The rain came down fast, drenching him, burning him. Lee had work to do though.
He pulled up the short collar on his pastel blue doctor’s coat, feeling no real relief from every cut of water. The sounds of the city beneath and the unseen city above were muffled tonight by the rain and the ash, the neon glow of the Trine–short for Latrine if anyone cared to be reminded–and the hazy bruise that poverty left on everything. High up like this you could almost breathe easy. High up, in fact, you could almost forget that there was a world above, and that it looked down upon you like grave dirt.
Then a hail of sound, a blow-torch fuzz, and the gas-light blue of the craft’s thrusters began to melt the cloud cover until at last cloudy strata parted and the large ship began to descend with such an eerie grace.
The manta ships were named after a long dead species of fish, their flowing disc shapes spreading into obtuse but demurring wings, while a long, phosphorescent tail of supplementary exhaust fragmented the shadows of the roof top and created sparks in the air as ash motes found the heat and popped with combustive life.
On touch-down, a wave of hot air ran over Lee and he clutched his heavy medic bag closer.
When finally the thrusters dimmed and the engine’s blue torrent turned to a mere glow, the cargo hold vaulted open, and a gantry cranked out in, if not a smooth escalation then at least a swift one.
“You the medic?” a gnarled man with what appeared to be an always twisted smile asked, clomping from the dark of the hold.
“Leoh Ma,” he answered, walking to the bridge.
“Stay where you are!” A woman with a coconut shell-like sight implant over the right-side of her face yelled. It gave her vision a red glow that excelled against the black plum of her skin. Her sight found Lee. The dot hovered over his chest like an anxious beetle. He glanced back to see she had leveled her arm at him. On her wrist was the the snaking black slug of a particle weapon. It was old technology, actually. That was interesting.
Lee glared. “You either let me on-board to assess the patient or I turn round and go back down to the emergency room. Trine knows we’re busy enough.”
“This is a classified operation. We will bring him down to your—”
“I can’t allow that,” Lee said. He noticed that the woman pointing a weapon at him recoiled at being told no. “He’s augmented,” Lee went on before her disbelieving laugh could become something more deadly. “He could infect our servers and we need them up and running. I have to assess him here where the firewall can shield us.” To illustrate, Lee banged his heel against the floor, and there shimmered a faint silver grid that stretched the entirety of the building’s roof. They had found ways to survive in the Trine that weren’t elegant, that definitely weren’t legal, but were, at least, effective. Firewalls were one such mechanism.
The sound of the rain hissing against his skin filled his ears. Wait much longer, he thought, and there won’t be anything of me left.
“I’m Captain Flynn, son. Now, you got any training in weapons management?” Lee didn’t answer. “Our boy’s in bad shape. If we can make this fast, that would be good.”
“I know augments,” Lee said at last. “So I know augmented weapons. I won’t lie and say that I can’t hazard a guess at some of your technology, but I don’t want trouble. I’m a doctor. I got no business knowing military secrets. You asked for me so here I am. That’s it.”
“What you think Sahara?” Captain Flynn nodded to the woman at the threshold. She lowered her arm. Her glare, however, remained.
“Well, come on board, doc,” the captain said, giving him a mock salute.
It wasn’t the first time Lee had been on a manta, but they still freaked him out. Mantas were part of a fleet of organic ships crafted with regulatory systems that, in basic terms, were alive. For that reason, it always felt like stepping into the belly of the beast.
This manta was deceptively roomy, or it would have been had it not been packed with odd vats of a decidedly lively white-gold liquid, crate upon crate of what he assumed were weapons caches, and a nest of soldiers around a gurney toward the back of the hold where some haphazard medical equipment had also been assembled.
Lee fought his way through. “What’s his situation?”
A young man–a trainee medic Lee guessed–stepped forward. “We had to get out of the field quick. Our doctor…. We had to leave her. I’ve patched him up best I can but he’s…he’s bleeding a lot and… there’s a complication. The–”
“Shut up,” Sahara bellowed.
Lee sighed. This was why he hated military types–whatever side they were on. “What’s his name?”
“Jack Larkham. He’s a grunt. But he’s from an Einz family, so…” Sahara said from the doorway. She looked out on the rooftops with the glare of an owl.
“Hi Jack, can you hear me?” Lee said. The man was large, perhaps six feet tall and thick set. He had the kind of musculature that was about power, not looks. His face was craggy, his forehead hunched, suggesting he’d been in direct sunlight for protracted lengths of time. Definitely an Einz, Lee thought.
The man’s chest had four large but surface cuts running down them. Under his left rib, though, was a sizable bullet hole. The blood had slowed, the wound had been properly cleaned. The young trainee medic had done a reasonable job. Jack was stable, for the moment.
“What kind of bullets were they?”
“What do you mean?” Captain Flynn asked.
“You sent for me. This guy’s an augmented soldier. So you’re suspecting a viral gunshot, right?”
“That’s what you’re here to tell us,” Sahara answered.
“I don’t have time for games.”
“I have one of the bullets here,” the trainee medic said. “Here.”
He took out a small clear bag with the bullet in and handed it over. His hands were shaking. Lee took the bag, and then said, “Thank you…?”
“Well Duggy, you need to sit yourself somewhere, and get yourself some food and water. Your adrenaline is about to run out and you’re going to crash.” He took a glance around at the other, grey-faced soldiers. “That goes for the rest of you.”
After a nod from the captain, they disbanded.
Now free to work without several pairs of eyes glaring his way, Lee set about examining the bullet. The ornate transmission device on the golden barrel wasn’t something he’d seen before, but he knew enough to recognize that it definitely was viral. That meant he’d have to interface.
Lee rolled up his sleeve to reveal a subcutaneous terminal unit in his forearm that tied cybernetic technology to his underlying organic tissue. It was a complex system, but it allowed for an extension of his senses in ways non-augments couldn’t hope to grasp. A moment of concentration and two tubular veins sprouted from the almost undetectable lip that jutted toward his wrist. He held the bullet above them and waited. Like a carnivorous flower, they latched on and pulled the bullet down into a tight embrace. Seconds, and then a sea of data began to swell.
Lee had more levels of protection than most. He prided himself on having a digital fortress from which to move through this broken world. But the code in this tech was like nothing he had seen before. As Lee’s mind worked to process the onslaught, he began to see messages encoded in the bullet.
They’re going to do it soon…
Every single one of us will…
Murderers! All of them!
“So what’s the verdict?” Captain Flynn asked, squinting at him.
Lee broke the connection with the bullet’s tech. Gasping. Sweating. He needed to think fast. Fortunately, that was one of his talents. “Physically, well, his vitals are stable. He could make it back to your base.”
“The bullet though?” said Sahara.
“It’s a risk…” Lee stopped.
“What are you saying?”
“I need to admit him.”
“Yes,” Lee countered. “I have no way of telling what code they might have put into him and his augment, but what I just saw was… it was a massive data file with some sophisticated commands. I need to take him down to one of our secure rooms and open the interface to see what it did.”
“Do it here.”
“I can’t. I need specialist equipment.”
“We have people who could—”
“And then he’s inside an Einz facility,” Lee said. “I don’t know what the Golden Chain—”
“Terrorists,” Sahara interjected.
Lee collected himself. “I don’t know what they did, what they hoped to do even, but…he could be a dirty bomb now. He comes into contact with your systems and, worse case, everything goes down. The blackout of 2251? That’s how it happened. But we have old firmware down here and a hell of a lot of tech the Einz threw away that I don’t think will be vulnerable–at least, not to the same extent. The risk is…well, what would the Einz care about the risk to us? Give me a few days and I will crack it.” He looked between them. “Just a few days.”
“How do we know we can trust him? Sahara said.
“They’re all crooks and chicken shit down here. Can’t trust none of them. But that doesn’t stop this one being right,” Captain Flynn replied. “We could all be quarantined if we take Jack back up there in this state. We say we took him down here for emergency medical care–it’s happened before, right? And, at least this way I get to go home and see my wife tonight, you know?”
Sahara was at his back, her arm swinging down at him. “Fine, but I’m keeping an eye on you.” Something thick pierced the valley of his clavicle. Sahara withdrew but an oversized black thorn remained in Lee’s shoulder. “Ow! Is that really necessary?” He rubbed at his broken flesh as the tracker branched out under his skin and began transmitting.
“Oh yes. Now get him out of here. I will contact you every six hours for an update. And I’ll be back here in person tomorrow to make sure you’re not trying anything.”
“I look forward to the visit,” Lee bit back, wheeling Jack for the door.
The backhand caught him on the side of his face, and the taste of blood laced on his tongue.
Sahara sneered at him. “Don’t get smart with me, you Latrine scum.”
It was the small bump on the lip of the manta’s walkway that woke Jack from his drug-induced sleep.
“You gotta let me go,” he whispered, his voice sounding strange and hoarse even to him. “I’ve seen… I’ve seen what they’re going to do…’
A man with a kind face and skin that was soft toffee cream looked down on him. “You need to keep quiet. Trust me, Mr Larkham. Please. Mr Larkham, don’t struggle.”
“Everything all right down there?!”
“Yes, fine. It’s fine.”
Flashing lights sparked memories of explosions, of gunfire. Jack started to tremble, to flinch. Then a soft pinch on his right arm, and a drugged relief flooded him. In the semi-darkness, he felt the throng of an augment connection being made. The twinning of two minds, separate substances folding over one another.
“I am Leah Ma. Unless you help me, everyone in Trine has less than 24 days to live.”