Adrift in the wind, a catchy advert jingle wafted down from above, ensnaring Kirsten’s thoughts as it had been designed to do. The melodic din drew her gaze up to a sky the color of soot, hidden somewhere beyond the frenetic clutter of hundreds of moving objects. Glittering ad-bots saturated the grey fifty feet above her, flitting back and forth below faster moving lanes of hovercar traffic. Smaller orb bots zipped around lumbering giants that struggled even to move forward. The swarm of flying machines lit the smog with a patina of bright holograms, soaking the street with unabashed commercialism. Any of the products they hawked could be hers with two taps of a thumb on the screen of her NetMini, arriving within minutes via flying delivery bot. Sadly, none of them sold love, sincerity, or a do-over for her twenty-two years on the Earth.
Running away from home had been the scariest decision of Kirsten’s life as well as the easiest. It had taken her only ten years—not to mention the urging of a ghost—to make up her mind, and ten minutes to vanish into the endless glittering night of West City. She couldn’t forget what her mother had done. Those memories would haunt her forever, as they haunted her that morning.
Her form-fitting uniform did little against the cold car hood as she waited, on the verge of tears, for her temporary duty partner. Crying over bad dreams is childish. What’s wrong with me? Kirsten averted her gaze from the passing crowd and subtly wiped at her cheeks, so none of the pedestrians going by noticed. Nicole would return soon, and she didn’t want to answer the barrage of questions that would follow being caught crying. They’d met in the dorms as teens, and become something akin to friends—the only person Kirsten had approaching one.
Nicole, assigned to Division Zero Tactical, routinely went out on patrol—as opposed to Investigative Operations—and evidently, stopping for breakfast had become habit for her. Kirsten more often than not spent all day in the office unless something weird happened. Being the only astral sensitive on the West Coast with any noticeable strength did have a giant downside: all the weird shit landed right in her lap. Her regular partner had taken vacation time, so Captain Eze sent Kirsten out for some ‘refresher training’ as well as making sure Nicole didn’t ride alone.
She shifted to allow feeling to return to her butt, one side at a time, and stared at the window of the small café. Her redheaded friend chatted with the clerk, an infectious smile across her face. Kirsten glanced up at the endless stream of glimmering holographic adverts while picking at the retaining strap securing her sidearm. In less than an hour, she might need to use it on a living man. The same dread came back each time she tried to put the dream out of her mind, leaving her doubting she would even want the food Nicole bought.
Why do people always look at the sky for answers? There’s nothing up there but smog and useless crap no one needs to buy.
She shrank away from the gleaming steel edifices towering around her. Today, just like the people, the city felt as though it wanted nothing to do with her. She looked down to Earth, to the unending flow of humanity that squeezed past where the patrol craft intruded upon the sidewalk. Not that Nicole went out of her way to be rude, the military-spec hovercar had about half again the width of an ordinary sedan. Better to crowd the sidewalk than stick out into ground traffic.
Glowing cybertattoos, luminous hair, blinking electronic devices, and the occasional loud conversation leapt out from the river of people. Snippets caught her attention for a second or two at a time. She watched them go by, all walks of life, from wealthy businessmen to body-modifying cyber freaks. Every one of them remained oblivious to her presence or mood. That, she’d chalk up as being a better-than-normal day. Usually, people shied away from the police. Kirsten folded her arms, guessing how random people who made eye contact with her would react if they knew they passed three feet away from a psionic.
She imagined them screaming and running, eyes filled with terror.
A crowd flowed a few steps away, yet she couldn’t have felt more alone if she floated on the other end of the universe.
I’m being silly. This is just newbie work. I’ve been doing this for six years―why am I letting it get to me today?
Sure, Division 0 stuck a laser pistol on her hip and sent her out here to be shot at, but they cared more than her own family had. They also did not want to burn her at the stake for her gifts.
“Hey, I hope you like jalapeños in your egg,” called Nicole. “It’s all they had left.”
The cheery singsong voice lifted her mood—somewhat. Uninvited happiness drew her attention to her friend weaving through the river of people with her arms held high, glossy black tactical armor gleaming in the ambient light. She balanced two plastic cartons atop two cups of coffee—an effort to shield them from the jostles of passing humanity.
Kirsten felt silly for not having requested psi armor for this run. Her I-Ops uniform, made of thin cloth, seemed a reckless choice for front line work. Right as Nicole reached the curb, a teen a little younger than them shot down the sidewalk on powered wheels sprouting from cybernetic legs a bright shade of unpainted plastisteel. He parted the river of bodies, Nicole included, away to both sides as he rumbled past. The cartons went flying. Kirsten leapt in an attempt to save at least one of them, but stopped when they both stalled in midair like paused video.
Nicole narrowed her eyes at the idiot. A second later, he swerved with a startled yelp to the left as if shoved by unseen hands. Screaming and flailing, the teen bowled into a pile of trash with a loud crunch. The clatter of some unseen metal object rolling away broke the subsequent silence. Kirsten knew what her friend had done and smiled despite her anxiety. One coffee and one carton floated over to her. She grasped them, though both felt weightless until Nicole released her telekinetic hold.
“Damn idiots. Can’t we give him a citation for that?” Nicole scowled. “I swear, someone gets a Mishiro booster, and they think they can fly.”
Kirsten’s smile gave way to a guilty glance down the street at the moaning pile of limbs. She set her food on the roof of the car. “That was mean, and I’m not sure. I’m gonna check him out to make sure you didn’t hurt him.”
“He’s fine. If you want cold eggs, go right ahead.” Nicole rolled her eyes and hopped into the driver’s seat to get started on her food.
“He’s still a person.” Kirsten jogged over to the site of the wipeout, grabbed the kid’s arm, and hauled him out of the pile of trash. “You okay?”
“What happened?” asked the maybe-nineteen-year-old, a dazed expression on his face. “I slip on something?”
She helped him stand. “Probably. Look, it’s not safe to do forty down a street full of people. Next time you could kiss a pole, go into traffic, or hurt someone else.” Kirsten held up her left forearm toward him until it chirped. “I’m only logging a warning this time, okay? Next time, you’ll get a citation.”
“Uhh, thanks. Sure.” The teen looked around, still bewildered.
After recording the event on her armband terminal, Kirsten jogged back to the patrol craft and hopped in.
“Well at least you don’t still look like your cat died.” Nicole offered a sympathetic glance while she slurped her coffee. “Careful, the eggs are spicy.”
Kirsten managed a shrug as she opened her coffee. “I’m just nervous about this warrant run.” The gull-wing door on her side sank closed with a soft pneumatic hiss.
Nicole paused, mouth open an inch from her food. Her eyes shifted to the right. “You’re not a precog, are you? Please tell me you’re not a precog.”
“No. I deal with ghosts. You know that.” The harsh synthetic coffee choked the last traces of sleep from her taste buds.
“Yeah, but being an Astral doesn’t mean you’re not also a precog.” Nicole’s contagious cheer returned. “And you beat the snot out of bad ghosts! Is it true that all the power went out in a three block area when you took out that Wharf Killer one?”
“Actually, he drew the power out of the area before I obliterated him. That guy was building up for something big.” The memory of the mangled man shuddering down to his knees, shafts of brilliant light bursting out of his body brought a shiver.
Nicole gasped like a wide-eyed kid. “Ooo, I wish I could see it.”
“No, really you don’t.” Kirsten tried to force the images out of her thoughts. “Not all ghosts are pretty. I’m just glad I never met him when he was alive.”
“It’s cool you can whip ghosts like that―hey, isn’t that pretty rare for an Astral?”
Kirsten hesitated. She hated talking about her other gift. Most people, even other psionics, feared anyone with it. For whatever reason, Nicole never batted an eyelash. “It’s because I can do the mind blast thing, too.” She looked down, picking at her uniform. “They somehow work together.”
Nicole’s jovial smile didn’t weaken. “Neat.”
When Kirsten opened her carton, a blast of spiciness scorched up her nose. Small bits of green in the omelet-on-a-bun threatened pain. “Why does this sandwich smell like agony?”
“There’s jalapeños in the eggs. Try it! They’re awesome,” said Nicole.
“Hmm. I don’t usually have spicy food.”
Nicole play-punched her in the shoulder. “You eat the same boring salad every damn day. C’mon. Live a little.”
“Fine. Fine.” Kirsten had spent long enough barely eating, thanks to her mother. Refusing food felt like the worst crime imaginable. Despite being afraid of what it would do to her, she took a bite. The first few seconds of chewing offered a deceptive burst of wonderful flavor—before the fire started. “Mmph!”
Kirsten fanned her mouth. “Umm. Not quite as bad as I was expecting. Gonna have to take it slow.”
“Same for me. Once you get used to it, normal eggs just don’t cut it anymore.” Nicole swept her hands around, fingers dancing over the controls. The patrol craft’s holographic displays winked on one after the next, flooding the cabin with dim azure light. She tapped the control stick, and the enormous car rolled away from the sidewalk. Kirsten leaned into the sway as the tire bounced down from the curb, managing to avoid spilling any coffee. For about three blocks, Nicole drove on the ground so they could eat, but after rounding the corner into standstill traffic, she decided to switch to hover mode.
“Umm?” asked Kirsten around another mouthful of egg sandwich.
“What’s the point of having a police car if we don’t fly?”
An unintentionally large gulp of coffee scorched its way down Kirsten’s jalapeño-tenderized throat as the car lurched upward. Once the tears and coughing stopped and she could breathe again, Kirsten glared. She knew how Nicole liked to fly, so she stopped trying to enjoy her food, and inhaled the rest before she wore it. The patrol craft picked up speed and altitude, drifting through the layer of advert droids while plowing a twisting whorl in the smog. Nicole banked corners hard, making the windows on the sixtieth story of several buildings shudder.
Kirsten looked behind them. “If this thing didn’t have police lights on it, we’d have a Division 1 patrol car behind us already. Do you have to drive like you’re fifteen?” She rubbed her neck and coughed. “Damn. I ate that thing too fast. And this isn’t cyberspace, you could kill someone.”
Her friend flashed a wicked little grin. “It got your mind off of whatever really killed your cat, didn’t it? Ooo, mind blast. Hmm. What’s your rating?” Nicole flashed a mock-accusing squint, then giggled.
“Only two,” said Kirsten.
“That’s cool. No wonder Morelli avoids you.” Then came the sincere pout. “You could have told me, it doesn’t bother me. I think it’s cool.”
“Sorry, it’s just, you know how people get about mind blasters. I’m nowhere near strong enough to erase an entire brain permanently.” Kirsten examined her nails. “I never had a cat. Look, it’s not a big deal. Just a bad dream is all. Really, I’m fine. C’mon, you know I hate talking about that dream.”
“Suit yourself. Say, how’d your date go?”
Kirsten’s head slumped forward. “Horrible, he―”
“Oh, I’m thinking of going blonde like you, does it help with―”
Kirsten blinked at the scatterbrain next to her. “…ran screaming out the door…”
“…attracting guys? Oh.” Nicole offered her a sheepish look. “Another runner, huh?”
“Yeah.” Kirsten fidgeted with her cup. “The second I told him.”
“Trail of flames leading to his car?” Nicole shook her head. “Why did you tell him on the first date? You know they always run.” She looked away for a second before her brain switched gears again. “Oh, hey, did you get carded again or did they believe you were over twenty-one?”
Kirsten’s face warmed with blush. “I tell them up front because I don’t want to get attached and then have them freak out on me. I have to be honest.”
“Someone got carded!” Nicole giggled.
Kirsten glared out the right side window. “Well, now I know why Eze put us together for the day. I look like I’m thirteen and you act like it.”
Nicole gave her a raspberry.
“You’re proving my point.”
Nicole stuck out her tongue. “You’re tall for thirteen.”
Staring into the endless black of her uniform, Kirsten searched for answers that didn’t dwell there. A warped version of her face sulked back from her silver belt, so she turned to the window with a sigh, looking through her reflection at the passing century towers. Hundred-story monoliths, each was a variation of the same standard pre-fab design like most of the city. Full of happy people, or at least people happy enough to fake being happy. Kirsten frowned.
Is there a man in any of those buildings that isn’t a shallow jerk?
“Probably not,” replied Nicole.
“Dammit.” Kirsten gave her friend a light slap on the back of the head. “Get outta my mind.”
The car swerved as Nicole ducked, causing Kirsten to grab the ‘oh-shit’ handle.
Oh, come on, you know you do it all the time. Nicole’s telepathic voice giggled in her consciousness.
“Seriously, no, I don’t. Simply because we can doesn’t give us the right to pick through people’s thoughts without probable cause. Didn’t you pay attention at all in class?”
“You are such a downer.” Nicole frowned. “Besides it’s only you, not some citizen.”
Kirsten stared in silence at the NavMap, watching a small yellow triangle creep along a blue line. Sometimes having friends that didn’t run away in fear at the sight of a psionic could be as much a curse as a benefit. They sat in silence for several minutes, then Kirsten sensed an odd beckoning urge from the ground. She turned her head, squinting against the intermittent flashes of sunlight gleaming off the ad-bots below. Some mysterious urge pulled her stare down into the darkness that clung to the narrow alleys below.
“You haven’t seen them,” said Kirsten with a whispery voice, “but they’re out there.”
Nicole put on a sarcastic look of fear. “Ooh… your little shadow-men?”
“Look in my head now if you have the proverbial balls.” Kirsten dared her with a gaze while recalling the memory of her last meeting with a Harbinger. She steeled herself against the memory of the mass of darkness gliding out of the shadows, piercing silver eyes locked upon the malevolent spirit it had come to claim. “Just please don’t have an accident—in your pants or with the car.”
Nicole accepted her challenge and locked eyes. Her amused grin shattered to a half-open mouth, taking with it all the color in her face. When her body went limp, the car’s safety system brought them to a hovering standstill. Kirsten gave her an ‘I told you so’ smirk.
“Wow… well…” Nicole stared at the hover lane in front of them. “Okay then. Consider me glad I can’t see that shit.” A visible tremble settled into her hands as she clutched the control sticks.
Kirsten rubbed her friend’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that to you. Sometimes I forget reading memories comes with the emotion. I was pretty freaked out there.”
Nicole’s voice faltered. “You see that stuff all the time? How are you not sucking your thumb under your bed every night?”
“Growing up, I had a scarier demon to practice on.”
Nicole’s eyes closed, her hands stopped shaking. “I don’t even want to know.”
“It’s weird.” Kirsten folded her arms. “Ghosts don’t bother me. The Harbingers make me a little nervous, but I know they’ll leave me alone. They only go after evil souls. Some living punk with a gun, though―that terrifies me. I don’t know what to do.” Kirsten turned toward the window. I don’t want to be responsible for sending people into that world.
Nicole went into a well-rehearsed recital of standard Division 0 combat doctrine, trying to explain to her ‘what to do’ in those situations. Her friend’s telekinesis and temperament suited field work with a tactical team, not to mention she lacked the patience or finesse demanded by I-Ops. One of her favorite tricks involved telekinetically yanking the guns out of suspects’ hands. She had started printing still images of the faces they made, recorded by her armor cam. Her work area back at the station had dozens of them hung up, the ‘Wall of Derp.’
Kirsten’s role with Investigative Operations came with much less glory. She arrived well after the shooting stopped to do the figuring out, not to mention all the typing. Ghosts on the other hand, she didn’t mind fighting. With them, she had the upper hand. Best of all, most spirits, she could reason with.
Nicole stopped hard at a red traffic control node when her attempt to beat the yellow failed. “Damn. I could hit the lights.”
“I wouldn’t. I don’t feel like getting a reprimand.”
“Oh, but the Division 1 guys do it all the time!”
“You really do sound like a tween.”
Their playful argument stalled at the appearance of a newsbot trailing a billboard-sized hologram of a mutilated body. A pile of former person lay in a bloody heap of mangled clothing, surrounded by people holding up their NetMinis to take image captures, and one intrepid ad-bot trying to sell funeral services to the pile of meat.
Reporter Kimberly Brightman’s voice emanated from the coasting robot, offering details about the latest in a series of attacks by out-of-control dolls. The lifelike androids had been a subject of much controversy for longer than Kirsten had been alive. Newer models appeared so much like real people one needed scanning equipment to recognize them as machines—if they weren’t psionic. The lack of surface thoughts made them obvious to Kirsten, perhaps why they didn’t unnerve her. Older models often had visible seams or gaps in the joints and face, and less advanced personalities. As always, the Newsnet worked it up, stirring the stew of paranoia. Where would the next attack be? Could a doll near you go crazy too? Does death lurk in your own kitchen? Murder might be right behind you—and come back in five minutes for Hadley’s amazing meatloaf tips.
“How can they air that crap?” Kirsten gestured at the monolithic screen. “Children could see that.”
“I dunno… dolls creep me out, don’t you think?”
Kirsten shrugged. “Not really. Though if I ever get run over by a PubTran, I’d rather just die than have my brain stuffed in an artificial body.”
“No.” Nicole shook her head. “I mean the AI ones, the fake people. Not the real-brain ones… and those sub-sents are even creepier.”
Kirsten pointed out the signal had changed. “What do you mean?”
Nicole muttered as fast as her brain formed ideas. “I mean it’s like, what if all the AI’s in the world talked to each other and no one knew it? What if they were all part of this network that like, hated humans? And what if one day―”
You could carry the same thought for longer than twenty seconds. “You’ve been watching too many Holovids, Nikki. Self-aware AIs are considered citizens under the law.”
“Oh, that’s just the first part of their plan.” She held up her finger in triumph, and then lost her train of thought. “By the way, I heard Samir finished fixing your car.”
ADHD sucks. Kirsten smiled at the expected topic flip. “Oh, that’s good.”
Nicole grinned. “Hey, isn’t that the car everyone hates? Don’t you have problems with it?”
Kirsten waved dismissively. “No, not at all.”
“I heard it almost killed the last like dozen officers who drove it. Why was it in the shop anyway? Is it true Morelli borrowed it and wound up putting it through a fortieth-floor window of an office building?”
“Yeah, pretty much. It’s been fine for me. I didn’t think it’d be a problem to let him use it.”
The comm flashed, and a six-inch holographic rendition of Captain Jonathan Eze’s shaved head appeared in the center of the console. He glanced back and forth between the two women and offered a curt nod.
“Officer Logan, I need you to drop Agent Wren off back here as soon as possible. I’ll have Forester go with you on that warrant pickup.”
“Understood, sir.” Nicole saluted the intangible Captain, then shouted, “Whee! Code three time.”
Eze nodded again, and faded out.
Kirsten glared. “Command actually lets you carry a weapon… in public?”
Laughing, Nicole wrenched the car around in a hard about-face that smacked Kirsten into the door. She shoved the left stick almost all the way forward to accelerate and flicked on the bar lights. The patrol craft streaked at 380 MPH back to the command building.
Ten minutes later, they came to rest in front of the parking deck. Squad Corporal Forrester walked through the large cloud of cryonic mist and debris kicked up by their arrival. He saluted Kirsten as she got out. Unprepared, she fumbled to return it.
I’ll never get used to that.
She still felt like a newbie even though she had been on active duty since the age of sixteen. Forrester’s enlisted rank took longer to attain. She held the status of officer―now all she had to do was feel like one. Ever since the Corporate War, the National Police Force fell under the umbrella of the armed services. Her rank of ‘Agent’ was laterally equivalent to a Chief Warrant Officer 4. Technically, she hadn’t ‘made her bones’ yet, as I-Ops used the ‘Agent’ rank only on a provisional basis for gifted rookies, sometimes even children as had happened in her case. It lacked command authority, but came with decent pay.
The hot ion rush of liftoff left Kirsten’s legs wrapped in tingly sparks. The large, armored hovercar peeled up and away from the building, glowing cyan energy orbs at the four corners. Nicole leveled off and blasted down the street, leaving a trail of wobbling windows. Kirsten shook her head and went down into the garage where Captain Eze waited by her patrol craft. The dull matte-black armored panels looked pristine, as though they’d recently been repainted. A likely possibility given Morelli had driven into an office building.
“Kirsten, we’ve got a situation,” said Eze, a twinge of alarm in his voice that overshadowed his usual comforting tone. “Two Division 1 patrol officers have gotten themselves trapped by a possible category four manifestation.”
She gulped. The Wharf Stalker rated only a three. “How much do we know?”
Eze grasped her shoulder, stalling her ever-widening eyes. “Some mechanic took a few pot shots at a passing Div 1 unit. They pursued him into an abandoned building, and at some point thereafter, hit their panic buttons. By the time backup arrived, they were gone. There are also reports of strange sights, screams, and to use the technical term they did: ‘weird shit’.”
Eze shook his head. “No sector, it’s off the map. Southwest beyond the end of the city plates in a pre-war building. They’re down on the surface.”
She bit her lip, never having been that far south before. “Who’s the mechanic?”
“I’ll relay the details while you’re en route. No criminal record, no idea why he fired. Their sergeant wants a Zero out there ASAP. His people are refusing to go inside.”
Refusing? With fellow officers in danger? What the hell is this thing?
“On it, sir.” She rushed around and hopped into the waiting car.
Kirsten tapped at the control sticks urging the car to power on faster. Any trepidation she had at tangling with something that might be worse than the Wharf Stalker evaporated under her sense of duty. She thought only of other cops in danger.
West City occupied an elevated deck of interlocking plates raised fifty meters off the ground. No one really knew why construction stopped where it did in the south, with an irregular edge like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. From somewhere in what used to be Southern California, all the way up into former Canada, one contiguous city held approximately fifty-six percent of the population of the UCF on Earth. The rest lived in East City. Sometimes, Kirsten wondered if the interior of North America really was as bad as everyone claimed. The Corporate War supposedly left it a barren wasteland full of nuclear radiation, mutated creatures engineered during the war, and pits of toxic mush. Almost everyone fled to the coasts… but that happened centuries ago.
Twenty minutes of blurred buildings later, the patrol craft shot out over the crenelated edge of the city. The exposed Earth fifty meters below appeared desolate and brown, dotted here and there with scrub-brush and cacti. She dove into the shadow of the endless urbanity behind her. The rearview monitor filled with a vast network of pipes and support struts between the great city plates and the ground, a place known as The Beneath. She had been down there before, many years ago, but she didn’t have the time to dwell on old memories.
Not with lives at risk.