convince a driver to pick him up until his GPS was functional; otherwise it was practically asking to be mugged. But it meant that if Jim made it out of the dead zone, he was gone. I picked up the pace. I saw someone ahead I thought might be him, and started running.
He was nearly to the edge of the dead zone. I wanted to call Chase, to have him meet me, or at least have him trace the cab while I grabbed my car. But I couldn't spare the air; if I tried to call I would definitely loose him.
But if he got away, I wanted to be able to tell Chase where I was, before I made it out of the dead zone myself. I knew my GPS wouldn't work, here- the dead zone routed GPS all over, so from moment to moment you appeared on other ends of the zone. I pulled up the location overlay; I figured I could at least give him cross streets. The virtual street signs had been altered, defaced in some places, or renamed for violent sex acts in others. I was pretty sure telling Chase I was on Angry Dragon Drive, just past the cross street of Flaming Amazon Lane, wasn't going to tell him anything.
Jim reached the edge of the zone. I was catching up to him. I wasn't in shape, but I wasn't as fat as he was, either. He paused, and I realized he was making a call.
But he was enough out of breath that to make the call he stopped. It meant I had a chance to catch up. As I approached, the red telephone icon appeared over his face, before disappearing.
“Wait,” I said. “I want to talk.”
“No,” he said, and I mistook his meaning, that he thought I had some other motivation. Then he hit me, and as my face smacked into the pavement at his feet, I realized he meant that no, he wasn't going to talk to me.
He kicked me, once in the shoulder, and I realized that by trying to get up I was just giving him more reason to kick me. I tried to curl into a ball, to protect myself as best I could. He continued to kick, at my spine. With each kick I was less able to hold the curl. Then I felt him kick the gun.
He knew immediately what it was, and kicked me in the neck. Lightning struck, from my head to my hip, and my entire side tensed, then went numb. I felt him slide the gun out of my waist band, felt it against my shoulder, then the compression wave was energy from it firing crested through my flesh like a wave.
Then the bullet hit, fire surrounded by force, burrowing through me, tearing its way through my shoulder then out of my chest. His car pulled up. I tried to raise my hand, and tell him to wait, but I didn't have the strength. He dropped the gun on the curb beside me, then got inside the car.