Authors: Steve Statham
KC turned away
from the large E-Thing display screen and rubbed her eyes. It was 3 a.m, and
she was still in her office above the bar. She was actually looking forward to
a little shut-eye, which was rare for her. But tonight her usual two hours of
sleep would be welcome.
In her spare time
over the last couple of days she had been researching the leads and material
Rix had given her. Earlier in the evening she had paid a visit to the Modified
gym where Rix had bounced around the red men, and had made some discreet
inquiries. Hardly anybody had felt like talking, but she found that even their
non-answers and evasions had value.
leads and hunches to their logical ends, she believed she had a good short
list. In fact, she felt sure that one of the people on her list was behind the
Open Sky deaths. Some of the people were high-profile movers, some were quite a
bit more furtive in their activities, but all had the capabilities. And it was
plausible, at least, that they had motivation.
There was the ASA
Special Security Bureau, with its grudge against lost territories and paranoia
of new technologies that could potentially be used against them. There was the
Russo-Mexican organized crime alliance that had earned a brutal reputation
while extorting money from major corporations around the globe. There was that
Brazilian mobster trying to form his own personal Modification cartel.
All of these
people were very good at concealing their movements around the globe, but,
well. There are always witnesses, always gaps. Always somebody posting a
surprise photo somewhere. Total privacy was a thing of the past.
mobster was a strong candidate. She found a couple of public images of him and
ran them through her facial recognition software, and then compared them with
the security camera images of the assailants. Their faces were altered or
concealed, but still… In the Forward Aeronautics massacre, there was no hiding
the bulk of that one man's physique. And he was obviously the leader.
KC leaned back in
her chair and closed her eyes, trying to corral all the possibilities. She was
lost in thought when she heard a soft scratching at the door.
She turned and
saw that her waitress Tigerfly was peeking through the cracked opening.
"KC? Can I
talk to you for a minute?"
little tiger. Come in."
The girl slipped
inside the room. Her head was down, strands of hair covering her face, but she
had obviously been crying.
She walked over
and dropped down into the chair across from KC's desk. The desk lamp threw
harsh shadows across the young woman's tiger-pattern tattoos. She pulled her
knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. KC noticed her claw
implants digging into her soft flesh. Tigerfly's cat's-eye optics glowed
KC really hated
to admit it, but she had a soft spot for the animal kids. Leave it to teenagers
to embrace the kind of Modifications that would irritate adults the most. She
had witnessed firsthand the insults hurled at the animal kids when they walked
down the street in public, in daylight. Even a pretty girl like Tigerfly
couldn't avoid that. She had shown up at the Night Owl Pub one night,
desperation in her eyes, pleading for a job. KC had never asked her directly,
but always figured the girl's parents probably went crazy when she came home
one day with tiger stripe tattoos. Fortunately, she had been smart enough to
avoid getting the facial reconstruction. And the tail.
It seemed to KC
that the animal kids wasted an enormous amount of money on ridiculously
impractical Modifications, but still she sympathized. The way the kids were
abused reminded her of how she had been treated when some of her own
proclivities had begun to manifest themselves in her youth. She didn't like to
sleep, which drove her family crazy. She liked men — a lot, with all the
complications that implied. And she had a bit of the huntress in her, which was
a difficult itch to scratch until she channeled her ambitions into archery
competitions. Her Air Force assignment of hunting down renegade MIs had been
one of the best gigs of her life, except for taking all the orders. It amused
her that she was doing the same thing now, even though she was the queen of her
own little business empire.
KC watched the
girl huddled on the chair, eyes fixed on the wall behind her. She waited for
her to say something, but the girl couldn't seem to pull herself together.
It was several
more seconds before the girl could bring herself to speak. Finally, she looked
up and said "One of my friends was killed yesterday."
I'm so sorry. Was it a close friend? What happened?"
know him real well. I only messaged with him on forums and AniMod networks. But
he was kind of a, I dunno, leader for the AniMod kids…."
She paused a
moment, choking back a sob.
was always the one discovering new animal-look Modifications, and was always
the first to try them. He always posted a
of information about the safest places to go, all over the world, for
all the implants and grafts, and which places to avoid. I learned about which
were the best feline optics from him."
"How did he
die?" KC quietly asked.
" Tigerfly whispered, dropping her face into her
That's so sad. Do the police have any leads on who did it?"
She looked up, a
puzzled look on her face. "Police? I don't know. He doesn't — didn't
— live around here. He's from Brazil."
KC said nothing.
she reflected. A brief memory raced across her mind,
of her father once joking that the entire country used to be known solely for
Carnaval. "Now everything new comes out of there
he had said ruefully.
her arms on KC's desk and laid her head down on them, looking toward the
darkened window on her right. "It was horrible. I saw the pictures of the
bodies. You couldn't even recognize him except for his tats. And they laid the
bodies out in this weird pattern…."
KC raised an
like, the killers were trying to spell out a word, or make some kinda symbol.
That's just sick. Really sick."
"Yes it is,
KC watched as the
girl started shaking, her body convulsing with soft sobs.
"So is this
pretty widely known? I'm sorry, but I don't follow the AniMod forums…,"
. Everyone is talking
about it. I can't get away from it. It's being talked about on all the sites.
AniMod followed what Julio had to say. No one can
believe he's gone."
sorry about this, my little tiger. Do you need today off?"
She raised her
head and wiped her eyes. "No. I need something to do. I don't want to just
sit around and think about it all day." She looked around. "I know
it's the middle of the night. But I figured you'd be up. I'm sorry if I
you are welcome anytime. Hey, I gotta look out for my girls."
that I'm here, do you have any chores that need doing? You don't have to put me
on the clock. I just need something to do to get my mind off this."
honey. We got a couple cases of pint glasses from that brewery in New San
Antonio. We just stuck them in the cooler when they were delivered yesterday.
Can you wash them and get them on the shelves for tonight? That would be a big
Tigerfly stood up
and nodded, a grateful look on her face. She turned around and shuffled out of
KC listened to
Tigerfly walk down the stairs, then got up, walked over and locked the door.
She turned back to the large screen for her E-Thing.
Well, this is a morbid
she told herself as she input
a variety of search terms for the animal kid's murder. The way Tigerfly had
described the placing of the bodies sounded sickeningly familiar…
It took just
moments to call up various underground reports on the killing and reactions
from the followers of "Julio the Lion." It only took a couple minutes
more to find video of the bodies.
repulsed. The mangled corpses were arranged in an unmistakable fashion —
exactly as the bodies at the Forward Aeronautics massacre had been.
She checked the
location, although she knew before it even displayed which city would be named.
She shook her head.
In your own hometown, is it?
Well, Mr. Cunha. You're quite the bloody barbarian, aren't
Rix listened to
KC's rundown of her research, and the results. She sounded uncharacteristically
tired. Rix tried to remember, but could not recall a time when KC did not have
that certain playful vibrancy in her voice.
you up all night?"
nights. New territory even for me."
go crazy on us. We need you fresh for your undercover bikini assignment."
She coughed out a surprised laugh.
like it," Rix said. "Now. I think you're on the right track. Can you
drill down a little deeper, and gather more evidence?"
"Oh yes. I
have an entire array of new sources to pump," she said. "The ultimate
problem is, how do we get this guy? I don't speak Portuguese, and I don't
relish the idea of extracting a guy like this from South America. He's probably
got more bodyguards than I have waitresses."
Rix was silent
for a moment. "So you say this Cunha has a network in North America?"
I don't believe he made a special trip from Brazil to conduct the Forward
Aeronautics raid. I think he was already in the area and jumped on the
opportunity to get his people back. Now that I've been tracking this guy, there
have been several sightings of him in Texas and in the Pacific States as well.
A guy like that can't pass completely unnoticed."
"And he has
a monopoly on the street trade in Mods?"
them. That's the scuttlebutt."
I'm losing a step. I can't believe I haven't heard of this guy. I thought I had
the Mod traffic figured out."
"Well, if it
makes you feel any better, I think this bulldog just jumped the fence into our
yard pretty recently. That's what the few people who would talk about it tell
me. And there's no record of Cunha ever being in the Texas Republic or
affiliated territories until a few months ago."
Rix was quiet for
a moment, contemplating the possibilities.
"I want to
explore a lead. Nothing might come of it. But why don't you come down to New
San Antonio in case things get exciting?"
leave my number one girl in charge of the bar."
Bring your special tools."
Rix sat back,
watching the dust particles drift through the beam of sunlight leaking through
the curtains. He let a silent moment pass. He had to conduct his conversations
with Jake slowly, to avoid pressing the man beyond his meager allotment of
They had been
discussing the South Americans who had supplied him with the faulty nanobots. It
had required some coaxing for Jake to reveal more about these people, but as he
spoke Rix grew increasing convinced that this was a direct connection to
Cunha's organization. New guys from South America, pushing aside independent
suppliers, strong-arming buyers into a single sales channel — all the
Rix turned back
to his bed-ridden friend.
Now comes the hard part,
he told himself with a sigh.
know you don't want any more trouble, but I need you to help me set up a
meeting with these people."
Jake turned his
head, focusing on Rix's eyes. "I really can't do much of anything, Rix. I
don't think they would talk with me anyway. They gotta know what happened to
me. They'd be suspicious."
"I know. But
I need you to get your manager at the gym — what's his name? Carlos?
— to contact these guys on my behalf. Help get me a meeting with them,
and I'll handle the rest."
Jake was silent.
clean way out of this, Jake. The people who sold you the defective nanobots
won't hesitate to dump more toxic Modifications on the market if they can make
some silver. And now they've got a toehold in your gym. You're a customer. They
aren't going to walk away willingly. Yeah, you've turned the business over to
Carlos to run, and don't really look too closely at what he does. But I'm
telling you, I think the guy at the other end of your supply chain is the same
guy I'm looking for, the guy who's left a trail of bodies that would stretch
from Dallas to Austin. I need to find a way to get in his face, and your little
network is the quickest way in I can see."
you're a hardass, Rix."
"You stubborn Yankee, you can at least admit it would feel good to see the
guy who poisoned you take a fall."
Focus returned to
Jake's eyes. "Yeah, that would make me feel better. Ok, go talk to Carlos.
I'll tell him to help you out."
Take this guy down hard, ok?"
In the meantime, I want you and Cathy to go stay with friends or family for a
think that's necessary?"
not. But this guy has proven himself to be about as brutal as they come. Let's
not leave anything to chance."
Jake said with a grimace.
thing. Your gym is insured, right?"
They arrived in
New San Antonio that night, first Big Fella, then KC. Marie served San
Antonio-style Mexican food that was not easily found north of the city, and
they spent a relatively quiet evening in Rix's above-garage quarters drinking
beer and reviewing the next day's plan.
around several alternative scenarios, but Rix's straightforward, if theatrical,
idea ultimately won the day. Marie had been the last to sign on.
no other way to do this without initiating so much violence?"
Big Fella and KC
sat quietly, allowing Rix to persuade her.
"We need to
get his attention, enough so that he'll travel back to Texas," Rix said.
"We want him to take our actions as a personal affront."
"Cunha is an
extraordinarily brutal man," Rix said. "Violence appears to be his
first option. If we don't find a way to deal with him, a lot more people are
going to die as he spreads his network. And anyway, this is the job we all
signed up for. That big payday still has to be earned."
"I know. I just don't like being the one to pick a fight, especially
against shadowy organizations like this. I've been on the other end of that,
during the war."
Big Fella set his
beer down on the table.
"Marie, darlin', I'd say the fight's done been picked
so," she said, eyes cast downward.
They talked long
into the night, eventually retiring to sleep after midnight, Marie first,
followed by Rix. Rix had laid out sheets and blankets for Big Fella and also
KC, although it was entirely likely she would not sleep. There was ample space
in the various rooms above the garage for the two to sort out their own
arrangements. Rix made no assumptions. She had been trying to hide it, but Rix
had seen KC sneaking glances at Big Fella throughout the evening. But she had
been that way ever since she had met him right before the Breakup, when the
officers had endured the trauma of choosing sides before the shooting started.
Rix was amused by
it. He had never seen KC act so, well,
was the word that came to his mind. She normally just reached out and
grabbed what she wanted, at least when it came to men.
The next morning
when Rix came out to the kitchen he found the two talking intently on the
well-worn leather sofa, but he could not tell if it was personal or business.
He could detect no indication that anything had changed between the two.
An hour and a
half later, Rix and Big Fella opened the doors and slid into the front seats of
Rix leaned out
the window so KC and Marie could hear him. "We're going to head over there
and scout out the lay of the land. And then have a little talk with Carlos.
We'll be back soon."
They had all
reviewed the plan after breakfast until everyone was satisfied that it probably
wouldn't be a complete catastrophe.
Marie waved as
they drove off and turned back to help KC assemble the assorted gear they would
need for the operation. KC was studiously going through the special weapons Rix
had brought back from Open Sky's headquarters after his meeting with Rohm.
"Look at this,"
KC said, holding up what looked like a stubby shotgun. "Have you ever seen
one of these? It's a net gun. Shoots a compact cartridge that bursts into
strong strands that wrap around whatever it hits. Damned handy weapon."
She reached into
another of the boxes. "Here, run and try this on. I want to see how well
this stealth fabric works."
Marie held up the
loose bundle of fabric, running it through her fingers. "I can think of
several times in my life when this would have come in handy," she said.
"Although it's definitely no cocktail dress, is it?"
"Ideal for slipping out of a lousy blind date, though."
Marie took the
garment upstairs to the bedroom she shared with Rix. She changed into
tighter-fitting clothes —
better for the weather today anyway,
she told herself — and then pulled up the
stealth leggings and slipped the loose hoodie smock over her head. She noticed
immediately how light the fabric felt, as if she were not wearing two layers of
clothing at all.
She walked past a
mirror and halted, startled. The fabric shimmered with her motion, and then
settled when she stood still. She watched in the mirror as the fabric slowly
resolved. It was a rough approximation, easily disturbed by rapid movement, but
the front of the garment was unmistakably working to conceal her by generating
an image of the wall and furnishings behind her. She slowly moved, watching the
fluid motion of the stealth fabric as it kept up with her movement.
I didn't even
know this technology existed! It must be worth a fortune!
She felt her
stomach fall away with sudden pangs of fear, and quickly sat down on the bed.
She dropped her head in her hands.
Oh, God. How
did I get mixed up in this?
overwhelmed Marie again, the sense of feeling small, of once again being the
content little assistant manager at the upscale home furnishings store, selling
overpriced linens and mid 20th Century-influenced furnishings, navigating a
life with a horizon that barely extended beyond next Friday's margaritas on the
There were still
days when she desperately missed that simple life. To be able to just wake up,
prepare for work, put in a shift at the store and spend the evening at
— it seemed like a
fantasy life, the kind of thing you'd see in a movie, or read about in a novel.
been her life.
If only things
could be that way again…
But no, of course
not. That period ended during the Breakup War, when San Antonio had been
briefly overrun. The skirmish line had consumed the street where her family lived,
and the ASA forces had treated every civilian as a combatant.
She could still
see it in her mind's eye, still see her father as he lay gasping for breath,
blood foaming at his lips, crimson liquid pooling on the floor. She could still
hear the cries from her mother as her brother Marco was dragged out of the
house by the ASA soldiers, never to be heard from again. She could still feel
the wall at her back as she cowered in a corner, petrified with fear, unable to
stop any of the men who had invaded their home.
No. There was no
going back. There would never be such an uncomplicated life for her ever again.
She now had two goals in life; building her strength and capabilities so she
would never find herself so helpless again, and tracking down what happened to
Marco. Rix had helped guide her down the first path, and she loved him for it.
She was much stronger for it. The good days now outnumbered the bad.
But she still had
much to learn.
She wiped her
eyes and stood, forcing herself back into the moment.
There was plenty
she could learn from this team Rix had put together. KC in particular. Marie
had not spent much time around KC, and had not met many women like her. She
definitely possessed striking good looks, although you wouldn't call her
conventionally pretty. But she carried herself with a certain confidence that
was especially evident in her interaction with the men. Marie assumed this was
mostly due to sharing a military background, although perhaps it was more the
experience of running her various businesses, where she was used to being the
boss. And, of course, it was hard to clearly read how someone's personality
might be influenced by her various Modifications.
used to physical power pretty quickly, just like all the new rich people get
used to the money pretty fast,
I need to get used to it too.
back downstairs she slipped on her shoulder holster and slid her compact .380
into place. Comic book superpowers and science-fiction stealth fabrics were
fine and all, but the feel of that solid, reliable chunk of metal was still a
comfort to her.
Marie pulled the
hood over her head, quietly opened the door and slipped onto the metal stairs,
and then glided down to the shadowy corner platform where the staircase turned
back for its final drop to the garage floor.
KC still had her
head down in a box sifting through the Open Sky materials.
KC looked up,
cocked her head, and then glanced around the shop, trying to pinpoint the
sound. After a few heartbeats she zeroed in on Marie.