This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
There's a wolf at your door
Wants your money, wants your soul
I 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.
DDMD, 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.
"Pathy, connect me with Sandryne, please."
=Aye, aye, sir!= The program sparkle bopped up and down in a flittering imitation of a salute.
"And don't behave like a military hardass," he groaned. "I said 'please', not 'Chop! Chop!'"
=Ms. Delacourt is currently away. Do you want to leave her a message?= Sandryne's AI appeared in the transmission window.
"Sure." 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.
The 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turned out to be one of those old, cheap, and eternally sticky Internet cafes that lingered in the modern age like outdated dinosaurs.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 files.
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.
His 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.
DangerMouse was nowhere to be seen. He frowned. There were a couple of curtained booths against the right wall. Could she be–?
"Pssst, here." 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!
"Hi, gods, you've really hidden yours–"
"Shush!!!" She made a hasty sign to be silent and vanished completely.
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–"
Her 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?"
She 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."
"Who 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..."
"Wally, we don't have time–"
"You 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?"
"I 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."
"Ugh. Boring as hell."
"Exactly. 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 them?"
"Sure. Causes nothing but trouble."
"Right. It had a bad main sector. Easiest way would have been to format and restore, but the senator wanted the data rescued."
"Ouch." He drew a face. "Did he have the necessary tools?"
"Of 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."
"You took it with you?!"
"Yeah, 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 dead."
"What?!" He jumped up. "Are you sure? Mouse, maybe he was just sick and–"
"You can't 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..."
"What? New Orleans? The continent?"
"The planet, Wally. They already killed my identity; my body will be next. I must leave... I don't want to beg, but–"
"Gods, Mouse." He shook his head. "How much do you need?"
"A random-choice, last-minute out-of-system ticket costs four hundred credits."
He rummaged in his pockets. "Wait a moment, I'll give you a cash card, and than you can get yourself food and fresh clothing, too, and–"
She shook her head violently. "Wally. The e-cashiers are camera-controlled. Don't be so naive. Do you have real money?"
"Yes. Here." 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...
"I'll pay it back as soon as I find a way. Promise..." She hugged him briefly. "You're really a friend, Wally..."
"Hey. You said you hacked Miss Abercrombie's compsys when they accused me, and we both know you didn't do it."
She 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 seventeen-year-old.
"Good 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.
"You 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..."
"No 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 here–"
"You!" 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 shocked!"
"And squash 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.
She 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?"
"Yes. She's in serious trouble, Sand. I did what I could to help her. But..."
"She?!" Sandryne's beautiful brown eyes flared up. "Do I have a rival?!" She threatened him with a raised index finger. "I warn you–"
"We 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 that."
"Oh... okay." She smiled broadly at him. "Just be warned." She looked thoughtful. "You did what you could for her, didn't you?"
"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."
"Poor Wally." She played with the small curls at his temples. "Let's have some fun to get better thoughts..."
Walter 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.
He 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...
A 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 professionalism.
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.
"NOPD for ISA – don't move!"
One of the thugs turned towards Sandryne. "Shut up!"
He 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 years!"
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?"
A holographic ID checker flickered. "Yes, Sergeant. Confirmed. Walter Carel Hartford, 30, computer psychiatrist with a practice downtown. He's our crook."
"What's with the slut?"
"Hey! 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.
"Sandryne, don't–" An LP hit his cheek, and he saw stars.
"No weapons visible, Sarge." A slippery voice. "But there's a babe hole we haven't checked."
"Shut 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 sight!"
"But we can't go in the nude!" Sandryne protested. "I have to go get dressed first. And my makeup and hair–"
"Here 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.
"What's the charg–?" The barrel in front of him moved threateningly again, shutting him up.
"Walter Hartford, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you..."
Another one of the cops tossed Sandryne's negligee over to her. "That's enough for one of your kind!"
She gasped. "I am a Delacourt! Of the New Orleans Delacourts. I'm no prost–"
"Shut up, slut! Anyone who consorts with criminals is no better than they are!"
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 infamy, Sergeant!"
"Infamy? You fucked the crook."
They were pushed out onto the street. You wouldn't think there'd be so many people out on the sidewalks this long after midnight.
"Straight 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.
"Nope." The sergeant listened carefully to a speakerknob in his ear. "They want them sent through the records procedure first."
"Hrmpf. Paper shit."
"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.
Penfold 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.
"Hey, babe, how much to take off that yellow butt floss of yours?!"
"You need glasses, Maloney!" Penfold shouted back. "The tart's blond down there!"
"How'd you know?"
"Wasn't blinded by her tits when we–"
"Penfold, shush!" the sergeant said wearily back over his shoulder.
They 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–
Shut 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 Sunday Mass...
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?
He 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 a try.
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?
A 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, Sergeant?!"
"Yeah, Lieutenant. I gotcha."
"Open!" 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.
A 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?"
"Yes, I am."
"See? It works. You own a loft at..."
"GODDAMMIT!" 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 table.
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.
"We 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!"
Wally gulped and swallowed again against the rising bile. "Who– who is this?" he stuttered.
"Danielle 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."
"Gods, DM..." Walter whispered, choked – and this time he did vomit.
"So," the 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.
"Who 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.
Are they his clones or something? Hartford thought. They look just like him.
The police 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 right–"
"You have 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.
"You can't–" The whine of a powered-up LP directed at his face silenced the lieutenant.
"I can do anything," the ISA leading agent explained curtly. "You can do nothing. Not even breathe if you get in the way."
"Keep his 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...
The second agent straightened. "He's out. We are ready, K."
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 behind them.
"I 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 jobs."
"What do you expect from ordinary cops?" A female voice, sharp and deep. And equally annoyed.
"That they at least realize that a subject has to stay alive until he gives us some answers!" the first voice snorted.
The 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."
Walter 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...
On 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.
So 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 thought.
It'll come, Doc. It'll come.
Then he noticed that his elbows, scraped raw when he was tossed into the police department's dirty basement room, were healed. How long...?
The man with the grey-streaked hair came slowly towards the chair to which Wally was strapped.
Shit! his mind whimpered. Did you have to remind yourself about the fear?! Now we're in a mess!
"Subject," 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 you."
"And..." He swallowed. "What would that be?"
"The accusation is treason."
As 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 there..."
"I really 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..."
"Hey, how long have I been here, then?"
"...that I really hate to have to do this to you now."
"But – 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!
"So? 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."
"Ready, I. Muscular or subcutaneous shot?"
"Subcutaneous. 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."
"I 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–"
"Stop 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."
"My 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!"
Grey-streaked 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..."
Walter 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...
DangerMouse 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, Wally..."
Gods, he didn't ever want to be called Wally again! Never in his life!
=Subject, my sensors indicate that you've reached a condition appropriate for interrogation. Now to get to the file in question...=
Think! Walter! 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! Why...?
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!
He 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 it...
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 it.
...they'll conclude 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?
He 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.
=Subject, confess that you stole the hard drive,= E-Ness chirped at him.
"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 data."
=Don't exaggerate. Do you know the contents of this drive?=
"Of 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, right?"
=Yes, come to think of it, that's the purpose of this interrogation.=
"But 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 doesn't exist..."
"Hey! 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.
Of 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.
The 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...
"Dr. 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 comfort.
"And?" Doc 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–"
The commander cut him off with a determined gesture.
"Dr. 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.
"Sir?" 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 straps.
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..."
Beneath Walsh's fingertips, the last fragments of a com-call's record file ticked into oblivion:
2086-06-28 – BetaMountain, near Phoenix
Walter 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...
"Experimental 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...
He 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?
He 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.
A 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 chair.
"What kind of unit?"
"Law enforcement. External missions."
"Me, 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?"
The other one ground his teeth. "Hunting STs."
Doc 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–?!"
A cynical half-grin flashed across the other one's mouth. "Someone thinks I'll be good at it."
Doc 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 Doc."
"Goose." The boy didn't take the offered hand.
"Maybe you'll get a first look at your kind of enemy. I'm waiting for an ST assigned to my unit."
A fair brow raised slightly. "Really?"
"Yeah. Sure feels weird, I can tell you."
"Sure." The green eyes glittered strangely. Amused? "Seems so."
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..."
The blond boy got to his feet and Doc felt his jaw drop as the "boy" crossed the room with easy, predatory long strides.
"...you're to explain to us how to kill an ST like you."
Doc 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.
The "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?"
[A. Kniggendorf: A Difficult Beginning...]
Epilogue – Mid-July 2086
The 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..."
"Sure." The ST pressed a glittering claw onto the remote control. "What's up?"
"Shush!" Doc waved him violently to be silent, watching intently:
"Ladies 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.
"Now 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."
As 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.
"Gods..." 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..."
The ST looked over at him. "Do you know that woman, Doc?"
"Not any more."
There's a wolf at your door
Wants your money, wants your soul
A wolf at your door...
The Tri-D scene in the epilogue is courtesy of Elizabeth Bales. Thank you. :)