Authors: Steve Statham
The night passed
in slow-rolling agony, as he expected. No sleeping position was particularly
comfortable, and just when the pain faded and he was able to drift, a fresh
wave came rolling through, from his bones outward. He sweated profusely, and
several times got up to pace the hotel room to distract himself from the aches.
It was nearly dawn before the pain subsided and he was able to capture useful
Rix had been
through the episodes before, worse even. The bone density regimen had taken the
longest to integrate of all his Modifications. At the end of it, as he nearly
was, his bones would be virtually unbreakable. They had warned him before the
procedure that there would be considerable pain as a byproduct of the muscle
and nerve endings establishing new connections to the harder, denser bone
material. So far he had been able to bear it. Two, maybe three more episodes,
tops, he figured.
Open Sky had put
him up in a decent hotel on the outskirts of town, part of the newer
construction that had sprung up in Las Cruces to accommodate the phenomenal
growth of the private spaceflight industry. It was set back from the main roads
and quiet, a good place to ride out the latest pain session. When checking in,
the scanreaders had also unquestioningly accepted the documents he used for his
Number Three identity, so his true digital footprint for this trip would be
He ate a
leisurely breakfast in the lobby, methodically turning over in his mind the
previous day’s events. It was still early when he pulled out of the parking lot
heading south and east toward New San Antonio.
To home and her.
Rix turned into
the parking lot of the Ramirez Brothers’ Taqueria as he usually did before
finally returning home. He ordered his usual dinner and paid with the newly
issued silver coins, tiny drops of moonlight that he passed to the cashier.
From the booth at the front corner he sipped ice tea, looking out the window
toward the industrial park across the street where he kept his living quarters.
He surveyed the cars and trucks in the lot, watched the comings and goings.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Marie had not
pinged him on his Everything device, and a silent E-Thing was a good E-Thing as
far as he was concerned. He was pretty sure the Atlantic States of America’s
security services had stopped looking for him, but he knew old grudges from The
Breakup died hard.
particularly vulnerable now, and he had hated to leave her to travel to New
Mexico Territory, but Open Sky had made it hard to say no. The pay was very
solid for the job. But he had been shocked at how easily they had located him. It
revived the jumpiness he had felt in previous years.
You think you cover
eating then ordered tortilla soup to go for Marie. He drove across the street
and pulled around to the back of building C, opened the garage with his remote,
and pulled his truck inside. His motorcycle was parked where he left it,
meaning Marie had not needed to go anywhere.
He trotted up
the stairs, and made his way across the catwalk to the office on the second
floor. Inside was the passage to the unit next door where they lived. He
punched in his security codes, unlocked the deadbolts, and went inside.
Marie was awake,
of course. No one could sneak up on her. But she continued to lie still on the
bed, smiling at him, letting him look her over, curves partly wrapped in
sheets. The light from the setting sun streaming through the high windows lit
her from behind, the warm glow highlighting even the fine hairs on her arm.
raised up on one elbow.
“Hey baby,” she
“My Marie. How
are you feeling?”
“Well, I can’t
say you didn’t warn me. This isn’t nearly as easy as the blood boost
There was no
denying that. Biofilm was a bitch, he knew firsthand. The first biofilm
application was the hardest. It sank into your pores, invaded your cells. But
when it was done, you were largely impervious to bacteriological and viral
Of course, after
the first couple days of biofilm applications, many wondered if the occasional
flu wasn’t so bad after all. Or even flesh-eating bacteria. In fact, the
side-effects were still what was keeping the treatment off the above-ground,
legitimate Modifications market.
“So. Do we have
“We have a job,”
he said, grinning.
“They didn’t try
to pay you in paper, did they?”
He shook his
head. “All bullion, deposited in all the right places. Plus access to Open
Sky’s parallel net.”
She laid back
down, still smiling, and performed a leisurely stretch. “Rich as Australians,
wouldn’t go that far.”
“So what is the
He told her what
he had been shown and what Open Space wanted. He described the scene from the
She was silent.
And suddenly looked newly tired.
Later, after he
had unpacked, he uploaded the video from his optics to his largest screen. He
reviewed it carefully, zooming in and out, replaying certain sections,
optimizing the focus.
The men were
covered in tight black clothing, tight enough to reveal obviously Modified
musculature. What skin was showing was tinted different colors, so that each
man was a unique shade. When he first viewed the video at Open Sky, the Handler
had speculated that this was a crude attempt to further obscure their
He zoomed in on
one particular intruder, larger even than most of his comrades. The skin showing
at his wrists and even his eyes were a fairly bright red.
those sections of the video with renewed attention. There was only one source
for that shade on human skin. “Fightin’ Mad,” they’d called that color when the
side-effect had first manifested itself.
Peruvian Steroid Numero Dos
. A massive failure. After only a handful of
treatments the skin turned a bright, distinctive red, cartoonishly red even.
The blood vessels dilated so thoroughly that the result was an entirely new
classification of rosacea. There were other side-effects the steroid designers
had not anticipated. It was quietly put out of production, with only a very few
people ever using it. Rix had been there when the first couple sailors with the
condition were sent to lock-up. They had first gone to the infirmary, where
they were of course written up for ingesting unapproved substances. After
release they had made their way to a bar near the base, where they were
relentlessly teased by the locals.
remembered the transcript from the hearing. The final insult that had sent the
two newly-crimson sailors into a battle fury was when the older of the two had
been called “the original red-headed stepchild,” by a large drunk at the end of
As it turned out, he
a red-haired stepchild of
his own with numerous health problems. It was the wrong insult for that
particular day, and that particular person.
In one of his
last assignments before the Breakup, Rix had hunted down the local supplier of
and extracted some useful
background on the drug. It was his last official report. Very few higher-ups
would have taken the time to read it, what with the military being forced to
take sides as the United States began splitting into three nations and assorted
So the green
man, the blue man, the yellow man, the coppery guy, they were all diversions.
The others had colored themselves just to keep the red man from standing out.
knew where two of the thirty-four Fightin’ Mad red men on the planet happened
him from their bed as he reviewed his video, forward and backward, zooming for
details. She wanted to get up, walk over to him and sit beside him, but her
legs still felt as if they could betray her at any moment, like some colt
taking its first steps.
The episodes of
nausea were lessening, however. Funny that undergoing treatments to build
superhuman capabilities required so much down time being sick or in pain.
The biofilm was
the worst so far. By comparison, the blood boost packs, after some initial
disorientation, had delivered a feeling of well-being and stamina almost
immediately. Her workouts shortly thereafter had delivered startling results,
with muscular definition she had never truly believed she could achieve.
That had been an
immensely satisfying time, those early days with Connor and the first tentative
steps into the world of Modified physiology. Especially after the hardships and
terrors of The Breakup. Every day she got more powerful, every day she felt
less vulnerable. She thrived on a new, burning desire to get stronger, to learn
more fighting techniques. To never again be forced to sit helplessly while her
family was taken away. To not be ignored or dismissed.
At some level,
though, she remained surprised at herself that she had actually had the courage
to walk into this new life, with its underground (and only occasionally
sanctioned) Modifications, its unnerving yet wonderful alterations to her body.
Making these choices required logical analysis, but also an extraordinary level
of trust and faith in others. But Connor had been right with her through it
all, leading by example, and gently guiding her down paths he had already
traveled. He was always the optimist, always believed in what they were doing.
Made her believe.
She watched as
he finally pushed away from the screen and turned to face her.
“I think I know
what our first move should be. I’m going to have to go out on the road again
tomorrow. But this might be a very quick job.”
really believe that, but it was nice to pretend.
Rix ran beside
the drainage culvert, loping along at an easy pace. The last vestiges of the
pain wave had evaporated, as if it had never happened. He felt great this
morning, but almost frantic to be out moving, working his muscles, breathing
hard. He had a long drive ahead of him, and he needed —
— a physical challenge beyond a routine
session at the gym.
He ran through
the high brown grass along the barest outline of a trail, one used more by
teenagers out to sneak a smoke than regular joggers.
Not that he was
going to be satisfied with simply jogging. As it became clear nobody was around
to see him, he increased his pace to a full-out run, using every fiber of his
He tore down the
trail, lungs burning, blood rushing. The mismatched chain-link fences that
paralleled the trail to his left melded together in a blur.
briefly as the trail curved away from the concrete culvert in a gradual bend
and then angled back toward it. He knew the lay of the land ahead. He had come
to the edge many a time, wondering if he could make the jump. It looked to him
to be about thirty feet across.
Today he would
no longer wonder.
It’s not like I’m going to break any bones,
he told himself, smiling. He picked up speed,
regaining his full stride in four steps. He reached the edge and just leaped,
long jump style, across the culvert. He noticed the slight trickle of water at the
bottom flashing reflected sunlight as he windmilled through the air across the
He landed on the
other side a full two feet beyond the edge. He slowed to a trot and then came
to a stop, turning to look back at the distance he had just overcome.
He laughed. Then
he turned to run some more.
He relished the
feel of his muscles working, took joy in the movement of his body. As he had
adopted each enhancement, each Modification, he had reveled in the awareness of
his new strength, even through the recovery periods. His loose affiliation of
like-minded MIs had always called him “the optimistic one,” but his attitude
came more from the side effect of feeling
all the time, at a near constant peak. When he had tried to explain it
to other people, he likened it to the feeling you had on your best days when
you were young, when you slept in late and then leapt out of bed, full of
energy, wondering which of the endless possibilities you would tackle that day.
It was like that
all the time.
Of course, not
everyone who undertook the Modifications came away with the same perspective.
There were new Modifications available almost on a monthly basis these days,
from a variety of sources, and not all of them meshed very well together. His
light mood momentarily darkened as he reminded himself he was due to visit Jake
again. The Modifications had not worked well for Jake.
For all too many
people, the wealth of enhancements unleashed astonishing capabilities, but very
often also engendered a constant battle for balance in the host body. Sometimes
this conflict just made them crazy. Sometimes, worse.
And thus Rix
found himself with a new occupation that suddenly paid so very well.
He slowed to a
cooling trot as he entered a more populated area, and then shifted down to a
walking pace. The little trail was leading him to the backside of a
lightly-traveled street. It was a jumble of modest homes and light industry. He
walked between an upholstery shop on one side and a locksmith on the other. He
could hear Spanish-language radio from the upholstery shop, and the ripping
scream of air tools from a body shop down the block.
New San Antonio
was a sprawling city, loaded with industrial parks, warehouses, mom-and-pop
businesses and inexpensive rentals. The city had proven to be an ideal place to
hunker down after the war. You could live well cheaply here, and the economy
was good. Even though the city had taken a pounding during the Breakup War, the
rebuilding was well underway, generating jobs and considerable demand for
resources. A steady inflow and outflow of people made it easy to blend in with
no questions asked.
Best of all,
from Rix’s point of view, the new Texas Republic had little time or inclination
for tracking, cataloging and monitoring its citizens. Few enough corners of the
globe remained where that could be said.
The other reason
for the morning’s jog was to prove that very supposition. He walked along a
sidewalk until he came to a small neighborhood park. He sat on a bench under an
enormous pecan tree, bare branches casting dappled shade across the grass.
He pulled out
his E-Thing and turned it on. The screen flickered to life.
One of the
incentives to sign on for the Open Sky job — almost as much as the money
— was the access to the company’s parallel network, a global, independent
internet famous for both its alleged security and its often-denied existence.
first-generation internet was still in place, of course. Not that you’d use it
for anything important unless you were desperate. It wasn’t so much that it no
longer worked, because it did, it was just that it functioned more as a
data-gathering leviathan than a means of communication and commerce for users.
Information on every transaction was logged, compiled, monitored and, more
often than not, sold. Predatory programs swarmed like piranhas in a feeding
frenzy, seeking out information. Spy programs descended from the ether,
voraciously seeking secure data. The Breakup hadn’t helped maters. Chaos, no
matter how brief, opens some doors that are better left closed.
Rix had every
piece of software available that detected tracking programs and toxic spyware,
but even so, the old World Wide Web was a cumbersome beast. He’d finally given
up on it, except in the most limited way. It simply took too much effort to
fight off aggressors and cover his tracks.
frustrating part of the corrupted web was the loss of the full capabilities of
the Everything Device.
It would be nice
to have the E-Thing functioning fully again. He tapped in the commands to
activate the Open Sky secure network.
interface smoothly resolved on his screen. He tentatively tested the command
sequences, the navigation, the sidebar reports on routes and security. He
created a variety of contact protocols and established direct routes with his
sources at Open Sky, and failsafe monitoring of his financial accounts.
said to himself. The information pathways lit up before his eyes, clean and
secure. “Just beautiful.” Through his E-Thing, he synched his optics to the new
He looked up,
blinking, refocusing on his surroundings, and realized that thirty minutes had
passed. He powered down the E-Thing. It was time to get cleaned up and get on
Six hours later
Rix pulled up to a curb alongside a warehouse in Fort Worth. It was still too
early to start his surveillance, but this district had been developing rapidly
since his last visit, and he wanted to scout the area before nightfall.
itself was as nondescript as any, but he knew that the activities inside were
far more outlandish. The warehouse was used as a training facility for
traditional boxing, extreme fighting, and pro wrestling.
And recently, he
knew, it had also served as a home for a new league that had formed, the
Modified Fighting Organization. It was patterned after other mixed martial arts
fighting organizations, and pitted Modified fighters against each other. It had
heavy support from gambling interests. The fighters called themselves MoFos for
Rix, through the
informal network he maintained to keep track of potentially dangerous MIs, had
been tipped off a few months ago that Joey Pegg, one of the thirty-four known
Fightin' Mad red men, had been recruited by MFO.
sense. When your entire covering of skin is a bright shade of red, you aren't
landing a job as VP at the local bank.
Rix had examined
the Open Sky surveillance video enough to know that Joey Pegg wasn't the red
man in the raid. But the Fightin' Mads had become a tight group over the past
couple of years, trading information, testing abilities against each other. He
would know who the other guy was. If Rix could get him to talk, that is.
He started his
truck and pulled away from the curb. He slowly circled the block, and then
turned out on the boulevard that led to the highway.
He needed to
drop in on a friend before he mingled with the MoFos.
He drove south,
a few minutes later taking an exit ramp that led to an older neighborhood, an
established area attempting to make peace with a new community college campus.
Many of the traditional businesses catering to an older clientele had given way
to small independent restaurants, organic food shops, and a collection of bars
and pubs — including the Night Owl Pub, KC's place.
KC. When Rix had
been in the Navy she had held a similar position to his, a counterpart in the
Air Force. They had worked together a couple of times
on cross-service operations, bringing in AWOL Modified
servicemen, and tracking down suppliers of illicit Modifications. And then he
had sought her out when the Breakup War forced all members of the U.S. military
to choose sides. It was during the chaos and trauma of that conflict that they
had truly forged their bond.
She had a new
life now, but was still deep in the Modified subculture. As Rix well knew, it
was hard to stay away once you got a taste of what was possible. She regularly
worked out with other MIs, and was tightly plugged in with the local Modified
subculture. Rix and KC occasionally traded information and compared notes from
New San Antonio and the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex.
These days, she
also seemed to hold down about six different jobs, including owning and running
the Night Owl Pub. Since the Breakup, you took every work opportunity you could
find, of course.
As was usual
among secretive MIs, Rix had no clear idea of the nature of KC's Modifications,
except for one. She had undergone one of the riskiest treatments to surface in
recent years — the "short sleeper" modification. It had long
been known that a very small number of people needed only four or five hours of
sleep a night, and seemed to function normally, if frenetically. The condition
had been tied to a genetic mutation, which had been isolated a few years back.
Recently, a gene-targeting Modification had been developed that could replicate
the characteristic in anyone.
As soon as the
treatment had been announced, KC had contacted Rix seeking his opinion. She was
very excited by it, surprising Rix with her enthusiasm.
"Not enough hours in the day, Rix.
Havta claw some of 'em back from the night," she said. She had been one of
the first to undergo the treatment.
It was a
Modification Rix didn't fully trust. So many new Modification procedures
involved long sleep sessions for weeks afterward, while the body accepted the
new alterations. He also couldn't imagine not sleeping in late on a Sunday
morning, next to Marie, waking up at a leisurely pace.
He pulled into
the parking lot and found a shady space under a tree. The Night Owl Pub had
been described as "ramshackle," but Rix recognized it as more of a
traditional Texas beer hall — corrugated metal, faded wood, beer garden
in back. A comfortable place to hang out.
He walked in and
scanned the room, noticing that most of the women were crowded around the bar.
There was no mistaking KC. Short brown hair. Firm build. She moved with an easy
assurance, deliberate, graceful. Powerful. Even a person who had never met her
would know she was the boss.
She was standing
in the middle of a circle of her young employees, apparently holding a brief
meeting. Good-looking bunch, Rix observed, including one of those animal kids.
This one had the tiger tattoos and feline optical lenses, although not the
facial implants. Modifications for animal appearance had gained popularity
among twenty-somethings in the past year, but not everyone could muster up the
guts to take the final plunge for the reconstructive surgery. Once you had your
face rebuilt to adopt features of your favorite animal, there was no going
toward the bar, finally catching KC's eye. She smiled briefly and motioned him
toward the back.
The Pub had
roll-up garage doors leading to the beer garden. He walked through the doors
and across the shallow pea gravel to a table under a large oak with low-hanging
branches. He sat down and pulled out one of his silver dollars, turning it over
between his thumb and fingers. He brushed some leaves off the table. The wooden
tabletop surface was knobby from all the names carved into it over the years.
minutes KC walked outside and joined him.
look good, flashing all that silver. I think marriage agrees with you."
ever says yes, I'll let you know. And you look pretty good too, for someone who
doesn't sleep anymore."
"I sleep from midnight to four, then get up and fulfill orders for my
online business. You know, the workout gear."
need the extra hours for the men in my life." She gave him a smile that
was pure predator.
they need extra sleep, not less."
no idea." She motioned for one of her waitresses to come over.
He ordered a hot
sandwich and a pale ale from one of the Austin breweries. KC got up from the
other side of the table, walked around and sat next to him.