The Harmony Paradox | Chapter One

Methodical as always, Nina thought over the operation backward and forward while observing forty-eight-year-old Jerome Drummond in the green-on-green of a night vision scope. Seventeen days ago, GlobeNet sniffer programs tripped on a communication channel to Europe, a network address belonging to the Allied Corporate Council Citizen Management group―their law enforcement. Contents of multiple successive messages detailed the intent for a UCF corporation to purchase eight prisoners, orphaned children of rebel fighters who’d survived a raid on their resistance cell. The only problem was, no one had yet figured out how they’d been smuggled into West City, or where they were.

Nina, as well as many of the people working under her on this case, hadn’t slept a full night in seventeen days.

In her crosshairs, the senior vice president of Osiris Biotechnic―chief of R&D―reclined in a massive black chair behind a desk of chrome and glass. He sported a sculpted flattop, white-collar shirt, thin tie, seventy-five thousand credit emerald cufflinks, and an ‘I own the world’ smile. A holo-panel hovering over his desk bore the image of a stocky, square-jawed man of similar age, though far paler than the dark-skinned Drummond, who shimmered from the light it cast.

What is it about corporate types? They always leave the lights off when they ignore the law… or human decency.

For six hours, she lay prone atop the roof of another century tower, one full of office space owned by Halcyon-Ormyr. It took five hours and forty-four minutes of waiting for Drummond to receive the call the network people said he would. The hovercar manufacturer would likely never become aware Division 9 had been there. If anyone happened to notice her, they’d probably decide to mind their own business: her sand brown long coat and clingy black bodysuit screamed government agent. She shifted, attempting to evade an awkward lump pressing into her side. The layer of gel in the ballistic stealth armor could harden in a microsecond to stop bullets, but it didn’t do much to protect against a roof covered in egg-sized ‘decorative stones.’

Her jet-black bob blew in a wind her body could ignore when she wanted it to; synthetic skin and plastisteel didn’t care about cold. She sometimes missed having her hair long. In this body, it didn’t grow unless she triggered nanobots to make it longer, and so far, she hadn’t seen a reason to beyond sentiment.

A wire connected a port at the back of her neck to a modified UCF-M22A7 assault rifle, allowing its optics to interface with her eyes. Range and windage information appeared in tiny text at the lower right of her vision above a giant numeral ‘6’ indicating the number of rounds remaining. Optical elements in the rifle’s boxy outer casing projected a pattern matching the multicolored rocks, creating the illusion the weapon had been made of glass. Her mental command extended the motorized barrel out to its full five-foot length. Lime green crosshairs and a hairline trajectory estimation arc centered on the executive’s head as her vision zoomed in enough to perceive particles of dust in the gaps between loaf-shaped segments of cushion behind him. A faint whirr in her right ear announced a caseless round sliding into the chamber by her cheek.

If the intel’s good, 12.5mm is too quick.

For more than two weeks, Nina and her team had been staring at ‘arrest photos’ of eight young children who’d probably watched their parents die. Grainy images, wide-eyed expressions of anguish and dread had etched in her memory. She, and everyone at Division 9 who’d gotten wind of this operation, wanted to kick down a door or two, but Osiris had five research facilities, three of which they’d tried to hide from the government. They all feared choosing wrong would spook the VP, and a potential rescue operation would become an eight-count murder investigation―if anyone ever managed to find bodies. Normally, Nina preferred delicate operations… but these were children. The waiting had been the second most unbearable thing she’d ever lived through.

Division 9 NetOps owned the Osiris Biotechnic network for the past two weeks. The audio feed patched in via her internal uplink brought her ears virtually into the room as though she stood at Drummond’s side.

“I am glad we could come to an arrangement,” said the man on the holo-panel―Gamedi Zharkov according to her case notes―a director of citizen management in Minsk. The Allied Corporate Council ran everything, even their military, like another part of a corporation. “My associates tell me the merchandise arrived intact, yet we are still waiting for the payment.”

Drummond’s eyes flickered with irritation. “There should be no deviation from our deal, Gamedi. Two and a half million per unit. Fifteen percent up front, the rest on delivery. Doctor Rice has yet to confirm that nothing was damaged in transit and none of the petri dishes are contaminated with anything that could render them useless for our purposes. As soon as he tells me everything is as expected, you will get paid.”

Gamedi’s lips stretched into a wide line, not quite a frown, but not far from it. “We are short seventeen million credits, Mr. Drummond.” His Russian accent thickened. “You are aware these castoffs could have been more easily dealt with locally, especially the ones too young to have adopted their parents’ radical ideologies. It is a risk for both of us.”

“Oh, come now.” Drummond reached forward, resting his hand on the desk, one finger tapping the glass. “We both know your people have little regard for non-citizens no matter how old they are, and these were part of your little”―the man failed to conceal all of his condescending amusement―“resistance problem? I am curious, Gamedi, if your society is the superior one, why is it that your very own citizens have taken up arms in secret?”

“Unrest is universal, my friend. Regardless of who is in charge, someone will claim it unjust.” Gamedi coughed into his fist. “The vermin are as you requested. Their families were criminals. There is no one to ask questions, no trails to cause problems. It is perhaps ironic that your company, within the great and noble UCF, conducts such unseemly business.”

Jerome turned his hands upward. “If you find our research so distasteful, why then did you sell them to us? Could it be your stake in the research data? Hmm?”

“Need I remind you the sort of issues you may experience should your, how you say, ‘NewsNet’ receives certain recordings?” Gamedi smiled. “It would be not so pleasant for Osiris’s stock, yes?”

Drummond flinched. “You should have received the funds by now. Perhaps some of them aren’t quite as healthy and useful as you claimed?” He waved a hand at his desk, summoning another holo-panel. “Give me a minute.”

Forty-one seconds later, an exasperated middle-aged man with short silvery hair swept back over his head appeared on the second screen. A mixture of wailing children, one screaming in anger, and monkey-like whooping came over the new connection.

“I’m very busy now, Drummond, dealing with your rush job. We were supposed to have another two weeks to prepare.”

“Why haven’t I received a message confirming receipt? Our friends in the east are expecting payment.” Drummond had to yell to overpower the noise.

Doctor Rice’s irritation deepened. “They’re all usable, but it will be a few weeks of waiting for them to get back up to normal weight before we can start any tests. As of now, their systems are too stressed for any useful data collections. The weakest of the samples would likely kill them in hours. However, for purposes of the agreement, they are fine. I sent the confirmation message over twenty minutes ago. Now, if you’ll leave me to my work.”

「Lieutenant Duchenne, this is DeWinter. Confirm trace on the remote facility. We’re kicking the gates down now and securing their network. Physical location should upload to group Navcon in three seconds.」

Hardin’s virtual face offered a solemn nod. 「Duchenne, proceed.」

「Roger, Ops. Net Team, lights out. One ticket to Miami.」 Nina’s voice over the comm channel set off a flurry of activity. Her boss shouted at a field squad to move on the lab where eight foreign children were about to face who-knows-what. The Vidphone calls to both Gamedi and Doctor Rice went dark, and a little red dot winked on beside the door of the VP’s office as the mechanism locked.

She sent her voice over the GlobeNet to his holo-terminal. “Jerome Drummond, this is Division 9. Have fun in hell.”

The man opened his mouth to shout; time dragged to a standstill as Nina’s combat boosters kicked in. A handful of electrons raced down the wire into the rifle, setting off the electronic trigger so her finger didn’t have to move. A spark tickled the electrode foil at the back end of a caseless block of propellant. Three relative seconds later, a massive 12.5mm slug came spiraling out of the barrel without a trace of muzzle flare. The projectile cruised across the street ninety-seven stories below and kissed the window of Drummond’s office.

Bright silver lines raced a zigzag spider web away from the contact point; glittering diamond flakes followed the bullet into the room amid the slow-motion symphony of glass shearing apart. A split second of scream left the VP’s throat, a low demonic sound in Nina’s accelerated time state, as the spinning bullet struck the cheek ridge below Drummond’s right eye.

The window turned white; long, jagged cracks flashed to a near-opaque crisscross of tiny fragments. Streams of blood squirted out of his ears, expelled by a pressure wave traveling through his brain. The majority of solid material within the man’s head erupted in a blast of gore, which leapt onto the wall. Like snow, the suspension of glass fragments cascaded down, more than half raining along the side of the building toward the distant street.

She shut off her boosters; time returned to normal.

Drummond slumped in the chair, two vertebrae and a flap of skin all that remained above his shoulders. A cloud of diamond-like glass bits collapsed on the rug, and the door lock turned green. Hardin would probably grumble about speaking to the target, calling it a warning that could’ve increased the risk of the VP getting away. She didn’t care. He had to know why. The recording of everything she’d seen and heard over the past twenty minutes went out over a shadow VPN few civilians even knew existed, back to the D9 system.

「I’m done here. Tell the site team I’m on the way.」

Drummond’s call to Doctor Rice had been like a bright neon roadmap through the darkness of the GlobeNet, leading the Division 9 NetOps team straight to an unregistered R&D facility in Sector 7904, near the south edge of what had once been called Oregon. The lower-middle-class residential district sat one alley away from the wall on the inland edge of West City, seventy-five meters over an area known four centuries ago as Ashland, according to the archives. It surprised her they hadn’t put a project like this out in the Badlands, and she wondered if educated people actually believed in all the stories about technology mysteriously failing out there.

She flicked her thumb at the hovercar’s control stick, entertaining an idle memory of Shabundo Ghede moving souls between humans and machines. I suppose stranger things have been true.

Her unmarked black patrol craft rounded the corner of a steel-and-glass residence tower; the flight south from the Osiris Biotechnic corporate office had taken nineteen minutes at 618 mph. Sometimes, having a Class 3 doll body and far-beyond-human reflexes came in handy.

Already, a scattering of nondescript black hovercars, two vans, and four blue-and-white Division 1 patrol craft collected around the front.

「Network is clear. No automated defenses. Initiating file lockdown,」 said DeWinter on a voice-only link.

A virtual holo-panel opened, bearing the face of a woman with short black hair and brown skin in a black Division 9 operator’s suit, rubbery material straight up to her jawline. The ID widget under the panel read: Operative [O1] Padilla, R.

「Lieutenant. The facility is located two levels below street. The super says he had no idea it was there. All four elevators reach it, but only with a specific code and ID. You should be able to walk right in. Sanchez must’ve been sleeping in training. It took him fifteen minutes to get the damn front door open.」

Seconds later, Sergeant Sanchez appeared on a separate virtual window, holding up a middle finger.

Nina eyed the ground; the closest clear landing area offered a longer walk than she wanted to waste time on. 「I’m here. Is the site secure?」

「Yes, lieutenant. No hostiles, but…」 Operative Padilla looked off to the side, somewhere between wanting to cry and scream in rage. A shrieking child and a repetitive bang, bang, bang echoed in the background. 「They’re… these people. They’re not even human.」

Nina’s mental impulse caused her virtual avatar to nod. She hurried into a reckless landing between the building and a pair of tech vans, with less than two inches of clearance on all sides. Nothing an unaugmented person would’ve dared to try. The rapid descent made two Division 1 patrol officers scream and dive for cover, evidently expecting a crash.

She got out and stormed through the building’s entrance, six feet from her car. A small group of civilians loitered about, curious at the police presence, but seeming clueless as to the reason for it. Ignoring the questions shouted over the helmets of more patrol officers, Nina headed for the elevator.

NetOps had hacked the touchscreen, adding a destination labeled ‘Secret Illegal Research Facility’ below the basement. That’s got ‘Joey’ written all over it. She whirled to face the door and jabbed a finger into the screen, barely holding back enough not to shatter the glass.

Soon, the elevator doors opened to a lounge-like room with two purple couches, four vendomats, and a wall-mounted holo-screen showing a Gee-ball match. Two mirror-finished disc bots as big as dinner plates scooted back and forth over pristine white tiles, cleaning the floor. The same repetitive bang, bang, bang noise she’d heard over the comm link grew louder the farther she walked. She followed the sound of activity into a hallway leading out from the front right corner and strode past five offices and a conference room to a pinned-open double glass sliding security door.

She stopped short at the sight waiting for her.

Four Division 9 field operatives stood around a large room with medium-sized primate cages, four-foot cubes built into the left and right walls, stacked two rows high like tiny jail cells. Rhesus monkeys occupied four of them, as well as a lone black chimpanzee. The remaining non-empty cages contained dirt-smeared human children, ranging in age from around five to maybe ten, all of whom looked malnourished. A plastiboard box on a silver table at the center of the room held a mound of stained, ratty clothing that stank to the point a street vagrant would scoff at it. Next to it sat a pile of police-style zip cuffs, all cut open.

Myofiber muscles in Nina’s arms shivered with imperceptible trembles of anger as she imagined the children being carried in, cut free, stripped, and stuffed into cages one after the next like goddamned research monkeys.

In the first cage, left wall top row, a tiny blonde girl of about six lay on her back, stomping both feet against the bars of her cube-shaped prison, while screeching like the animal they’d treated her as. The cage had little reaction to her assault, though a hanging water bottle had already been shaken halfway empty. Next to her in the adjacent enclosure, a girl a year or two older with dark hair cowered, trembling, against the inner wall, back to the room and trying to cover herself as much as she could. The remaining six children were all boys. Some sat like lumps where they’d been dropped, morose expressions of acceptance on their faces; the youngest sobbed, but tried to stay quiet. The oldest, a sandy-brown haired boy of about ten, knelt in the center of his cage, both hands covering his crotch, and stared at the Division 9 team with a look of guarded hostility.

A cabinet on the wall to the left of the kicking girl’s cage held sedative autoinjectors and a five-foot pole mount. The scientists likely used it to spear the larger primates in their cages without having to open them, but the mere thought that some labcoat might use that stick to tranquilize a trapped child fighting against whatever they’d try to do to them made her knuckles creak.

She took a second to center herself with the reassurance that they’d prevented the worst-case scenario. At least they’re all still alive.

One of the Division 9 agents fiddled with a little black device connected by wires to the electronic lock on the angry girl’s cage. Nina figured him for Sanchez, even from behind. He seemed frustrated and poked and slapped the component in his hands.

The girl howled louder, pummeling her feet back and forth into the bars. She wheezed and gasped for air, as though she expected to drop dead if she didn’t escape in the next thirty seconds.

“Sanchez.” Nina walked up to him, catching a whiff of sour awfulness from the box of clothes: sewer, vomit, and urine. She almost considered they’d been stripped to improve their comfort, but seeing them all still dirt-smeared made it clear the scientists thought of them only as animals―expendable creatures they could do whatever they wanted with.

Taken by a spike of rage, Nina ripped the tranq cabinet off the wall and smashed it to the floor, sending green autoinjectors scattering across the smooth, shiny metal. The loud smash of thin plastisteel stunned the field team in their tracks. The children all went quiet and watched her. The little blonde girl stilled. After a few seconds more of staring, she lowered her feet from the bars and sat up.

Nina’s presence, the raw fury wafting from her eyes, caused the kids all to shy away… except for the blonde girl. She scooted closer, grabbed the bars, and pressed her face to them. A boy on the opposite side whispered to his neighbor, speaking Russian. An echo of his words followed in English at the back of her mind.

“Are they going to kill us now?”

The black-haired, maybe eight-year-old boy didn’t reply, his gaze locked square on Nina.

“Sorry, lieutenant. I’m trying to get this open as fast as I can, but they’ve got some serious crypto here. It’s separate from the network. Self-contained. You’d think they were teaching the monkeys how to hack security codes…”

As if on cue, the chimpanzee snorted.

The filthy, savage blonde girl kicked the bars again before slapping them a few times and grunting, out of breath. She locked terrified blue eyes with Nina’s. Droplets from her battered water bottle fell in trickles down her body, collecting dirt, and dripping black onto the lining pad below the cage floor. The girl looked as though she hadn’t had a decent meal in months: her ribs were prominent, her hips and legs bony and bruised. Red marks on her wrists and ankles suggested she hadn’t much cared for the plastic zip cuffs. Finger-shaped bruises on both her upper arms filled Nina with the need to hit someone, but those marks could’ve come from the Citizen Management officers who’d arrested her back in Russia.

Growling, the girl grabbed the bars and tried to rattle the door, but couldn’t budge it. She seemed to sense Nina had come to help them, and her wild expression teased at a nervous smile. A whine escaped from her nose, the tone imploring, her expression asked how people could do this to her.

Pozhaluysta otkroyte.” The girl leaned her face between two bars, her voice fell to a pleading whisper. “Pozhaluysta.”

The ghostly child voice in the back of her head echoed, “Please open… please.”

“Get someone in here with some goddamned blankets, and a medical transport.” Nina pushed Sanchez aside, grasped the bars, and switched to Russian. “Back up, sweetie. We will not harm you. I’m going to get you out of there.” The language came courtesy of a neuronal chip, a cortical copy of someone else’s knowledge that, after so many months, functioned no different from having learned it.

The girl startled, gawking at Nina as if shocked someone could speak. She scooted away, fingers and toes gripping the floor of the cage like a feral thing ready to pounce and sprint at the first chance. Waist-long hair, frizzed up into a lion’s mane, added to the effect. The transition in the eyes staring up at her from abject terror to hope made Nina sick, wondering what horrible things the girl had seen back home, and how terrifying it must be to not understand anything one’s captors said.

Nina clenched her fingers around the bars. A quick tug snapped the plastisteel door from its hinges with a loud pank, and sent a blast of sparks spewing from the electronic lock panel. She rotated left and handed the door to Sanchez, who grabbed it before thinking and staggered to the side as the unexpected weight dragged him down to his knees.

“How did you do that?” whispered the child, crawling up to the open edge. “What are you?”

Three of the boys behind Nina, on the opposite wall, thrust their arms out between the bars of their enclosures, all hollering to be let out next. From what they yelled, some of which consisted of slang her chip missed, they all understood they were to be used for medical tests, and expected to die in their cages, never having been let out again.

Nina reached in and grasped the girl by the armpits, lifting her into a delicate embrace. The child clamped on, trembling. “I was hurt very badly, and they had to give me a new body so I didn’t die.” She looked around at the other children, struggling to keep her mood out of her voice. “Please stay calm. We are here to help. I know you’ve all grown up scared of the police, but you are not in Europe anymore. You are safe now.”

“I’m not a lab monkey, I’m Elizaveta,” murmured the girl. The former ball of rage sniffled. “They were going to be mean to us, yes? To make us sick and see if their medicines work? To test the doctor machines. Treat us like mice in boxes.” Her grip tightened. “Thank you for saving us. I don’t want to die.”

“Don’t be frightened, Elizaveta.” Nina patted the girl’s back in an attempt to be comforting.

A woman in Division 1 armor holding a grey blanket open to receive approached.

Nina found it oddly difficult to want to let go of the girl, and the child’s death grip didn’t make it easier. “Can you speak any English?”

“No. What will happen to us?”

“It’s okay. This woman will keep you safe.”

Elizaveta clung tighter and whined. Nina held her for a moment more while the shouting from the boys grew louder and more insistent. The somewhat older girl in the next space kept quiet, staring ashamedly at the floor of her cage.

“Come on, sweetie. I have to get the others out, and I can’t do that with you hanging on me.”

Elizaveta trembled. After a bit of coaxing, Nina managed to hand her into the blanket-grip of the patrol officer. Burritoed in the warm fabric except for her head, the child peered at her, again seeming fearful. “What will they do to us now?”

“You’ll be taken to a real doctor who will make sure you are healthy, then given to proper families here. We are not going to send you back to Europe.”

Elizaveta bit her lip and rested her head against the armored shoulder of the woman holding her. She stared into Nina’s soul as the officer carried her toward the corridor leading to the elevators. A second before they disappeared past the archway, the child raised a hand to wave.

I’m going to be seeing that poor kid in my dreams for the rest of my life.

Nina turned back to the next cage and grabbed the bars. The dark-haired girl continued to try to become part of the inner wall. She whimpered, fidgeting and trying to keep herself covered with her arms. At the pank of the bolts failing, the child looked over her shoulder, her face bright red with shame. Nina hurled the cage door like a Frisbee, embedding it into a cabinet of electronic equipment.

The second girl remained quiet and still.

“Come on, sweetie,” said Nina in Russian. “You don’t belong in a cage.”

She whimpered and made eye contact, but still didn’t move.

“What’s your name? I’m Nina. It’s all right… you don’t have anything to be afraid of anymore.”

The perhaps eight-year-old kept staring at her, ignoring Nina’s continued attempts to be comforting and coax her out, until a man in blue Division 1 armor brought over a waiting blanket. She inched backward a little and hid her face against her knees, remaining curled in a tight ball as Nina reached in, lifted her out, and handed her to the officer. Her hair reeked with a mixture of mossy earth and sewer.

“You’re safe now,” whispered Nina in Russian. “No one is going to hurt you.”

As soon as the officer closed the blanket around her, the girl seemed to relax a little. She gathered the cloth tight at her chin and whispered, “Polina,” before she burst into tears. The man carried the bawling girl out to the elevator lobby.

One by one, Nina tore the doors away from the cages, getting angrier and angrier. The field team scurried to find a place to stand clear of fifty-pound square shuriken flying about. By the fifth broken cage, the boys practically came out clinging to the doors, jumping to freedom as soon as they could fit. Sanchez had disappeared down an interior hallway, muttering something about not being needed here anymore. Nina freed Dimitri, Fedor, Ivan, Josef, and a five-year-old who seemed too terrified to speak. Pavel, the oldest, waited for Nina to clear the door and hopped down from his second-story perch to stand in front of his former prison, fists on his hips in the pose of a conquering hero.

“I am glad I do not have to kill you all.” His bravado lasted all of three more seconds before another officer wrapped him in a plain grey police-issue blanket, and the tears came. “The police always lie. A-are you lying again? Are we really free?”

Nina grasped his shoulder and gave him a comforting squeeze. “You’re really free.”

He reached up and put his hand atop hers. “Thank you.”

Operative Padilla approached after the officer carried Pavel out of the room. The chimpanzee screeched and slapped the bars, tilting its head at Nina with an expectant look. She seethed at the box of dingy clothes, a few small moldy sneakers, and one teddy bear that looked as though it had spent months in a sewer. She found herself transfixed on the pathetic stuffed animal.

“What happened to the staff?” asked Nina.

“Lieutenant.” Padilla greeted her with a nod, then gestured at one of two hallways going deeper into the facility. “We’ve detained five individuals. We have two others in a separate conference room who had apparently suffered an attack of conscience. The woman’s story is that as soon as they saw their new test subjects were human children and not actual primates, they attempted to stop it. When persuasion failed, it got violent. The woman suffered a non-fatal gunshot wound; the man is still unconscious from being hit over the head with a fire suppression unit.”

Nina picked up the bear, staring into its plastic eyes. An air of moldy must exuded from its matted, crusty fur. Every goddamned day I see something worse than the last. Maybe Shinigami was right… we are all just circling the drain. 「Hardin… are you getting this?」

Her immediate superior appeared in a virtual holo-panel courtesy of her electronic eyes. Pasty, but military-hardened face, brown hair of tight curls looking like a dead beaver draped over his head. 「I am. Unbelievable. Are you okay?」

「I want Osiris Biotechnic shut down. If this doesn’t warrant a dissolution order, I don’t know what would. Fucking cages, sir. Like goddamned chimps.」

「That’ll be a month of inquest hearings, but, you’re right.」 Virtual-Hardin sighed at the mountain of paperwork waiting for him, his expression grim. Brown caterpillar eyebrows rose together. 「Oh, there’s someone from Zero trying to contact you.」

Operative Padilla, unable to hear the back-channel communication, cleared her throat. “Lieutenant? Is everything okay?”

“If you have to ask that, you haven’t been looking at what’s going on here.” Nina tossed the desiccated stuffed animal atop the pile of foul-smelling clothes.

Before Nina could think ‘who is it?’ back over the head-comm to Hardin, a commotion got her attention from the rear hallway.

Additional field team agents, all clad head to toe in black operator suits, their faces covered, escorted five handcuffed scientists in sky blue lab coats over business casual. A frightened woman in her mid-twenties with tan skin and dark hair kept her head down, mumbling repetitively. In front of her, a somewhat older woman with pale skin and brown hair maintained a haughty look of detachment, as though she expected the company lawyers to sort it all out within the hour. Ahead of the women walked three men, the farthest thirtyish and Chinese, the next a pale, gaunt, dweebish man who couldn’t stop trembling. An annoyed fifty-something with a perfect neat coif of white-grey hair led the group in single file. She recognized him from the vid call.

“You’re overstepping!” yelled Doctor Rice. “You’re interrupting vital research! This is going to harm all of humanity. It is exceedingly unlikely that any of the subjects would have suffered any lasting detriment to their health. I’d be happy to show you the testing documentation if you don’t believe me. They will merely be exposed to various pathogens and cured, or used to evaluate surgical techniques that will save countless lives once we perfect them. At worst, they’ll have some mild scar tissue and perhaps some light nerve damage.”

Nina stormed around the large central table and got in the way of the prisoner escort. “You put children in cages. Children who’d probably watched the ACC kill everyone they’d known.”

Doctor Rice struggled at his handcuffs while trying to stick out his chin, searching for some modicum of dignity. “Yes, yes. Resistance. They should consider themselves fortunate not to have been killed over there. I’m afraid the whole thing came together on short notice and this was the best solution in the interim.”

She glared at him, fists tightening.

He offered a shocked blink. “What? Thanks to those bleeding-heart activists, primates have more legal protection than foreign children. Besides, they’re a closer analog for the cures we’re trying to find. They’re about the same size as chimpanzees, so the enclosures have plenty of space. If we tried to use monkeys, we’d have a thousand university students outside at all hours singing and waving little signs at us.”

Nina tried to melt one of the empty cages with a stare.

He sighed. “Security is a factor―we can’t have them carrying pathogens out into the world―and these conditions are better than what they had been living in.” He tried to gesture, but the binders clicked. “Think about all we could have done for the advancement of medicine. Our schedule had seventy-four pathogens and fourteen experimental surgical procedures. Is ‘ethics’ worth tens of thousands of lives? These test subjects would’ve been shot in the street if not for our purchasing them. Osiris money saved them. Surely, you see the benefits far outweigh the negatives? Is it that distasteful for a handful of throwaways no one will miss to suffer a few years of discomfort for unimaginable advancements in―”

The man’s voice needled Nina’s brain beyond rational thought. She grabbed Doctor Rice by the shoulder and jerked him over sideways, slamming him downward with every ounce of anger and strength she could force out of her Myofiber muscles. The edge of the table met him at the neck, causing his skull to stop while the rest of his body continued to the floor. His head liquefied on impact with a dull whump that left a crimpled dent in the metal. The decapitated body’s arms continued twitching for several seconds, rattling the binders around his wrists.

Operative Padilla, on the other side of the table, wound up covered in a spray of gore. One eyeball with a squiggle of nerve clung to her chest, which she flicked to the side.

“Holy shit,” whispered Sergeant Cooper.

“Damn.” Sergeant Romero whistled. “I don’t think a Narcoderm’s gonna dent that headache.”

Nina glared at the remaining four scientists. “Would anyone else like to attempt to justify what you people were doing?”

The nerdy man and the younger of the two women urinated. The fortyish woman passed out, draping limp in the arms of the field agent escorting her.

“Y-You c-can’t do that,” stammered the Chinese man. “You k-killed him.”

Nina fixated on the dark crimson depression in the mirror-like table. Blood pooled in the indentation, gooping over the side drop by drop. “The only reason I’m not performing a summary execution on all of you is so you can provide testimony about what was going on here during a dissolution inquest. Osiris Biotechnic has forfeited its right to exist.” She snapped her gaze to the scientists. “All of you will provide complete and true disclosure of everything that happened and everything that was going to happen to those children.” A long blank stare came back at her from the Chinese man. “Or I’ll just save everyone the circle jerk and wasted time right now.”

He babbled. “But… But…”

“This is a Division 9 investigation. You don’t have rights. You don’t even count as a human fucking being anymore.” She grabbed him by the lab coat.

After a half-second of serious consideration to cramming him into a monkey cage, she flung him at the hallway out with enough force to launch him off his feet. He sailed through the air, landed on his chest, and slid for a little farther before his legs hit the ground.

“Get him out of here.”

The field team picked him up and hurried away with the other detainees.

Operative Padilla looked down at her dripping suit and back up at Nina. “What about the other two?”

“The dissenters?” Nina clenched a trembling fist for a few seconds until her rage ebbed. “Consider them cooperating witnesses instead of suspects unless they give you a reason to do otherwise.” She turned away from Padilla, scowling at the cages before shifting her gaze to Hardin’s floating image. 「Sorry… you said something about Zero?」

The chimpanzee slapped the bars and howled. It pointed at her, pointed at the bars, and… smiled.

Four medtechs entered, trailing a pair of hover-gurneys behind them. Pale yellow light spots followed the floating stretchers down the back hallway amid the clatter of boots.

“Heh. He almost seems smart.” Nina chuckled to herself.

Hardin’s virtual face tinted green from the left side. 「Yes, Zero. That one you worked with on the moon. Agent Wren. She said she has an important message about something you’d asked her to look into.」

The chimpanzee gave her two thumbs up and tapped its head.

She blinked. “Don’t tell me you know what I’m saying?”

It nodded, patted the bars, and made a praying gesture with its hands.

Nina twisted around to look at the rhesus monkeys on the other side of the room. They appeared to be acting like rhesus monkeys, oblivious to what went on in the room. Again, she glanced at the chimpanzee. “You understand English.” It nodded. I’m… wow. Whatever. “Fine. Someone please deal with this… umm… creature.” She popped the door off the cage and heaved it aside. It hit the ground with a heavy thud that shook the floor.

The chimpanzee lowered itself out of the enclosure, ambled over to the table, and picked up a datapad. Within a few seconds, it had opened a word processing app, and typed, ‹I am Francis. I have extra brain parts. Electronic. I am not dangerous.›

“What will they do next?” Nina shook her head.

Francis flipped the datapad back to look at it, typed, and spun it around for her to see again. ‹Why humans put small humans in cage?›


More typing. ‹Evil. May I leave, too? Do not like this place.›

Nina grabbed a random field operative and glanced at his chest. “Sergeant Cooper, please do something with”―she gestured at the chimpanzee―“Francis. Bring him to the university or something.” 「Go ahead, sir. Patch her through.」

Francis gave a thumbs-up, tucked the datapad under his arm, and reached up with his other hand to hold Cooper’s.

She paced around the table twice before needing to get far away from the box of fetid clothes, and headed to the lounge by the elevators. The air hung thick with the smell of ‘child,’ but none remained, all likely en route to the nearest Amaranth medical building. The more time she spent with Division 9, the less idyllic her view of the UCF became. Things seemed a lot more like the police state the fringers claimed, but at least when it came to children, the government tended to bend over backward and spare no expense. Coddle the kids and they become loyal citizens, I guess. Still, police state or not, it beat starving in the sewers of Minsk, or whatever other cities they’d been rounded up in. ACC security forces tended to deal with dissidents in a rather ham-handed faction. Damn miracle they’d survived at all.

She closed her eyes, letting anger and sorrow wash over her. Maybe I should’ve listened to Dad. If I knew what kind of shit I’d see in this job… Every damn time it gets worse. Soul-eating. Nina stared up at flickering overhead lights that cast the lab in a baleful glow as though they drained the life out of everything they touched. Can something go right for once? Can I feel like I am making some difference?

「Nina!」 The smiling blonde, blue-eyed Division 0 agent appeared in another small virtual window, this one dead center in her vision and high. With only a bust to look at, the woman could pass for a young teenager. Her bright expression and naïve idealism didn’t help that either. 「Sorry if this is a bad time, you look pissed… You, umm, told me to let you know if any ghosts told me about, uhh…」

Though on an intellectual level, she knew her ‘heart’ was a mechanical device circulating blood for her living brain and spinal cord, Nina’s body gave her the sense of it racing, pulse pounding in her head. So easy to forget what I’ve become sometimes. 「You… found him?」

Agent Kirsten Wren, Division 0, I-Ops, bowed her head. 「I’ve got a spirit next to me who says she was killed five weeks ago by a huge aug with a curved blade for a right hand and a giant hammer for a left.」

「The Russian.」 The walls closed in around her. Nina couldn’t stand another instant of being in this place… of not racing off to find the man who’d almost killed her, the man who had killed her dreams, and her Vincent. 「Where is he?」

「Stardance said he wasn’t Russian.」 Kirsten glanced left, muttering to someone. 「He was… singing something like Italian.」

Nina thought about the case file from the Division 2 detective who’d been killed trying to catch him. The suspect had a thing for classical music. Belted out opera sometimes while eviscerating prostitutes. She shifted her focus to Hardin’s panel, her intention limiting outbound to only him. 「I’ve gotta deal with something.」 She opened the channel to Kirsten again. 「He isn’t. It’s his street name. Hammer and sickle. Real name’s Bertrand Foster.」

「Nina…」 The corner of Hardin’s lip tightened to a smirk. 「If you want this disillusion proceeding to hold, we’ve got to be thorough.」 His voice lowered, more ‘sympathetic parental figure’ than commander. 「I understand what you have to do, and won’t stand in your way; if you can get that psycho, go for it… but those kids deserve your full attention first.」

「Wren, what’s the situation? Can that woman find him at will, or are we looking at a limited window?」 Nina shivered with restlessness, but wandered back into the room full of cages.

“It’s kids,” muttered Sanchez to the blood-soaked Padilla, evidently assuming Nina had left. “All the chick doll operatives get like that with cases like this since they can’t have any. Don’t take it personally.”

“Working on a psych degree in your spare time, Sanchez?” Nina glanced at him. “Maybe you should throw a little more time at your network skills so you can open a basic fucking lock.”

Padilla stiffened, unable to make eye contact with her.

The room fell quiet. Sanchez looked down. The field team got back to tearing the place apart file by file, room by room. Beyond the lab, two hallways full of offices and a dorm still waited.

Nina tried not to let her need to run off and find Bertrand result in rushing what she had to do here. She opened a playback window; her systems kept a continuous recording of the past two hours, more if she enabled extended logging. From it, she isolated a still close-up of the desperate, pleading face Elizaveta had given her as soon as the girl had realized Nina could speak to her. She left the ‘please let me out of here’ picture open in the corner of her sight for motivation and to take her mind off Bertrand. 「Ops, send a cleanup team over to the Osiris Biotech tower to scrape up Drummond. I want D1 there in the morning to detain everyone in the building until we find out who exactly was involved with this project.」

“Diaz and Simpson,” said Padilla, “Do a complete clone process on Price’s terminal. Hines, Romero, and Cooper, with me.” She headed down the left hallway, deeper into the facility.

「Even their food service people?」 asked a man, on a voice-only channel.

「Does anyone have a brain? Osiris employees only. Leave the contractors alone.」 Nina glowered. Elizaveta’s picture kept her from storming out.

The medtechs reappeared, pulling out a semiconscious man and woman hooked up to gel sleeves to perform field-repairs on bullet wounds. Peach-hued goo flowed through clear hoses with a constant, repeating squish-click-hiss from small pumps.

Kirsten finished a whispered conversation with thin air. 「She says she can find him whenever you want, but she’s not the most patient spirit I’ve met.」

Nina patted the nearest medtech on the shoulder. “Thanks.” She looked at Kirsten’s avatar. 「This’ll take a while. I’ll vid you as soon as I can. Oh, and tell that ghost I know exactly how she feels.」

Books MainThe Harmony ParadoxChapter Two