Four hours later, Nina crossed the main concourse of the Police Administrative Center, heading for the Division 0 wing. Psychobabble rattled around her head about how the communication barrier between the scientists and the non-English-speaking orphans made it easier for them to treat human beings as lab animals. As much as she couldn’t sit still anticipating finally tracking down Bertrand after almost two years, she’d ordered a replacement teddy (fluffy and white) and stopped by the Amaranth hospital where the children were under observation. Her guess proved right; the rotting bear had belonged to Elizaveta, who lit up at the sight of its replacement.
Of the eight, only she and Pavel seemed unafraid of her. At first, she’d assumed the others feared she might hurt them after witnessing her display of anger and hurling cage doors, but Elizaveta had whispered the truth―they feared her position as a government police officer. None of them wanted to go back to jail. Despite Nina’s best attempt at projecting sincerity while explaining they were safe in the UCF, the children proved slow to trust, so she’d kept her visit short enough to verify they’d all been declared healthy. The doctors wanted to keep them a few days on nutrient-supplement IVs and perform standard psychological evaluations.
In a scary-calm tone, Elizaveta explained she’d seen people shot and die before, and wouldn’t be upset if the same thing happened to the ‘bad doctors’ who’d put her in a cage. Nina had left it at telling her Doctor Rice had a skull-splitting headache. Still, the memory of the child’s imploring blue-eyed stare refused to leave her mind. The scrawny six-year-old blonde looked much happier in a clean hospital bed, but couldn’t hide her fear at what would happen to her. Being orphaned would’ve been frightening enough to a girl her age without being sent across the world and treated like an animal for lab testing.
Nina clenched her fists, wanting to kill Dr. Rice all over again.
The squeak of elevator doors brought her thoughts back to the present. Amid a sea of identical black patrol craft with narrow, clear bar lights on the roof, Kirsten stood waiting for her, flanked on either side by faint thermal anomalies. The one closer and on her right registered fifty-two degrees, six colder than the other.
Kirsten pushed away from her car and stood as Nina approached. “Lieutenant.”
“Agent.” Nina glanced at the exit ramp leading up to street level, five lanes with security booths across. “Thank you. You’re sure this is him?”
A faint noise, warbling, hinting at a feminine voice but too weak to form words, caused a sensation like muscles Nina didn’t have in her neck tensing.
Kirsten looked at the less intense cold spot. She held her hand as high as she could reach to indicate someone huge, then relaxed and sighed with annoyance. “Sorry I’m short. He’s… wow.” She nodded at nothing before looking to Nina. “’Bout seven feet tall or so. Two cybernetic arms double the size of a normal person’s, chest full of metal, mohawk, sword and a hammer for hands?”
“Wonder how he touches himself.” A man’s voice picked at the edges of Nina’s electronic ears, sounding a hundred yards away yet speaking at a normal tone.
Kirsten’s face went bright red. “Dorian!”
Nina couldn’t find a scrap of humor under the weight on her heart, synthetic as it may be. “Yeah. That’s him.”
“Stardance is extremely angry.” Kirsten grimaced. “That man… well. Be glad you can’t see what he did to her.”
Phantom burning pain speared into Nina’s lower back. “I can guess. I got a real close look once. Tell her I’m sorry she’s dead and I survived.”
Kirsten shot a scolding look at the non-space to her left. “That’s not it at all… Nina called it in. Her backup was already on the way there before she got hurt. It’s not that she was a cop and you’re poor that…” She nodded at something. “Ready? Stardance is angry enough to feel where he is.”
“I’ve been ready for eighteen months.” Nina walked around to the passenger side door and got in.
A man’s grumbling seemed to pass by her on the way to the back seat.
Kirsten half-smiled, also subdued by the somber topic.
Nina stared off into space, watching images of that night play across her mind as the car rolled up and out of the garage before taking flight. A dark alley lit in shades of metallic blue, the vendomat flying, useless bullets striking a chest covered in two layers of subdermal armor. As long as she’d carried her MCP50, with 15mm slugs more than double the diameter of the 6mm ammo her old Division 1 duty pistol had, she still had a mental hang up about guns. Despite the enormity of her Class 6 hand cannon, she expected bullets to bounce off whatever she shot.
Buildings glided by on either side of the car. The occasional feminine murmur in the air came from the back seat. Every so often, a recognizable “left” or “there” came across in whisper.
“I can go in with you if you want.” asked Kirsten. “Star’s a little angry at me for making her wait for you.”
“You know all those rumors you hear about Division 9?”
Kirsten looked over. “Yeah.”
“I’m about to live up to them.” Nina glanced through her reflection on the video display serving as a window at a decaying skyscraper. “Should’ve figured he’d be in a disavowed sector. Tell her thank you for waiting.”
“She can hear you.” A second later, Kirsten mumbled “yeah” at the back seat before glancing once more at Nina. “She understands.”
The Navcon display on the dashboard showed the little yellow arrow indicating the patrol craft crossing into a blacked-out area of the map.
“From what Stardance’s saying, this guy’s more machine than human. I could flatten him with one mind blast.” Kirsten cringed, bit her lip, and shrank in on herself. “Oh, crap. I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay. I know what you mean.” Nina tapped two fingers on the handle above the door in a repetitive motion, trying to be meditative.
Kirsten looked forward and made a sudden descending left that came within a second of more murmuring from behind. “I know how that sounded. Thanks for not being freaked out that I have that power.”
Nina spoke in a flat tone, her thoughts frozen on Vincent’s last seconds of life. “Right back at you. Most normals look at me like I’m going to twist them in half if they breathe too much of my air.”
“Great, so you could both kill each other without any effort. Fantastic.” A ‘clap’ sounded right behind Nina’s head.
Nina couldn’t help but half-smile. “Heh.”
Kirsten looked at her. “Did you just hear Dorian?”
“My ears are digital, remember? And sensitive. Guess that EVP stuff is true. The girl’s indecipherable though.”
Female murmuring, louder, and tinged with emotion came from the back seat.
“Stardance is a lot younger as a ghost. She said he’s in that alley.” Kirsten gave her a mournful look. “Are you sure you don’t want backup?”
The air by Nina’s left shoulder got cooler as the man’s voice returned. “She needs to do this.”
“You probably won’t want to watch.” Nina looked out and down. “Which alley?”
Kirsten pointed at a gap between two buildings little more than steel skeletons with nuggets of concrete still clinging in spots. Holes in the floor slabs made it seem possible for someone to fall from the top story to the ground given a few lucky bounces on the way. Old furniture rotted in place, some hidden by tattered plastic sheeting hung by squatters attempting to live out here. A handful of active campfires dotted the upper levels. The sun had gone down only twenty minutes ago.
“Descend to about forty feet, and I’ll hop out.”
“Okay. I’ll hang back here. If you need me, just comm and we’ll come running.” Kirsten brought the car down to the level of the fourth floor.
Murmuring emanated from the back seat.
“What did she say?” Nina pushed the gull wing door on her side up, letting in a blast of warm, humid, garbage-laden air.
“She said she’s going to watch and doesn’t care if you don’t want her to.”
Nina looked at the back seat, focusing in on the warmer of the two cold spots. “No, that’s fine with me. Come on. You deserve this, too.”
She jumped out, falling thirty-eight feet onto the top of a large boxy trash crusher with a resounding boom that echoed up and down the alley. Myofiber muscles in her legs and back absorbed the force of the landing, imparting a slight dent to the surface of the cube. Pigeons exploded from everywhere, and a vagrant emitted a startled, drunken shout.
Nina stood, took one step, and dropped to the plastisteel ground without a noise. The thermal anomaly hovered nearby. “I can’t understand you when you talk, but I can see where you’re standing because you’re cold. Lead the way.”
Feminine murmuring lasted three seconds before the amorphous area of chill drifted off into the alley. Nina followed at a brisk walk. A few Frags poked out of garbage piles or plastiboard cartons to give her curious stares. Most of the time, her body looking, feeling, and behaving so close to still-normal human was amazing, the only thing sometimes that kept her going. Two-point-three miles into the center of a black zone however, her slender, athletic looks and ‘cute’ French nose were the opposite of helpful.
The word ‘cute’ happened in her thoughts with Joey’s voice. He’d used it to describe her nose. She hadn’t told him about this side trip yet. He would have tried to talk her out of it, or more likely wanted to come and help. Damn adrenaline junkie. No, Bertie, you’re not killing another man I love.
Three Frags, one with a cybernetic arm, emerged from the building on her left, assuming her a ‘rich bitch’ who’d gotten lost. It didn’t seem to strike them as strange that she walked deeper into the black, and didn’t look the least bit afraid. Their expressions (and gleaming blades) promised at best rape/robbery, and at worst, murder.
As soon as the first man got within grabbing distance, Nina spun around and palmed his face in her right hand. She whirled into a kick at Metal-Arm as she hurled the first man headfirst into the ground. His skull burst like a rotten cantaloupe on impact; the other man crumpled over her leg like a bag of jelly and fish bones. The third man had barely registered the event in his expression by the time she’d recovered her stance and faced him.
He managed to suck in a breath to scream before she drove a palm strike into his sternum to avoid putting her fist in him to the elbow. A crunching squish emanated from his torso; he slapped to the ground on his back, legs in the air, and slid thirty feet before vanishing under a mound of debris. The pile of appliances, furniture, and random shit someone threw out of the adjacent skyscraper shifted and collapsed forward, burying him deeper.
That’ll either scare the other eleven watching off, or they’ll be back with missiles. Humanoid thermal signatures in the dark faded out as people scattered.
Nina whirled in search of Stardance’s cold spot. It took a moment to find, and she jogged after it once she did. Three quarters of a block down on the left, firelight flickered out of a wide alley strewn with dead cars. Recognizable gouges from a curved vibro blade suggested Bertrand had set them up on their sides as a barricade.
She wandered through the improvised gate and emerged in a section of alley that dead-ended in the hollow of a U-shaped building. The road descended a slight gradient to a loading dock, upon which sat the trappings of a crude ‘apartment,’ furniture made from scraps of whatever had been salvaged from the nearby towers.
A momentary fit of ‘frightened little girl’ panic froze her in her tracks at the sight of the man who, eighteen months ago, had killed her. The doctors, her superiors in Division 9, even her mother told her she hadn’t died… but they didn’t know what she meant. Nina Duchenne, the twenty-five-year-old idealist, died face down in an alley an arm’s length away from the man she’d wanted to marry.
Bertrand Foster, seven feet and change tall when he didn’t slouch, hovered over a barrel-turned-grill. Legs, big by any male standard, seemed ridiculously thin compared to his augmented torso. A mass of segmented steel tubes descended like dreadlocks from the back of his head, curving around and into the center of his back. Bulbous metal shoulders glinted in the orange firelight. Both of his cybernetic arms hung down to his knees; tiny (normal-human-sized) metal fingers unfolded from the side of the hammer, which had replaced his left hand. Rubberized hoses swayed from it, lines powering the hydraulic ram that could drive the striking head forward to pulverize.
For months, this man had been the star in her nightmares, and despite knowing her new body was more than capable of tearing him apart, the sight of him paralyzed her with the need to flee, to get away from him as far and fast as possible.
He painstakingly manipulated a large outdoor grill fork with his clumsy hammer-fist, turning bits of meat over on a grating. Faint music, something ancient and classical, leaked from earphones on either side of a head that sported a ten-inch lime green mohawk. Bertrand waved the fork about like a conductor’s baton, leaning back and swaying as the music took him. His body shuddered, arms raised as if the ratty collection of bed, chairs, and small table were a prestigious orchestra giving the performance of their lives.
“Nina…” whispered Vincent out of her memory.
Fear, panic, and terror swirled. Nina looked down at her pale hands, clenched them to fists, and straightened her posture. Confident. Calm. Ready.
I’ve wanted to find this piece of shit ever since I finished acclimation training. What am I afraid of? She sighed out her nose. I’ve already seen him. I’m going to have a wonderful dream tonight no matter what I do now.
She walked up to within twelve paces of the gesticulating homicidal conductor. “Hello, Bertrand.”
The man froze. His head tilted a few degrees to the right. For a moment, he stood like a statue, the alley silent save for the muted sound of music coming from his headphones. He stepped back with his left boot, still the same armor-covered, spiked thing she remembered on the ground inches from her nose, and faced her.
His huge chin, wide and square, framed giant, blocky teeth outlined in grey rot. His eyes, crude street-tech cybernetics like old camera lenses, telescoped six inches away from his skull. Each glowed deep orange like the coals of a demon’s furnace. They whirred, shortening and lengthening as he focused on her.
“You’re a hard man to find.”
The same bloodthirsty grin he’d flashed the first time he’d seen her returned. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed a degree or two less wide. Perhaps the old, shorter, cuter Nina had been more ‘appetizing.’ Being short had made most people regard her as someone in need of protection even if they’d been younger than her. Granted, as a Division 1 cop, she had been a total failure.
“Remember me, Bertrand?”
The beginnings of a deep, grating chuckle stalled to a grunt of confusion. He reached behind himself to put the fork on the grill, and took a step closer. The glowing spots at the tips of his eye tubes widened as iris doors expanded inside. “You… I… do remember.”
A voice she had so long heard in her restless dreams rattled her; deeper than a man should be, slow, over-enunciating every syllable, it belonged to the monster in the closet waiting to devour the part of her brain that still wanted to cling to Nix, her old stuffed rabbit. She didn’t let it show, managing to find an amused smile instead.
Bertrand glanced at his hammer arm.
“That’s right. I’m back from the dead to take you with me.” Nina shook her head. “You didn’t quite finish me off. You lost your arm that night, didn’t you, Bertie?”
「Nina, are you okay? It’s quiet down there.」 Kirsten’s head popped in on a small floating holo-pane.
“I think I remember pieces of you landing on me when the explosive round shredded you. Honestly, I’m impressed you walked away from that.” 「I’m fine.」
「Copy. Still up here if you need us.」 Kirsten’s panel collapsed to a thin blue line, which shrank to one white pixel and disappeared.
“Finish.” Bertrand’s blade arm emitted a high-pitched scraping noise as the vibro-inducer came to life. “Smash.”
“That’s what I had in mind.” Nina raised her arms. “I should warn you, I’m not the same helpless little thing you remember, but it won’t matter. I don’t really care what drove you insane. Whoever you were before, he’s long gone.”
Bertrand lunged forward, raising his hammer arm. Nina’s speedware pushed the world into slow motion as she slipped to the right, grabbed his forearm, and jiu-jitsu flipped him over onto his back. He struck the metal ground with enough force to blast dirt and trash away, forming a clear spot six feet across. Time resumed with Bertrand skidding to a halt a few yards away. He let off a confused grunt and scrambled back to his feet. After a momentary bewildered glance at his arm where she’d grabbed, he charged.
He led with the scythe. Nina ducked to the left, letting the whining blade careen over her head. She grabbed his tattered excuse for an olive-drab jacket in both hands and shoved him into the plastisteel wall. The dull clank of his impact echoed up into the night, startling another wave of pigeons to wing. Both tips of his elongated eyes left crescent-shaped dents in the metal. A pair of Nano claws popped out between the knuckles of her left hand, and she sank the ten-inch transparent blades into the small of his back before giving a twist and yanking them loose.
The synthetic diamond held an edge one atom wide. With the strength of a military-grade doll behind them, they sliced implanted armor as easily as if she’d stabbed a block of ballistic gelatin. She meant the strike as a statement, not a kill, and backed away.
Bertrand howled, hooking his sword arm into the building, tearing a three-foot rent with an ear-splitting squelch of hypersonic edge against plastisteel. Roaring in rage, he shoved away from the wall into a spinning backhand with the hammer block. Nina ducked the whoosh, and popped back up in time to catch the bladed limb at the wrist.
She kicked at the elbow while pulling with her left hand. Bertrand’s cybernetic limb smashed upward, the joint bent and broken past its normal range of motion. While the hit (to her surprise) hadn’t torn the limb in half, it brought forth a cry of agony suggesting he’d felt it in his bones where metal grafted to flesh.
“Glorious…” His iris-door-eyes widened as far as they could. “You… I have rebirthed you in perfection.”
Nina backed up as he raised one working, and one fused arm skyward.
“I have purged the flesh, and now you are one of us.” The orange light in his lenses shifted chromatic. “Yes! Yes! You are as I am. The sin of the flesh is lesser with you… daughter.”
She let off a furious scream and stomp-kicked him in the chest. Bertrand sailed a few feet back into the wall, denting it. Another tremendous boom echoed in the alley, something light and metal clattered to the ground inside the abandoned structure.
“I am not your daughter!”
Laughing, Bertrand stumbled into a loping charge and swiped at her with the hammer. She danced back, having little difficulty evading it. As she’d fantasized, this fight played out as one-sided as it had been the last time they met. Only tonight, she had all the advantage. She thought about how weak she’d been. Two years and some months as a patrol officer with Division 1, waiting for a transfer to forensics that she’d never get. Caught in some bureaucratic snarl. Killed, her life forever ruined by paperwork.
Bertrand came in again with a backswing. She caught the arm in a braced stance, stopping it cold. After a split-second ‘I’m stronger than I look’ smile, she spun into a flip and hurled him at the second story wall across the alley. He slapped face-first into false stucco tiles and fell amid a rain of debris that exposed a patch of plastisteel.
His body hit a dumpster with a loud whump, amid his grumbling and growling. He dragged himself to the edge and slid headfirst to the ground, rolling onto his back. With visible effort, he forced himself to his feet again.
Ruined… She stared at the visage of Bertrand Foster, altered cheeks and jaw so large his face had become a parody of humanity, too wide for the top of his head. Saliva oozed between square teeth as he gasped for breath. A version of a life I could have had. She saw Joey smiling at her, reckless idiot he was, and put a hand on her stomach. Maybe not ruined… but changed. This body of Myofiber, silicon, and plastisteel would keep her alive and beautiful for as long as her sanity could hold, but it would never offer her the chance to be a mother. They’d supposedly kept her ovaries before cremating the twisted mess Bertrand had left of her body, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to have them checked. Sanchez’s taunt had hurt because it rang true. Given the condition she’d been in, she doubted they’d even be viable.
Whatever adoration he’d shown before, his insanity seemed to shift gears back to ‘it’s got a vagina, kill it.’ He wagged his hammer arm in an attempt to grab the submachine gun he no longer carried.
“Lose something?” asked Nina. “That thirty-mil cannon cause brain damage when it took your meat arm? How are you going to pull a trigger with a solid metal brick?”
Bertrand let off a foam-at-the-mouth, head-shaking roar. Veins in his forehead bulged. He spun, trying to pick up the trash crusher he’d landed on, but his scythe arm, now a fused, inflexible bit of metal, couldn’t get a grip on it. Snarling, he whirled to face her and charged.
Nina leaned left to avoid a downstroke, and jumped away from a telegraphed side swing. He reared back in slow motion courtesy of her neuralware. The hoses on his arm all twitched, an insectoid muscle readying for a strike. The hammer head lanced forward on a hydraulic piston, straight at her nose.
She evaded with a quarter turn to the right, allowing the metal to pass three inches away from her face. The instant the shhthonk of it slamming out to full extension reached her ears, she grabbed the piston near the head; Nano claws sprouted from her left fist as she raked downward, severing the strut where it met the arm. Dark green hydraulic fluid sprayed in arterial spurts from the hole. Bertrand stared at the missing weapon, a look of horror warping his caricature of a face. On a whim, she swung the sparking hammer around with both hands and buried it in his large pauldron of a shoulder.
Blue lightning flickered from the smashed armor sphere; his left arm twitched, jerking out of control as he emitted a snarl of pain. She grabbed him by the chest and pulled him down while driving her knee up into his gut; the strike launched a spray of blood from his mouth. While he wheezed for air, she gave him a light shove that sent him staggering back and flailing to keep his balance.
“Payback’s a bitch, Bertie… and her name’s Nina.” She stomped forward and punched him dead in the nose, knocking him flat to the ground like a plank. He bounced ass over head and slammed against the wall, precipitating another waterfall of smashed tiles.
Damn. His entire head must be plastisteel. A momentary switch of vision mode to metallurgical scan painted the world in black and white. A brilliant white skull showed within his head, a sure sign of it being metal. Medium grey bands in his neck highlighted the Myofiber grafts that let him keep it upright with such weight. Wires throughout his body became apparent, as well as the crisscross weave of fibers below the skin, including a flat, featureless groin. A mechanism in his side where urine and waste collected in removable baggies appeared in clear detail a few inches away from an adrenaline/stimulant pump near the kidneys.
Nina switched back to normal sight. While the man’s skull might be metal, the brain inside wasn’t, and he lay stunned, muttering, and apparently unaware of where he was. She pounced on his chest, grabbed his left arm at the elbow, and curled her right hand into a fist before deploying a pair of Nano claws. As soon as they locked at full extension, she sliced through the bicep. After discarding the severed limb with a casual toss to the side, she severed his smashed vibro-blade arm an inch shy of the shoulder.
“It’s a violation of UCF law, Section CI-42 D, for a felon to possess a cybernetic prosthesis with a rating beyond rehabilitative.” She chucked the other arm over her shoulder. “Furthermore, it is a violation of Section CI-11 B for a person with diagnosed psychosis to possess any cybernetics with combat capabilities. This includes, but is not limited to strength-enhanced limbs, and”―she punched her hand into his gut, grabbed the adrenal pump along with its nest of tubes, and tore it free―“combat grade boosters. Military spec targeting optics are a no-no as well, even if they’re four generations old.”
She tossed the bloody box and tubing aside before grasping his lens eyes, one in each hand. Bertrand moaned and squirmed, bloody froth oozing between his teeth.
“I’m afraid I have to confiscate these.”
Nina braced a knee against his neck and, with a wrenching twist, snapped both mechanisms away from his skull, yanking a few inches of thin wires out of what he had left of a brain. Bertrand convulsed and drooled even more. He stopped moving, though continued breathing, mouth agape and tongue lolling. She examined the crude optics for a few seconds before heaving one then the other aside.
“By the power vested in me by the United Coalition Front National Police Force, Division 9”―Nina reached under her coat and pulled her MCP50―“I pronounce you guilty of the murder of Officer Vincent Montoya, UCF National Police Force, Division 1”―she put the barrel up to Bertrand’s forehead―“Attempted murder of Officer Nina Duchenne, also Division 1.” She adjusted her grip on the gun. “I further pronounce you guilty of the murder of a young woman named Stardance, and however many others you’ve killed, you sick, twisted fuck. For these crimes, you are subject to summary execution.”
Hot splatter rained over Nina’s face. Contrary to her expectation, her massive hand cannon left a hole in the artificial forehead and blasted every ounce of bio matter out the back. She stood, took two steps back, and put seven more rounds into his chest. Azure muzzle flash painted the alley in quick snaps, and the echo-back of rapid gunshots combined into rolling thunder. Not that she could’ve ever used such a giant handgun before having a doll body, but it made her feel a little better to see seven clean holes.
The Division 0 patrol craft landed a short distance away, it’s powerful headlights washing over her, casting her silhouette over Bertrand’s remains. Four bulges at the corners opened to allow wheels to unfold and make contact with the ground. A few seconds after touchdown, the bright cyan glow of ion engines faded out from under it.
Nina swapped magazines, reloading her pistol, and holstered it under her left arm before walking over to her ride. Two thin bands of static appeared in her vision and disappeared, but an odd eeriness hung in the air behind her.
Kirsten paused with one leg out of the car, her face ashen while staring past Nina.
“Sorry,” said Nina. “I told you not to watch.”
“Not you. I’ve seen way worse than that guy.” Kirsten bowed her head in reverence. “Did I ever tell you about Harbingers?”
“I don’t think so.” Nina took a tissue from her coat pocket and wiped some Bertrand off her face. She looked up with a sudden thought. “Is his ghost here?”
“Yeah… sort of.” Kirsten twisted to her right and peered over the car, as if watching something drift away down the alley. “Not for long though.”
A palpable sense of calmness became profound for a few seconds before fading.
Nina blinked. “Did something weird just happen?”
Kirsten took a second to collect herself, having choked up. “Stardance said thank you. She just moved on. You gave her the justice she needed. I couldn’t have brought myself to kill him unless my life was in direct danger.”
“Oh, don’t worry. As soon as he got a good look at you, that would’ve been true.” Nina stared at the traction-coated plastisteel at her feet, trying to stop thinking about her last night as a normal person. “He likes them short, cute, and terrified.”
“I don’t scare that easy.” Kirsten nodded toward the patrol craft. “Want a ride back?”
“…crime scene crew… ”
Nina looked at where she assumed Dorian to be. “Seriously? Out here?”
Kirsten grinned. “He said, ‘Not like we’re going to call a crime scene crew.’”
“Oh.” Nina got into the patrol craft. “Right.”