Cusp

In the forest it was late Summer: the path a dancing dapple of sunlight amidst birdsong and the background rustle of leaves.

In the forest it was always late Summer.

Unvisited by other seasons, the great belt of the Greenswathe encircled Garth, last city of High Men within the Circle Mountains, perhaps the last in the world. Now Sigurd, said to be the oldest of oaks, had sent for me, although there was never any sense of urgency in his communications, as if the sentinel lived life at an entirely different pace.

I raised the apple I was eating by way of salute. “Summoned, I came.”

The voice that issued from the malformed knothole was a low growl. “Havardr, by the Black Falls, sent word of one who spoke to him without speaking. Havardr is now silent. There may be danger.”

“Spoke without speaking? Did he say anything else about who this was?”

“It was a—” Sigurd lapsed into a long melodious flow, typical of their descriptive terms.

I half-turned my head, raised my voice. “Cuyler, I have need of your ears.”

Continue reading

They Probably Will

I spotted all four members of the snatch squad before they made their move: the pseudo-couple by the door plus two supposed delivery drivers bellying up to the long counter in Stans Cafe (no apostrophe). I guess minimising civilian casualties was still a consideration, but they gave the game away by waiting too long – this wasn’t an eatery where the patrons dawdled over their food.

Unless you were someone like me, with nowhere in particular to go, and in no rush to get there. I was content to sit by the unisex toilet, from where I could take in the entire room, and deal with the obvious threat when it materialised. Preferable to making a run for it on general principal and risk a close pursuit.

When the real customers were down to just some old guy and his terrier in the far corner, it kicked off. All four rose as one and came my way – with two drawn pistols, wrist ties and a black head bag on display.

All four fell dead to the worn lino.

The girl serving behind the counter screamed but I was already on my feet and into the loo. I’d sussed the original window behind the cistern had been replaced by hardboard when they’d installed an Xpelair fan, and only tacked into place. Two straight-arm palm thrusts on the diagonal were enough to send the surround toppling out into the rear alley, with me slithering in close pursuit. With no formal access from Stans, I gambled it wouldn’t feature in anyone’s containment strategy.

Continue reading

Blindfire

“I’m given to understand you’re a buttonhead, Mister Reynolds.” Ryan sat back and sipped his drink. “Show me. I believe I’ve paid for the privilege.”

We were in the Adventure Capitalist, a bar dating back to when we still had an economy. The corner booth was a wood-panelled cocoon, designed for privacy. Even so, I hesitated before removing the wig to expose the cranial interface sockets. “Satisfied?”

He smiled, although the revulsion in his eyes was obvious. “And the hardwiring, it gives you a significant edge over a headset? It’s not just blarney?”

“Good enough to be ranked first player in Grumman Coldplay. So, if this is an unofficial endorsement approach ahead of the Seoul semi-finals, forget it. I know we’re firm favourites to beat Weyland Aspiration, but my contract is cast iron, zero loopholes. You’ll have to go through the team agent just like everyone else.”

“Your exclusive contract didn’t prevent you accepting my offer of a quiet drink.”

“A grand in cash just to show up?” Now it was my turn to sit back and take a sip. “We’re just two guys talking, is all.”

Continue reading

Fuga Mortem

“Please, gentlemen, make yourself comfortable.”

I polarised the windows against the glare of a SoCal summer as they took their seats. My two visitors were the proverbial ‘odd couple’: Air Force General Branning looked uncomfortable just being out of uniform while his aide, Major Cain, would probably have remained cool, calm and collected while wearing a tutu and whistling ‘Dixie’.

Branning shifted in his chair, glowering, while Cain remained bland and unreadable. He crossed his legs. “Very well, Mister Conway, you have our attention.”

I inclined my head. “The fact that you came to me in the first place, a civilian private investigator, meant you didn’t want an internal enquiry that would have to log its findings. Now, the general here is a shoe-in as head of the Joint Chiefs but you want to be sure, absolutely sure, that nothing is going to come crawling out of the woodwork once his enemies start digging. Nothing that will tarnish his impeccable military record. I get that, the Air Force takes care of its own.”

Cain smiled with zero sincerity. “So we understand each other. Now, did you uncover anything worthy of our attention?”

I sat back and steepled my fingers. “A Nazi flying saucer powered by the souls of death-camp inmates crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1946. It was a German prototype salvaged at the end of World War Two, being tested by the United States Army Air Force.”

Continue reading

Past Imperfect

I tuned back in as Director Hobson came to the end of his welcome for the new interns. I’d heard his spiel numerous times before – he liked to have me there as an example of how agents could make multiple trips through the vortex and suffer no ill-effects.

Yeah, right.

Hobson drew himself up in a supposedly spontaneous display of righteous indignation, hands gripping both sides of the lectern. “…and despite what those deluded protestors outside may chant, we are not murderers, nor body-snatchers, nor are we devoid of conscience. All those we retrieve from the past vanished without trace – overlooked, unmissed, discarded by the society of their time. The organs and other genetic material we harvest both lend purpose to their passing and save the lives of countless recipients in the here-and-now.” He paused for an equally spontaneous smattering of applause, led by Miss Brunner, the head of Human Resources.

I shifted my weight to the other foot and idly picked at a barely healed scab on my left hand. The decay was troublesome, but time in the regeneration tanks didn’t come cheap.

Continue reading

Waste Not

Waste Not“You know they call us body-snatchers?”

I flicked my gaze to the rear-view mirror then back to the street ahead. I hadn’t driven for Elaine Grey before but it was obvious she needed reassurance. “As long as they stick to just name-calling, Miss, then everything will be fine.”

She twisted a handkerchief between slim hands. “Only, in the news, those stories…”

“Coincidence, Miss, nothing more.” Two Shilling Agency recruiters had died in the last month, both in circumstances ruled accidental. Regardless of the official line I’d switched to an armoured limo and ballistic vest – if only for my own peace of mind.

I took a longer look at my charge. Attractive enough, in a slender, nervy, kind of way, but I never mixed business and pleasure; I was her driver and bodyguard, nothing more.

Elaine caught me looking. “But you understand the value of our work? You appreciate its importance? We take the deformed, the crippled, those society has discarded, and give them purpose.”

Continue reading

Just Peachy

Just Peachy“Be cool, man, everything is just… peachy.” Harry Hale sank back into a drug-and-booze torpor.

Peachy? Not with a dead teenage girl lying on the floor of his hotel suite. Harry was the vocalist with Harry and The High, a psychotropic rock band. I don’t like working with musicians at the best of times and this was shaping up to be my worst experience yet. The assorted drugs and paraphernalia on display were worth an ‘intent to supply’ beef on their own. The naked corpse lying face down on the carpet added ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor’ and ‘reckless endangerment’ – if not an actual charge of homicide.

I left a micro-drone scanning the scene and returned to the corridor where Lonnie Perth, the band’s manager, was waiting. He looked pale and nervous. “Well?”

“She’s dead alright and has been for several hours. I didn’t touch the body but my drone detected no pulse or brain activity. There’s no sign of violence so I’m assuming it was something relatively benign, like choking to death on her own vomit or a drug-induced heart attack. Do you have any idea who she is?” Continue reading

Insert

InsertThe doors closed with a whine of servos and that heavy clunk particular to armour plate. My visitor was a man of medium height with a friendly, open face, seemingly devoid of guile. He smiled. “Good evening Mister Ghent. My name is Peter Anders. I’m the designated hostage negotiator, and my only interest is in achieving a peaceful resolution.”

Around us the server farm blinked and flickered. The room was otherwise empty apart from a table and two chairs. I sat down and motioned Anders forward. “Given the little army you have outside I’m surprised you feel the need to negotiate. Doubly so as I’m unaware of anyone being held hostage.”

“What you have in here, Charles – may I call you Charles? – is more valuable than flesh and blood, but just as vulnerable. And, please, call me Peter.” I inclined my head. Anders leaned forward, adopting a conspiratorial tone. “Very well, cards on the table. The information you’ve amassed over the years would make earlier revelations by Bradley, Snowden and Hardcote look like idle gossip over tea at the vicarage.”

“So you apparently believe.”

“A Finnish hacker managed to retrieve a partial master file index, but that was enough to bring the sky down on your head. To put it simply, you could ruin the careers of numerous prominent politicians and put the cause of international diplomacy back decades. That isn’t going to happen.” Continue reading

Morte Ex Machina

Morte Ex Machina“Are you by nature a religious man, Technician Brandt?”

I looked up from my diagnostics pad at the anthropomorphic bust of Leon Hurst, former CEO of Temple Pharmaceuticals. “Religious, sir? Not really; not beyond a general belief in a higher power.”

It smiled. “Quite the Masonic answer. Furthermore I cannot help but notice the ring which adorns your finger.”

“It was my father’s, Mister Hurst. I wear it in his memory.” I felt uncomfortable discussing my family history with a mere pseudo-human interface and moved the conversation back to more technical matters. “I’ve completed my routine diagnostics and everything seems to be in order, as always.” I unplugged my pad from the plinth, closed the access panel, and stood up.

The lifelike features of Hurst smiled at me, benignly. “I’m sure you’re right, Technician Brandt. You are the most diligent of those who maintain us.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgement of the compliment, even though it was a social interaction protocol, and prepared to leave.

The ‘Opinionated’ gallery took some getting used to and several other technicians had flatly refused to attend, especially after hours. It housed twelve non-sentient personality constructs based on dead corporate executives, designed to provide continued boardroom insight and guidance. Continue reading

Leeway

Leeway“Please take a seat, McMaster.”

I sat across the desk from Director Haining, unbuttoning my jacket so that the Glock didn’t snag on the lining. The only source of illumination in his office was the desk lamp. Haining obviously thought the down-lighter made him look serious and brooding, whereas all it really did was highlight his double chin.

He smiled. “You’ve been head of corporate security now for, what, three years?”

“Four come June.”

“Four come June. And may I say that we, that is to say, the board, are very pleased with your work to date. Very pleased indeed.” Haining fiddled with his cufflinks. “You’re the closest thing we have to a father confessor around here. Some may be uncomfortable with what you know about us, but I’m not. You don’t judge, McMaster, you never judge.”

“All I ask for is honesty, sir. I can’t fix the problem if I don’t know what it is.”

Continue reading