a wolf at your door
Wants your money, wants your
Mrs. Carstairs. I assure you, your household AI Anastasia does
not webcam you taking your daily shower. I have checked
its complete code very thoroughly and had an extra-close look at
the personality files as you wished"
shrill, not clearly understandable retort emerged from the
headset's earpiece and the wobbly fat was impolite, but to
call Mrs. Amanda Carstairs stout would have caused a collective
charge from every Honor the Truth Club member on the continent
woman in the flowered, mostly plum-blue dress gesticulated
Carstairs. I understand you"
squawking drowned him out again.
Carstairs, my e-bill will be in your inbox within the next twelve
hours. Thank you very much!" With a furious motion, he hit
the close key. "Pathy, don't accept any transmissions from
that IPA in the next twenty-four hours."
holographic program manifestation blurred across his desk and
vanished into his main console with a faint bloop. Walter C.
Hartford, CP he'd sworn that whoever discovered what the C
stood for would be a candidate for a very thorough memory wipe
took off the headset, his main communication device, and rubbed
the base of his nose with two fingers. The household AI Anastasia
was category 3: It couldn't even establish net access without its
user's permission and didn't need a computer psychiatrist at all.
But its user...
suggest that Amanda visit a colleague for humans..." He
shook his head. As if anyone, human or household AI, would
survive seeing Mrs. Carstairs' masses unveiled.
really liked his job, and after ten exhausting years at
university and two years as an intern, his own practice was
running just fine now. 'The Doc' was beginning to be regarded as
a pretty hot item when it came to serious computer
If only those
neurotic users didn't come along with the business...
e-message bopped onto his receiver screen just as he was
preparing to go offline for the rest of the evening. It was a
plain message no holographic tinsel, no images or voice
codes, just plain text. Which was the reason that it drew his
attention enough that he opened it instead of shutting down as
he'd wanted a moment before.
AM IN TROUBLE. I STUMBLED ON SOMETHING REALLY BIG.
I NEED YOUR
HELP. PLEASE FOR THE GOOD OLD TIMES WE
HAD AT MISS
ABERCROMBIE'S MEET ME ASAP AT
THE FLAT PLANET CAFE,
AUGUR RD. 106, NEW ORLEANS.
after all this time... DDMD stood for Dany short for
Danielle 'DangerMouse' Doors, and he couldn't remember a
time when DangerMouse had not been in trouble. Walter
frowned. Usually, DM was pretty good at muddling her way through
whatever kind of trouble she was currently in. He would have
thought she was the last person on Earth who would send
despairing e-messages. Strange.
connect me with Sandryne, please."
aye, sir!= The program sparkle bopped up and down in a flittering
imitation of a salute.
don't behave like a military hardass," he groaned. "I
said 'please', not 'Chop! Chop!'"
Delacourt is currently away. Do you want to leave her a message?=
Sandryne's AI appeared in the transmission window.
He waited for the green frame telling him his call was being
recorded. "Sandryne, I'm sorry. An old friend of mine seems
to be in trouble. I don't know what's wrong, but we went to the
same school. I may be a little late this evening. I'll bring the
chardonnay you like so much. Bye." He disconnected the line
and shut down at last.
Flat Planet turned out to be one of those old, cheap, and
eternally sticky Internet cafes that lingered in the modern age
like outdated dinosaurs. Round, brown-grey marbled tables
at least he thought that was their original color and not dirt
sticking to a much lighter-colored surface were scattered
like islands across the room. Each table had a round monitor
stele in the middle and three or four chairs upholstered in
smooth, often torn, dark red imitation leather. The wall behind
the bar was filled with the usual battery of LCD monitors that
showed in slow succession the usual combo of ads and wanted
He shuddered at the cold,
semihuman, scarred faces of the escaped Supertroopers, faces that
had been flickering over walls like these since the riot about a
year ago. The people were about as conformist as a
rainbow-colored cow in a herd of white sheep. It was a miracle
that they hadn't yet been found and brought back.
eyes wandered the unsurprisingly uncrowded room, aware that he
was drawing attention with his tailored, dark-cream-colored suit
and bowler. No wonder the free communicators the Board had
installed everywhere had outstripped establishments like this.
Those who still used these facilities did so mostly because the
high turnover rate of users at the many consoles attached to the
same line made clearly tracing any person much less likely than
at the camera-guarded public consoles. But there weren't many ICs
like this one left.
was nowhere to be seen. He frowned. There were a couple of
curtained booths against the right wall. Could she
A narrow hand waved violently between the folds of the last
curtain. For a short moment he spotted Dany's narrow face above
it. He grinned. Still the old folly!
gods, you've really hidden yours"
She made a hasty sign to be silent and vanished
He sighed and
followed. In what shit was the Mouse involved this time? He
pushed the curtain aside and entered the small booth. The console
with the two ragged easy chairs in front of it wasn't active. In
fact, it couldn't be, because he spotted its cables torn out of
the wall outlet. A paper sheet taped across the monitor screen
read "Out of Order" in a scribbled hand. "Dany,
what's" He didn't get any further, because she
squeezed her small body past him and tore the curtain shut.
"Phew-ack!" He turned toward her with his arms akimbo.
This was definitely getting too strange for his tastes. "DM,
with the blessings of all bytes! What's wrong? You call me into
the nastiest place I've been in in the last ten years, saying you
need my help, and now you don't even say anyth"
sob interrupted him. He looked closely enough at her now to
notice her condition. DangerMouse looked as if she hadn't bathed
properly in several days. She'd always been thin, but now she
looked as if she'd gone hungry for ages. His usual easy tone
died. "Holy bytes! Dany. What happened to you?"
rubbed her running nose with the back of her hand and suppressed
a second sob. "Wally, we don't have much time. I'm in a
really deep mess, and the longer we talk the bigger the danger
for you. They're probably already looking for me."
are they, Dany? What are you involved in?" He tucked his hat
under his arm and ran his hand through his hair. "Sit down
first. You look as if you haven't slept for days..."
we don't have time"
can talk sitting." He sat down himself and ignored the
squeaking of the springs beneath the worn upholstery. "What
happened to you? I thought you were working for that comp and
network maintenance company in Phoenix?"
did... or better, officially, I still do. But I'm sure I'm dead
when I go to work..." He wanted to say something but she was
already going on: "Mike and I, Mike is my colleague you
know, had a job at a senator's estate. Pretty common problem.
Really routine. Looked as if his wife had used his office comp to
write some letters or her shopping list or whatever." She
shrugged her bony, drooping shoulders, putting her mouse-ear cap
in danger of slipping down over her nose. "Anyway, his
brainless spouse forgot to deactivate the dictation software
afterwards and it ran in the background for ages, cluttering all
his drives with his conversations, phone calls, and so on. The
guy's a good client of our company's and a big shot on the Board,
and when he called to have the mess in his comp sorted out we
were sent immediately." She sighed and wiped some sweat
droplets off her forehead. "You know that sort of job, lots
of numbered files and backup files stored everywhere where a
little space was left. Mike and I had to go through every text
file on that system to sort them out."
Boring as hell."
Mike and I started to joke about reading some of the stuff
we're sworn not to say anything but not not to read
anything. And then we ran across a problem with one of those
portable hard drives. You know the Morcistof-OS extension for
nothing but trouble."
It had a bad main sector. Easiest way would have been to format
and restore, but the senator wanted the data
He drew a face. "Did he have the necessary tools?"
course not." Dany snorted. "He told us to do it by hand
but he wouldn't pay for the extra time. And that was why Mike and
I decided to take the hard drive with us in the tool box. The big
system at the company could solve the problem before you could
snap and we would have been done on schedule."
took it with you?!"
it was a stupid idea. No..." She suppressed another sob. "It
was a fatal idea. At the company I forgot the tool box in the van
and I went back outside to get it and when I returned... Mike was
He jumped up. "Are you sure? Mouse, maybe he was just sick
mistake three blaster bolt holes in a man's chest, Wally. And
half a dozen black-clothed secret agents frisking the room."
She swallowed. "I turned and ran. And I've been running for
three days now. They were in front of my apartment house, at my
parents', everywhere. My e-cash is gone, my accounts are deleted,
my ID is invalid. I don't officially exist any more. You were the
only one I could think of who'd be safe to contact. I made it
here by hitchhiking." She drew a deep, quivering breath.
"Wally, I have to leave. I must..."
New Orleans? The continent?"
planet, Wally. They already killed my identity; my body will be
next. I must leave... I don't want to beg, but"
Mouse." He shook his head. "How much do you
random-choice, last-minute out-of-system ticket costs four
rummaged in his pockets. "Wait a moment, I'll give you a
cash card, and than you can get yourself food and fresh clothing,
her head violently. "Wally. The e-cashiers are
camera-controlled. Don't be so naive. Do you have real
He pulled the flat leather wallet out of the inner pocket of his
jacket and didn't bother to tell her that being a computer
psychiatrist meant sometimes dealing with customers neurotic
enough not to use e-cash at all...
pay it back as soon as I find a way. Promise..." She hugged
him briefly. "You're really a friend, Wally..."
You said you hacked Miss Abercrombie's compsys when they accused
me, and we both know you didn't do it."
snickered faintly. "Yes, but only because I was so sick that
the old witch still believed I wouldn't even have been able to
type!" The curtain flapped and she was gone, looking like an
old teenage hacker cliche in her big sweater, sneakers, and the
cap with the mouse ears. Hard to believe, but Dany 'DangerMouse'
Doors had been in the same class with him at Miss Abercrombie's.
She was about his age, a year younger, if he recalled exactly.
Twenty-nine. And she looked like a flat-chested, sharp-featured
luck," he said faintly after she'd already gone, looked down
at himself, and ground his teeth at the sight of her dark
fingerprints on his jacket. He'd be even more late getting to
Sandryne, but it was unthinkable to appear at the Delacourt
mansion in the French Quarter in a dirty suit. She was a member
of one of the most dignified families in town. And she knew it.
really aren't here today." Sandryne's deep, promising voice
suddenly breathed into his ear while her long, dancing fingers
tugged briefly at the hair at his temple. He got the impression
she made a pout. "Otherwise you'd have noticed me the moment
I came back into the room wearing nothing but this." Her
breath touched his ear. "But maybe Marie's cooking was too
rich this evening for my little Wally..."
one is better than your Maria at Creole cuisine." He
produced a theatrical sigh. "I wish she'd accept my offer to
come work for me. Then I wouldn't have to waste all my time
Sandryne gave him a playful light slap behind the ear, whirled
herself around the high-backed chair, and positioned herself on
his lap. "How dare you..." She giggled, stretching on
his knees, sticking out full breasts covered only by the thin
embroidered mesh of her negligee. "Maria would be
me to death with her three hundredweights of pure Creole cook."
He sighed faintly and breathed in the scent of his
one-third-filled glass of chardonnay.
took it determinedly out of his hand. "What's wrong?"
She tousled his hair. "You are so... strange. Is it because
of that friend of yours?"
She's in serious trouble, Sand. I did what I could to help her.
Sandryne's beautiful brown eyes flared up. "Do I have a
rival?!" She threatened him with a raised index finger. "I
were in the same class in school, Sand. Twenty years ago. We
sneaked cookies out of the cafeteria, hacked the school comp.
That sort of thing. Don't tell me you're jealous of
She smiled broadly at him. "Just be warned." She looked
thoughtful. "You did what you could for her, didn't
"Yes, but I'm
worried about her. She's really in trouble. A trouble the extent
of which I don't even understand, and I don't think she does,
either." He sighed and reached for his glass of wine in her
hand. "I just wish I could have done more."
Wally." She played with the small curls at his temples.
"Let's have some fun to get better thoughts..."
stretched, satisfied and half-asleep. He was well aware that what
was between him and Sandryne Delacourt was no great love, but it
was an exciting arrangement that fulfilled both their needs. And
though he'd never consider Sandryne as a potential wife, she was
still a great lover. Bah! Enough of these thoughts! Neither of
them expected more of the other.
turned on his side, drew a face as his cheek scraped across the
embroidery of the negligee that still hung across the edge of the
bed the thing looked great on her milk-coffee-colored
skin, but, dang, it was scratchy! and shoved it off the
brass frame. It whispered to the floor as he snuggled his face
into the smooth pillow...
deep, vibrating, crunching noise jolted him out of sleep in time
to see the wide double doors of the bedroom bend inwards and then
burst into a heap of partly white-lacquered wood splinters. After
weapons training much later in his life, Hartford would know that
a sonic bolt had been used to open the house's doors. But at the
moment, all he knew was that his ears were ringing as they never
had before. Next to him, Sandryne pressed the soft sheet against
her nude body and screamed. Five big, bullying policemen in
unflattering uniforms and mirrored sunglasses stepped over the
shattered door and secured the room with cold
For the first
time in his life, Walter C. Hartford, CP, called "the Doc"
by his clients and "Wally" by his close friends, looked
into the wrong end of an energy weapon. More precisely: the wrong
ends of five energy weapons. And he was in the nude. And for sure
those things weren't set on stun.
for ISA don't move!"
of the thugs turned towards Sandryne. "Shut up!"
felt a drop of sweat trickling down his back. "ISA? Who the
hell still uses ISA plug-in boards nowadays?" The sweat drop
got stuck between his buttocks. A rational part of his mind
wished his mouth would get stuck, too. As usual, it did not.
"Those things have been outdated for a hundred
One of the laser
pistols moved slightly closer towards the point between his eyes.
"Shut up!" The barrel reflected in its holder's
sunglasses. "Is that our customer?"
holographic ID checker flickered. "Yes, Sergeant. Confirmed.
Walter Carel Hartford, 30, computer psychiatrist with a practice
downtown. He's our crook."
with the slut?"
Who do you think you ar" Sandryne flared up,
struggling with her sheet. A second weapon was directed towards
her. She yelled as the sheet was torn apart.
don't" An LP hit his cheek, and he saw stars.
weapons visible, Sarge." A slippery voice. "But there's
a babe hole we haven't checked."
up! Forget the fuck, Penfold." So, at least one of
the assholes had a name. All right. If only the room would stop
rotating... "Arrest her, too. She may be an accomplice."
One of the LPs directed at them waved to the side. "Out of
bed. Slowly. No quick movements. And keep your hands in plain
"But we can't
go in the nude!" Sandryne protested. "I have to go get
dressed first. And my makeup and hair"
are your pants, Hartford." Cloth hit his chest; a zipper
clicked painfully against his teeth as the trousers were thrown
at him after a check of the pockets.
the charg?" The barrel in front of him moved
threateningly again, shutting him up.
Hartford, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain
silent. Anything you say can and will be used against
Another one of the
cops tossed Sandryne's negligee over to her. "That's enough
for one of your kind!"
gasped. "I am a Delacourt! Of the New Orleans Delacourts.
I'm no prost"
up, slut! Anyone who consorts with criminals is no better than
She wrapped the
thin, wispy, embroidered mesh around her impressive body and
snorted, her head thrown back, while Walter slipped into his
pants and staggered to his feet. "You'll pay for this
You fucked the crook."
were pushed out onto the street. You wouldn't think there'd be
so many people out on the sidewalks this long after midnight.
to the cell with 'em, Sarge?" the one called Penfold asked
with the volume of a Boeing-989 space cargo transport at landing.
He pushed Sandryne forward, tugging her wrists down by the
handcuffs that kept her arms secured behind her back. From time
to time his knuckles connected with her bottom. She arched back
in pain at most of the shoves.
The sergeant listened carefully to a speakerknob in his ear.
"They want them sent through the records procedure
"Shut up. Down
there." Two of them dragged Walter along, holding him by the
shoulders. He had tried to intervene when Sandryne was cuffed
she'd given that rat called Penfold a clip round the ears when
he'd grabbed at her backside as she was getting into the police
car. For his pains, Doc had gotten another blow from an LP butt
that had nearly knocked him out. He wasn't sure enough on his
feet yet to stagger on his own.
pulled Sandryne's wrists down a little further as the cops pushed
the couple along. They were in a corridor in the police
department's basement with cells closed by force fields for petty
criminals and drunks. A volley of suggestive shouts and personal
comments emerged from the cells they passed. "You got a lot
of fans around here," Penfold leered in her ear.
babe, how much to take off that yellow butt floss of
glasses, Maloney!" Penfold shouted back. "The tart's
blond down there!"
blinded by her tits when we"
shush!" the sergeant said wearily back over his shoulder.
pushed him in and slammed the heavy metal door behind him. He
scraped his elbows bloody as he hit the dirty floor. He heard
them drag Sandryne away, probably towards the cells used for
crack girls and prostitutes. A single, flickering halogen
spotlight dangled from the ceiling. The room stank of vomit and
worse and some splattered stuff around the two metal
chairs bolted to the floor on opposite sites of a similarly
bolted table told him, as he pulled himself up into a sitting
position, that vomit was an acceptable guess if he didn't want to
consider the spots to be the remnants of
up, Wally! Don't go there! If only his head would stop
ringing as if he'd stuck it into the cathedral's big bell at
Gods, they hadn't
even told him what this was all about. For Heaven's sake and
Byte's Blessings, he hadn't done anything... Or could Mrs.
Carstairs...? But treatment and effort like this because he'd
billed her last squawking complaint as an online consultation
worth ten extra credits?
pulled himself up from the soiled floor and staggered towards the
closer metal chair. He didn't want to go there, didn't want to
look more closely at the reason for the stink and the true nature
of the spots around it, but his only choices were to keep lying
on that disgusting floor or to try sitting on that disgusting
chair. And for the sake of his head, he decided to give the chair
He dropped himself onto
it, grabbed the table's edge to steady himself, and felt his
fingers in danger of being glued to the tabletop by something
sticky and crunchy at the same time. He shuddered and fought to
keep down Maria's fantastic Creole cuisine. Was it really only a
few hours ago that he'd had a great dinner?
loud, angry voice came from outside. "I don't give a damn
who ordered them arrested! The man's wanted in a case of mine!
And I'm going to interrogate him! Now! Do you get me,
Lieutenant. I gotcha."
The mechanical lock creaked and the heavy metal door swung open
to let in a slim but tall man in shirtsleeves. For a moment,
Wally hoped he'd finally found someone sane in all this madness,
but then he saw the grim determination and the disgust on the
man's face. The Lieutenant threw a not very clean readpad with a
scratched screen onto the table and took a seat opposite
Hartford, fixing his eyes on him wordlessly.
moment before Wally lost his nerve, the man hit the activation
key, glanced briefly at the displayed record, and said coldly and
matter-of-factly: "Walter C. Hartford, CP, correct?"
Doc nodded, tired. "Speak aloud, will you?"
"See? It works.
You own a loft at..."
The police lieutenant slammed his fist down on the metal table,
making the carafe of water, his paper cup Walter had been
given nothing to drink in spite of the heat in the room
and the readpad hop about. "I'm sick of your stupid behavior
and your hypocritical evasions!" He hammered a furious
command sequence into the readpad, activating the holo-emitter
and displaying a couple of crime scene holos above the
In his current condition,
it took Wally some time to recognize what he was seeing. Then he
pressed his hand over his mouth to keep himself from spitting out
the bile that was suddenly on his tongue. The holos showed the
corpse of a woman. White. Thankfully, someone had covered her
face, but the rest of the body lay bare to show the gaping cuts
in the abdomen and between the legs.
are used to finding robbed and strangled women from time to time
down by the river the Big Easy's still a dangerous
metropolis," the lieutenant said icily. "But we're not
used to finding a strangled woman's naked body stuffed next to
her clothes behind a garbage bin downtown with her stomach and
her uterus cut open and turned inside out as if they had been
frisked and her money still in her pocket!"
gulped and swallowed again against the rising bile. "Who
who is this?" he stuttered.
Doors, 29. A computer maintenance technician from Phoenix. Your
victim, Hartford! Your DNA imprints are still on the money you
paid her for whatever service she offered."
DM..." Walter whispered, choked and this time he did
lieutenant said with a disgusted expression. "You admit that
you knew the" He was interrupted when the door slammed
open and crashed against the unpainted, moldy wall.
the hell authorized you to question this subject?!" barked a
furious voice. A man in an ill-fitting black suit strode into the
room. He wore dark sunglasses in spite of the dim lighting, and
his shoulder holster held a vicious-looking energy weapon. Two
other men followed him.
they his clones or something? Hartford thought. They look
just like him.
lieutenant jumped to his feet. "This man is a suspect in one
of the nastiest murders I've ever had to investigate! I have the
no rights in here," the man in black snapped. "ISA."
To his colleagues: "Pack him up. We've wasted enough time in
this hole." His colleagues grabbed the still retching
Hartford. Steel cuffs clipped around his wrists and lower arms,
fixing them painfully behind his back. A injection needle pricked
his left biceps. The world grew blurred.
can't" The whine of a powered-up LP directed at his
face silenced the lieutenant.
can do anything," the ISA leading agent explained curtly.
"You can do nothing. Not even breathe if you get in
head down, we don't want him to choke on his own vomit." The
voices in the dark grew more and more distorted. Something
touched his cheek. On the left. On the right...
second agent straightened. "He's out. We are ready,
The agent, called K for
this mission, holstered his high-energy service weapon, turned
briskly on his heels, and followed his colleagues called L
and M at the moment who carried the subject out of the
room. K made a face at the thought of the heli-flight back to
Phoenix with that vomit-covered creature in the cabin. Sometimes
this was an absolutely sickening job! The metal door slammed shut
hate it when duffers interfere with my work." An annoyed and
impatient voice trickled into the silent darkness. "The
whole issue would be settled by now if they hadn't brought him in
in this condition." An educated voice. "I wish the
bosses would stop using the local scum to carry out these
"What do you
expect from ordinary cops?" A female voice, sharp and deep.
And equally annoyed.
they at least realize that a subject has to stay alive until he
gives us some answers!" the first voice snorted.
woman laughed gutturally. "That means expecting intelligence
out of them." Her tone expressed clearly what she thought of
that expectation. "Wait a moment." Her voice was
suddenly businesslike and cold. Something wet slapped his face.
He tore his eyes open, and his blurred vision slowly cleared.
"He's awake. We can begin."
Hartford realized he was strapped to some kind of dentist's
chair. He blinked at the blinding white lights around him. Slowly
the two figures belonging to the voices emerged out of the light.
The man was about forty, with grey-streaked hair and pale grey
eyes that chilled him. And the woman...
Tri-D, female secret agents always wear skintight miniskirts,
have breathtaking curves, and look only a little over twenty,
he thought dully. This woman was in her late thirties, was
flat-chested, wiry, and somehow stumpy, and had a face with all
the charm of a hamster's after the rodent in question had
been run over by an overloaded cargo glider. She wore the same
unflattering black business suit as her male colleagues. With
orthopaedic shoes. Ugh.
much for my illusions. He ground his teeth. At least someone
seemed to have cleaned the vomit off him and changed his
clothing. The ruined pants were gone, and he was covered in a
white overall. Still no shoes. But his feet attached to
footrests, as his arms were to the chair arms didn't touch
the floor anyway. I should be frightened, he
It'll come, Doc.
Then he noticed
that his elbows, scraped raw when he was tossed into the police
department's dirty basement room, were healed. How
The man with the
grey-streaked hair came slowly towards the chair to which Wally
mind whimpered. Did you have to remind yourself about the
fear?! Now we're in a mess!
the grey-streaked man said in his educated voice, "I'm I
for interrogator. I'm here to prove or to disprove, though
I doubt your innocence the accusation against
swallowed. "What would that be?"
accusation is treason."
usual, his mouth was faster than his common sense. "That's
gotta be a typo; it must be 'reason.' That 'T' is too much in
hoped you'd be more cooperative, Doctor Hartford."
Grey-streaked or I, as the madman wanted to be
called shook his head pityingly. "It took so long to
improve your condition..."
how long have I been here, then?"
I really hate to have to do this to you now."
hey. Hey! I. Please..." Doc screamed, seeing
Hamster-face uncover a collection of filled injectors on the
table next to his chair. She began testing the syringes, filled
with liquids of various colors, one at a time. "Can't anyone
tell me what this is all about? I want to cooperate. My
dear mom wouldn't like me to be uncooperative with the
authorities." Gods, Wally, you're whining!
We'll see. J?" The man addressed Hamster-face. "The
first two shots, please. And then I'll tell our friend more
precisely what he is supposed to do now."
I. Muscular or subcutaneous shot?"
I want a slow reaction." The hiss of an injector shrilled in
Walter's ears and a spot of skin on his lower left arm grew cold.
Before Doc reached the adequate state of shock, Grey-streaked
placed a small, portable hard drive, about the size of a credit
chip, in plain sight onto the table next to Hartford. "Tell
me about the contents of this drive."
know this will sound like a bad line from an old 007 movie, but
I've never seen that thing before." As Grey-streaked shook
his head in pity again: "Honestly. I"
lying. It is in your interest to tell us the truth." He
nodded again towards Hamster-face, who prepared another
injection. Walter noticed his own left hand twitching
uncontrollably on the armrest beneath the bandage with which he
was strapped down. "We found the hard drive in a soiled but
fine jacket on your bed."
bed...? Wait a minute! You guys went into my loft?! You
ruined my good reputation! My landlady doesn't allow houseguests,
especially not male visitors!"
shook his head. "In your situation, your reputation in your
landlady's eyes should be your last concern." He placed a
holo-display next to the hard drive and plugged it in. An eyeball
of an AI with a rendered 1940s felt hat danced in the display.
"E-Ness will prove your knowledge about the data stored on
this drive once the truth serum takes effect on you."
Grey-streaked stood up. "Have a nice day, subject. J,
let's get a coffee before the cafeteria grows crowded..."
groaned. He'd have put his hand over his eyes, but his arms were
strapped down to the armrests of this this whatever
it was! And the way this horrible stuff made his left hand
twitch, he'd probably poke out his own eye if he tried. So maybe
it was lucky that he couldn't. But...
had hugged him good-bye. And he'd been so shocked about her
situation and her condition. Maybe too shocked to have noticed
if? He groaned again. DangerMouse must have slipped that
damned HD into his pocket when she'd hugged him. Gods, DM.
What the devil have you dragged me into here? The holos of
her violated body appeared in his mind, and again he felt bile on
his tongue. Rainbow-colored veils glittered in his vision. His
left arm was... not really there. Her hunted voice whispered
behind his eyes: "You're really a friend,
didn't ever want to be called Wally again! Never in his life!
my sensors indicate that you've reached a condition appropriate
for interrogation. Now to get to the file in
He yelled mentally at himself, and tried not to follow those
brightly colored veils with his eyes. Think! You're in
trouble. You don't know shit about the data on that goddamned HD,
but they'll never believe you! They slaughtered DM for that
stuff, whatever it is. But for some reason they want proof of it!
The AI's electronic
voice still chirped its repertory. This darn e-creature should
shut up. Get an appointment and be on time for it. My practice is
closed today. The Doc needs a doc for himself!
took a deep breath to fight against the drug-induced
semi-dizziness. Why do they want proof? Because I'm not part
of their original order? He tossed and turned that thought
about in his shaking brain. Probably. But that means, if
that HD really contains the data DM was killed for... and I've
been left alone with an active data connection to
E-Ness had raised its
screaming electronic voice an octave, obviously the better to
draw his attention. Shut up, you purposely programmed
malfunction with a funny hat! he snapped mentally at
anyway that I know the data after an AI interrogated me, a
computer psychiatrist, about it. So I'm dead when this is over.
But... if that HD doesn't contain any files, they can't prove I
know anything, and maybe I'm not dead after all. But how... ?
Hell, I'm no traitor, but I'm still the Doc. If I can talk
AIs out of neuroses, why not talk this one into one?
suppressed a satisfied grin. It was about time to become
responsive to that little smart-alecky e-version of Eliot
Ness. Really responsive. Definitely more responsive than
the AI was programmed to handle! He forced his attention towards
the babbling e-creature.
confess that you stole the hard drive,= E-Ness chirped at
"Of course I stole it.
I stole it several times. That's what I've been doing for the
last several years, stealing hard drives and accessing top secret
Do you know the contents of this drive?=
course. What do you want to know?" Doc managed an amused
laugh. "But that's not what you're here for, is it? You're
here to make sure that I don't know the contents of the files,
=Yes, come to think
of it, that's the purpose of this interrogation.=
I know everything in all the files. I know every file on any hard
drive. So your mission has already failed. Except that there are
no files on the drive. I can't possibly know about something that
It's not my fault if your equipment needs a good comp shrink from
time to time!" he shouted after the two ISA agents
noticing with hidden satisfaction the shock in their faces
as they turned on their heels and stormed out again. "I know
a really good one. His practice is in New Orleans." He
finished the sentence at a normal volume after the door had
slammed shut behind Grey-streaked and Hamster-face.
the AI on the holographic display, little was left besides a
psychedelic, colored cloud of disoriented, swirling pixels. He
hadn't expected to be able not only to make the AI reformat the
hard drive but also to corrupt the AI's own files.
Doctor has operated. He noticed, satisfied, that the
drug-induced blurred vision and muscle spasms seemed to have
vanished, looked at the chaotic swarm of colored pixels, and
sighed inwardly. Doctor Mengele, I presume...
Hartford?" Sharp brown eyes zeroed in on Hartford's face.
"I'm Joseph Walsh, commander of this base." The
man in the blue-and-white uniform of the Galaxy Rangers,
accompanied by two MPs, appeared to be in his mid-forties and
kept watching Doc attentively. Too attentively for Doc's
snapped. "I'd salute if someone showed me how and if
I had a hand free. Aside from that, I'm honored to meet you, and
my mom always told me to be polite and stand up when someone
high-ranking enters the room, but as you can see"
commander cut him off with a determined gesture.
Hartford. I'm here to talk with you about what you did with
interrogation AI IP-12, also known as E-Ness." Walsh nodded
towards the still blurring, holographic display.
The commander nodded. "Okay, sir. I have no clue. I'm a
psychiatrist, though some people may believe I need one myself,
and after the last days, or weeks, or months, or who the heck
knows how long, I think so, too, and I don't understand a damn
thing about what happened with with that that thing.
Back in New Orleans they pinned a murder on me; here they said I
was a traitor. To what? To idiocy?!" Doc drew a deep breath,
but before he could continue, the commander winked at one of the
MPs waiting next to the door. The soldier moved to free him from
The commander laid
his hand on the portable hard drive still lying on the table next
to Hartford and spoke as if he'd heard nothing of what Doc had
just blasted at him the moment before. "Look, I know that
you don't know anything about the data that was stored on this
drive. But someone in a very high position is not as sure as I,
and he's a very dangerous enemy. You need protection, Mr.
Hartford. And a new job, because in your business being accused
of treason is as good as losing your license to practice, whether
or not the accusation proves true. I can offer you a solution for
both of your problems..."
Walsh's fingertips, the last fragments of a com-call's record
file ticked into oblivion:
time bomb running around in your house, Walsh! Joseph, you may be
a general, but your brood Gooseman is nothing but a goddamned ST!
I wish I'd never agreed to let him roam among real human
beings!++++++Watch your mouth, Eric! Or do I have to remind you
that one of the surveillance files from Wolf Den still shows a
certain senator emptying a test tube the shards of which
still carry traces of XFactor and his fingerprints into
the ventilation system! Our deal was civil rights for him if he
manages to live in human society, Senator.++++++As far as I can
see he's more or less a pet, a very dangerous and illegal pet, in
your house, Walsh. No more. You don't expect me to grant civil
rights to an object as dependent on another person as is a child,
but that isn't actually a child, do you? And I'd hardly say that
he has a place in this society. He hasn't even got a
job!++++++Senator, do I understand correctly that you'll see our
deal as being fulfilled when he gets his own in
BetaMountain, near Phoenix
C. Hartford, former practicing CP and now a fledgling lieutenant
of the Galaxy Ranger Corps, threw a quick glance at the sign on
the door: Lounge T-38. Okay, this was the right room, though not
necessarily the right place for him to be. He shuddered slightly,
remembering what lay behind him...
implant?!" he had protested. "Nobody said anything
about experimental implants when I accepted this job!" The
skinny scientist had smiled at him and displayed the contract Doc
had signed back in InterSec's interrogation chamber. "Sure
we did! You've got to read the small text, too..." A moment
later, Doc had been given a shot and dozed off. When he regained
consciousness, they'd told him that the procedure had been
successful. Using his implant, once it was charged and activated
by his service badge, Doc could now mentally control a new,
specially adapted CDU and a couple of independent programs. He'd
spent the next couple of months working on those programs and
he'd begun to be quite proud of some of them, but...
remembered what was directly ahead of him now and shuddered
again. Yesterday he'd briefly met the man who was to command
Doc's new unit, and one of his future colleagues, a charming
woman. Doc had learned with relief that Captain Fox seemed to be
an honest and rational man, and the woman, Niko, was
astonishingly composed for a woman of her age and oddly shy for
someone so gorgeous. But now he drew a deep breath to
steel himself who the hell had come up with the idea of
adding one of those gengin soldiers to their team?
just hoped he'd manage to keep his features and his big
mouth under control when he first met the semihuman. The
odd faces from the wanted files appeared in his mind's eye. It
definitely wouldn't be a good idea to piss off one of those folks
right from the start. He ground his teeth and pushed the door
open. His eyes wandered across the surprisingly big room, almost
a small hall, knowing that he was too early. Captain Fox and Niko
would be coming, too. He just hoped they would already have
arrived by the time the ST got here.
couple of chairs and a couch stood on one side of the room. Doc
nodded to the young man in Ranger uniform who sat on the couch,
dangling one of his long legs over the arm rest. "Are you
waiting for your unit, too?" Doc asked, taking a seat in a
kind of unit?"
enforcement. External missions."
too." Walter sighed and leaned back. "You don't seem
too happy about your assignment." His look whisked across
the other man. Pretty young for a job like this. "What
will your job be?"
other one ground his teeth. "Hunting STs."
froze. For Heaven's sake, this boy was ordered...?! Sure he had
broad shoulders and looked to be damn fit, but... No wonder he
wasn't Happy Boy. "Why on Earth?!"
cynical half-grin flashed across the other one's mouth. "Someone
thinks I'll be good at it."
stretched out his hand and managed to keep pity out of his voice.
The boy wasn't likely to get much older, considering what Doc had
seen and learned about the escaped Supertroopers. "I'm
The boy didn't take the offered hand.
you'll get a first look at your kind of enemy. I'm waiting for an
ST assigned to my unit."
fair brow raised slightly. "Really?"
Sure feels weird, I can tell you."
The green eyes glittered strangely. Amused? "Seems
Gods, the man really
wasn't in a talkative mood. The door hissed open. Fox and Niko
entered. The Captain looked around and nodded briefly in their
direction. "Gooseman, there's a special last-minute order
regarding your abilities. I'm sorry, but..."
blond boy got to his feet and Doc felt his jaw drop as the "boy"
crossed the room with easy, predatory long
explain to us how to kill an ST like you."
fell out of the clouds and hit the ground on a definitely rocky
spot. "You're the?!" For the first time in
his life, he was speechless.
"boy" looked back at him with eyes cold and suddenly
bare of emotions. "Sure I am. Why else did you think they
want me to hunt my kind?"
Tri-D in the GRS5's lounge flickered. The vast, ancient buildings
in the background seemed vaguely familiar to Doc. Then it struck
him and he sat straight up in the easy chair he'd been nearly
lying in. "Goose, turn that louder, please..."
The ST pressed a glittering claw onto the remote control. "What's
waved him violently to be silent, watching intently:
and gentlemen of the press" Lucien LaCroix, New
Orleans' best-known and most distinguished criminal defense
lawyer, raised his hands for quiet. He spoke over the whirring of
digicams and Tri-D recorders: "My client, Miss Delacourt,
has been falsely accused and arrested for a crime of which she
was entirely ignorant and innocent. During this unfounded arrest,
her home was invaded, her property destroyed, and her person
manhandled and subjected to sexist, defamatory, and ungentlemanly
comments which violated her civil rights. In addition, her
reputation has been impugned by publications of a highly dubious
nature in libelous statements which have subjected her to
humiliation, emotional distress, and loss of income.
that the matter of these unfounded accusations against my client
have been settled, we will be initiating lawsuits against the New
Orleans Police Department, the National Enquirer, the New
Orleans Tattler, the New Orleans High Society Times,
the Earth Times, and the Louisiana Daily News.
Thank you. We have no further comment."
the assembled crowd exploded with questions, LaCroix, with a
veiled Sandryne and her parents at his side, marched down the
courthouse steps and into the waiting limo.
Doc slumped down into the easy chair and seriously considered
hiding under the upholstery while the Tri-D newscaster read a
short note from the NOPD proclaiming that they had no knowledge
of Ms. Delacourt being arrested at any time. "I can't ever
show my face in the Big Easy again..."
ST looked over at him. "Do you know that woman,
"Not any more."
a wolf at your door
Wants your money, wants your soul
wolf at your door...
Tri-D scene in the epilogue is courtesy of Elizabeth Bales.
Thank you. :)