“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.”
My standard line is that I’m paid not to have an opinion; professionalism and neutrality are what I bring to the picnic, no matter how rank the spread. However I could tell stone-walling wouldn’t go down well.
I cleared my throat. “Well, the fleet needs ships and ships need pilots. Those you, ah, recruit wouldn’t have much of a life down here. In space they’ll experience the, um, majesty of command.”
She leaned forward as far as the seatbelt would allow. “Mister Harper, Donald – may I call you Donald?”
“Don is just fine.”
“Don, we cherish these unfortunates as if they were our own children. We free them from the prison of their flesh. In a very real sense they become the ships bearing their names. They are the heroes of tomorrow.”
“Assuming they survive the war, Miss.”
“Yes, well.” She sat back, looking uncomfortable. “We all hope for the best but—”
“You have reached your destination.” Saved by the dulcet tones of the GPS.
I turned into the underground garage entry for Communion Hospital. This was unfamiliar territory and, in case I was under surveillance, all arrangements had been made via encrypted e-mail. A leap in the dark, tactically speaking, but it minimised the chances of an ambush. Conscripting those on the margins of society may have been legal but calling it ‘unpopular’ didn’t come close. The Shilling Agency was now the unacceptable face of government ‘neo-pressganging’ – and paying the price.
I cleared my throat. “When we stop I’ll get out first. Keep your door locked until I knock twice on the roof. Got that?”
I pulled into Loading Bay 2. It was deserted, as agreed. Hospital security would be waiting for us on the second floor along with some homeless guy ready for discharge. I got out and stood beside the car, jacket unbuttoned for ease of access to my sidearm. It was quiet, with only distant street noise and the background hum of industrial plant.
My ocular implants had passive infrared but there was no bloom from behind any of the ceiling pillars or parked cars, no anomalies that might have been someone in mimetic camo, no heat signatures of any kind. I rapped twice on the roof. Elaine struggled with the heavy armoured door but I kept my eyes on the garage rather than play the gentleman.
She emerged, clutching the strap of her shoulder bag so tight her knuckles were white. “It’s safe?”
I gave her my best reassuring smile. “It’s safe. Walk quickly to the elevator, keeping me between you and the open garage.”
Elaine nodded and we moved deeper into the bay, to the double-doored elevator. It was showing on the fourth floor, as planned, so I punched ‘Call’. The machinery groaned into action.
No heat signatures of any kind.
“Shit.” I drew my 9mm and fired at the nearest parked car. It shimmered and the round ricocheted off the wall behind. “Goddam holograms. This isn’t Communion Hospital; the GPS was hacked.”
The elevator arrived with a dull ting.
I grabbed Elaine by the upper arm and dragged her roughly to the side. The doors opened. A shaped charge roared, spraying a fan of shrapnel against the car. I was already on the move, shepherding Elaine crabwise around the loading bay. A bomb was really upping the ante; obvious and then some. Given the time and effort required to set this up I didn’t see them leaving the hit to chance.
Two men in ‘Bayer Construction’ overalls and hard-hats appeared from the direction of Loading Bay 1. Somehow I doubted compact machine-pistols were standard issue on a building site and opened fire.
Nailed the first guy twice in the chest and he didn’t even blink. Third shot to the head cannoned off his visor, fourth to the right knee sent him down, screaming.
Too slow, too slow.
Hammer blows to my left forearm, upper-arm, shoulder. Neural suppressor zeroed the pain. Shifted target to the second guy; fired once, missed.
Left thigh, right thigh, third went wide.
Dropped to my knees. Augmented rounds; neurostatic shock. Went into spasm, fired, missed. Hand twitched, magazine dropped out. He laughed.
Whine of a Tesla derringer; taser on steroids. Elaine screaming; “Eat this, asshole!”
No-one laughing now.
Flashing lights, radio burble, garage ceiling. Couldn’t move.
“Don? Can you hear me, Don?” Elaine’s voice, a million miles away. “Is he aware of what I’m saying?”
“There’s extensive neural trauma of a kind I haven’t seen before. We really need to—”
“No hospital. Under the terms of his contract he’s classed as a Shilling employee. That gives me final say in his treatment and care.”
“Be my guest – but there’s not much viable if you’re considering harvesting.”
Her face filled my field of vision.
“You’re in safe hands, Don. I’m having you moved immediately to the Mitsubishi orbital.”
Elaine caressed my cheek.
“There’s a ship out there with your name on it.”