Read Dead Man Running Online

Authors: Jack Heath

Dead Man Running

BOOK: Dead Man Running
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We need you to solve a murder, Six. Your own.

Agent Six of Hearts, teenage super-spy, has been dead for four years. When he's suddenly awakened by a machine that shouldn't exist, he discovers that the city he spent his life protecting has become a terrifying place.

Secret police are everywhere. Thousands of innocent people have been buried alive. And a serial killer is executing Six's friends, one by one.

Six has to search this brutal new world for whoever killed him, before it happens again. But the city if full of people who want him gone . . . and he's not the only one who won't stay dead.

For my wife, Venetia, who inspires me to be the best person that I can be, and whom I love with all my heart.

PROLOGUE

The gun was cold and hard against the back of his skull.

‘I'm very sorry,' the voice said. ‘But I have a question for you.'

Pic Guerye fought the urge to scream for help, to try to turn around, to grab for the gun. Instead, he slowly raised his palms.

Ten seconds ago, he'd been bored out of his mind, clicking on spreadsheets to transfer from his laptop to his phone. Now there was a gunman in his study. That's how quick your life can change, he thought.

‘Take whatever you want,' he said, sounding braver than he felt.

‘All I want is an answer.' The voice was male, youngish. He sounded tired. Resigned.

Think, Pic told himself. Who is this? What does he want? What does he think I know?

‘Where is Agent Six of Hearts?' the voice asked.

Dread hardened in Pic's stomach. I'm doomed, he realised.

Several years ago, he'd discovered that his bosses were using carcinogenic chemicals in the packaging for their products, risking the lives of their factory workers and their customers. Knowing the company would have him killed if he protested, Pic had gone to the Deck – an underground network of vigilantes who enforced a strict moral code.

He'd begged one of their agents for help. That was how he'd become an informant for Six of Hearts.

Now it seemed that this good deed had finally come back to haunt him. The sinking feeling he'd had when he realised his company was responsible for thousands of deaths – that was the same feeling he had now.

‘Look. I have money,' he said. ‘Take it. Just don't hurt me.'

‘Hurt you?' The gunman sounded surprised. ‘I would never hurt you.'

The vice around Pic's chest eased a little.

‘I'm going to kill you,' the gunman said. ‘But it will be painless.'

Pic could smell his own sweat. ‘You don't have to do that,' he said.

‘You've earned it. Answer my question.'

He didn't know who this man was, or why he was here, or why he was looking for Six. All Pic could do was tell the truth.

‘Six of Hearts is dead,' he said.

‘
Was
dead. They brought him back. Where is he?'

I'm dealing with a crazy person, Pic realised. Dead people can't be ‘brought back'.

‘I don't know what you're talking about. I'm sorry.'

The gunman sighed. ‘So am I,' he said.

Pic felt the gun barrel shift against his scalp. It was a very slight movement – the gunman wasn't putting it away. He was only adjusting his aim.

Pic hurled himself sideways out of the chair, just in time. A split second later he heard the
crack
of a silenced pistol as the bullet splintered his computer monitor. He hit the floor. The combat training Six had given him came back to him in a rush. He wouldn't be able to dodge a second shot down here, but there was no time to get up. He had to attack.

He kicked at the gunman's leg, aiming for the long nerve that runs up the shin. The gunman skipped aside, amazingly quickly – but in doing so, he nudged a tall lamp behind him. As he took aim again, the lamp swooned, sending shadows scurrying up the walls. It crashed to the floor and the globe splintered.

The gunman whirled around in the sudden darkness, searching for the source of the noise. Pic used the distraction to scramble to his feet, sprint out the study door and slam it shut behind him.

Every instinct screamed at him to keep running. But if he did, the gunman would come out of the study and shoot him in the back as he fled down the corridor. Agent Six's voice, sharp and stern, whipped through his head:
Putting a barrier between yourself and your attacker is better than just increasing the distance. A wall is best, but a locked door will do. If a door won't lock, you can usually jam it by breaking the handle, like so.

Pic jumped, extended his foot, and smashed it down onto the handle with all his weight, jolting it slightly out of its socket.

He didn't wait to see if the manoeuvre had worked. He sprinted down the corridor, frantically sorting through his options.

Option one. Go out the front door, start the car, and hope I can lose him before I get stuck in traffic. But he might have disabled the car before he broke in. Six said assassins often do that.

Option two. Go to the phone, call the Deck, and find somewhere to hide in the house. They might arrive before the gunman finds me. Then again, they might not.

Three, get my gun.

He could hear the handle rattling behind the study door at the other end of the corridor. Soon the gunman would start shooting the hinges. I'm running out of time to decide, Pic thought.

Wham!
He whirled around to see the door explode out of its frame in two pieces. The gunman had somehow kicked it in half.

No more time for options one or two. Pic dashed towards the living room, where his Hawk nine-millimetre pistol was duct-taped to the back of the TV. As he ran, he could hear the gunman gaining on him, impossibly fast.

He pulled the TV off the wall, smashing the screen against the carpet. He tore the gun off the back, flicked the safety catch, raised it, took aim –

– and saw, for the first time, the gunman's face.

Pic's eyes widened in confusion. ‘
You?
'

The gunman pulled the trigger.

NEW WORLD

ZAP!

Agent Six of Hearts fell to the floor of the transmission chamber, hissing in pain. Every nerve screamed as the atoms in his body rebound to one another. The air smelled like hot tar. His head was pounding and his heart felt like there was a bone lodged through it. But he'd done it. He'd travelled through time.

As the pain faded, he looked at the clock. His stomach lurched. What the hell? He'd overshot the mark. He'd arrived
four years
later than he'd intended. Plus – he did some quick arithmetic – five weeks and one day.

He rewound his memories, trying to work out where he'd gone wrong. He'd used the machine to fax himself back two years. He'd infiltrated a doomsday cult and stolen their nuclear warhead, which he could still feel weighing down his backpack. Then he'd gone back to the machine and faxed himself to the present.

He hadn't changed history, met himself, or created any other paradoxes. He'd set the timer so carefully. What had gone wrong?

Just before faxing himself to the past, he'd planted several lumps of Semtex here. They were supposed to explode and destroy the machine forever, so ChaoSonic couldn't use it any more. How was it still here, four years in the future?

‘Six.'

Agent Six whirled around. The chamber door was open and an old man was standing in the gap.

‘Who are you?' Six demanded.

Sadness swept across the man's crinkled face, and suddenly Six recognised him.

‘King? Is that you?'

‘I know you're confused,' King said. ‘I can explain everything. Just stay calm, okay?'

King seemed to have aged much more than four years. The stubble on his scalp had gone from grey to white, and his voice was quietly hoarse. His shoulders were hunched and his arms hung loosely by his sides.

As an infant, Six had escaped from the glass womb that ChaoSonic had grown him in. He'd dragged himself out of the laboratory as it burned down around him, and crawled all the way to King's doorstep. King had taught him to walk, talk, fight. They'd built the Deck together. In all of his sixteen years, Six had never seen his adoptive father look this frail.

‘There's no time,' Six said. He hefted his backpack. ‘There's an armed nuclear warhead in here that could vaporise fifty city blocks.'

‘No it couldn't,' King said. ‘There's no payload in it.'

‘You don't know that.'

‘Yes I do. When we rebuilt the machine, we didn't put any plutonium in the element tanks. It recreated you just fine, because you're just made of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and so forth. But without plutonium, it could only replicate the shell of the warhead. That bomb will not explode. Do you trust me?'

‘Always,' Six said.

‘Then calm down, and listen to me. The bomb in your backpack is a dud. That's the simple part.'

The simple part, Six thought. So what's the complex part? He said, ‘You rebuilt the machine?'

‘Not the transmitter, nor the receiver, nor the scanner,' King said. ‘Those were dust, and we didn't need them anyway. We just reconstructed the replicator and reloaded all the data from its backup servers. The machine can't send or receive, but it can recreate anything that was already stored on its database.'

‘Like me?'

‘Like you.'

For the first time, Six looked out through the glass panels embedded in the chamber wall. Where there had once been rows and rows of theatre seats and a gigantic transmission tower, now there was only a small, empty room with walls of whitewashed concrete. The machine had been rebuilt somewhere else.

‘Why?' Six asked. Unease crawled across his scalp. ‘Didn't I come out four years ago?'

‘You did.' King's words were slow, careful. ‘Six years ago there was a ChaoSonic air raid, designed to destroy the warhead before it could go off. You led about two hundred people to the time machine and showed them how to use it to escape. That saved their lives.'

Six was relieved that his plan had worked, but it was bizarre to hear King talk about it like ancient history. That only just happened, Six thought. Seconds ago. ‘When they reappeared four years ago, apparently you told them you had a helicopter to catch and ran off. A short time later, our tectonic sensors detected a seismic event fifty kilometres beyond the Seawall, consistent with a nuclear blast at the bottom of the ocean.'

A chill flashed down Six's spine. ‘I don't remember any of this,' he said.

‘No. You're just a copy of a previous version of Agent Six. Like an outdated system backup. You don't remember anything that the original Six did after returning from the past, because it never happened to you.'

The words
just a copy
, and the way King had said them, caught in Six's brain like a thorn in a cardigan. ‘So what happened to the other me?'

‘Some civilians saw you climb up the ocean side of the Seawall a few hours after the explosion. You asked them for money. Later, a waitress asked you to leave a restaurant because you were wet and weren't buying anything.'

A restaurant? Six wondered. When have I
ever
gone to a restaurant? ‘And then what?'

‘And then you disappeared. We can't find a single person who's seen you or heard from you since then. And it's been four years.' King walked into the chamber. His eyes met Six's. ‘Can you think of anything that would stop you from contacting me, Kyntak, Ace and everybody else for four years?'

There was only one thing. ‘If I'm dead,' Six whispered.

‘But we never found a body, either. Which means?'

‘That someone . . . disposed of it.' Six pictured his flesh as ashes sinking in the fog, as slices in ChaoSonic jars, as a husk half eaten by sharks on the ocean floor.

‘We need you to solve a murder, Six,' King said. ‘Your own.'

It wasn't until they got outside that Six regained his bearings. He and King had emerged from a fifty-floor apartment building in which the Deck rented several rooms – Six had often used them to shelter informants who were on the run from ChaoSonic and couldn't go home. The fact that ChaoSonic technically owned the whole complex was a comfort rather than a concern. The company didn't watch the buildings that belonged to them nearly as closely as the few remaining ones that didn't.

But all this was in my time, Six realised. A lot can change in four years. Maybe they own everything now.

‘This way,' King said.

Six followed him to a parked scooter. King produced a remote and pressed the button. The scooter beeped as the high-voltage current crackling through its electrified shell was switched off. Six could see a pair of footprints burnt into the concrete beside it. Someone had tried to steal it, been shocked, and decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

King tossed Six a helmet. ‘Get on.'

Six did. ‘What happened there?' he asked, pointing to the mountain of half-crushed cars that blocked a nearby alleyway.

King looked. ‘Oh, that. They're everywhere. There was a really bad gridlock two years ago – no movement for hours, people abandoning their cars, more and more traffic pouring in – so ChaoSonic sent bulldozers to clear the streets and pack the vehicles into rarely used alleys.'

The citizens of Six's time wouldn't have tolerated that. ‘How did people react?'

‘They bought new cars.'

‘From the same people who crushed their old ones?' Six asked disbelievingly.

‘No-one else manufactures them. Things haven't changed in that regard.'

Six put his arms around King's waist, King revved the engine, and they pulled out into the traffic. As they passed the pile of cars, Six saw silhouettes behind some of the cracked windscreens above.

‘There are people in there!' he said.

‘Yes. Some of the wealthier drivers didn't want to leave their expensive cars, and then they were trapped when the bulldozers came through. ChaoSonic removed the bodies from the lowest layers of vehicles, but as for the ones that are too high up for pedestrians to smell . . .' He shrugged. ‘I'd like the Deck to do something, but there are living people who need us more.'

Yesterday, Six would have agreed with that reasoning. But today he felt more strongly for those rotting corpses. Today, he was among the dead.

The toxic fog that filled the streets was thicker than he remembered. Most of the pedestrians wore gas masks. A homeless woman sitting on the pavement was holding out an empty coffee cup with one hand and a handkerchief over her mouth with the other.

King didn't venture outside often enough to suffer any long-term damage from the air, and Six's lungs had been designed to consume carbon dioxide as well as oxygen, so he had only ever used a mask to blend in. But he was as susceptible to the effects of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and anthropogenic aerosols as anybody else, and the concentration of these chemicals had probably increased over the past four years. Maybe he wasn't safe any more.

‘Where are we going?' he asked King.

‘Back to the Deck,' King said. ‘Before you start investigating, we need to check that the transmission didn't leave any glitches in your body. Like Sammy said might happen.'

The Deck's science and technology team, the Diamonds, were led by a brilliant physicist whose official title was the King of Diamonds, but who preferred to be called Sammy. He was fond of saying how appropriate his position was, since physics was the king of all sciences. Medicine, he said, was just applied biology. Biology was just applied chemistry. And chemistry was just applied physics.

Six had once pointed out that physics was just applied mathematics. Sammy had replied, ‘What the hell would the Deck do with a mathematician?'

Before Six had left on his last mission, Sammy had theorised that the time machine might be programmed to create errors in its subjects. These errors would stop it from causing a paradox, or something – Six didn't really understand. But the thought of a misaligned vein or an absent synapse somewhere in his body made him nervous.

‘This isn't the way to the Deck,' he said.

‘It is now,' King replied.

It all came back to Six in a flash. Chemal Allich, the woman who had designed the time machine. Her invincible team of soldiers, sent from the future on a deadly mission. Their bomb, and the explosion that had reduced the Deck to a hill of blackened rubble.

So it's been rebuilt, he thought. But not in the same place.

The scooter hummed past a building covered with enormous screens, advertising various ChaoSonic products. One pictured a smooth, plastic monolith, with a slogan:
Upgrade to the ChaoPhone 38G!
Six could remember the release of the 36G just before he'd embarked on his time-travel mission. The only difference he could see between the two models was that the 38G was green. More than half of all ChaoSonic products were green. Studies showed it was the colour that customers missed the most.

Another screen was playing a medical drama, for the benefit of passers-by and people stuck in traffic. Advertising and entertainment had long ago become the same thing – the patient's mother was wearing designer ChaoSonic jeans and the doctor was examining a scan on a ChaoSonic e-reader. Six caught a few lines of dialogue as they boomed out of the giant speakers:

‘It's possible that your son's coma might not be what it seems,' the doctor said. ‘He might be in what's called a minimally conscious state.'

‘Does that mean he's more likely to wake up?' the woman asked, tugging ChaoSonic-brand tissues from a box and dabbing at her tears.

And then the scooter zoomed around a corner and the screens were gone.

‘Why did it take four years to rebuild the machine?' Six asked.

‘It didn't. It only took fourteen months. But it wasn't until you'd been missing for a year that we gave up on finding you alive. And it was almost two years after that when Kyntak figured out that you could probably be recreated.'

That makes sense, Six thought. Kyntak isn't new to the idea of manufacturing a human being. He was made in a jar, like me.

Six tried to picture his friends deciding that he was dead. Had they all been in the same room, or had it been a series of one-on-one discussions? Who had been the first to give up on him? Who had been the last? It seemed strange that only King had come to greet him after his recreation.

Dreading the answer, Six asked, ‘How is Kyntak? And Ace? Are they okay?'

King said nothing for a long moment. Then he said, ‘They're alive.'

‘But not okay?'

‘Look around you. Look at how we've been living.' King's voice was flat, dead. ‘You can't imagine what it was like.'

‘What what was like?'

King gunned the motor, drowning out any chance of more conversation.

A group of run-down warehouses encrusted the horizon up ahead – painted-over windows, rusted doors, torn-up chain-link fences. Six wondered which of these buildings was the new Deck. The Deck had been having money troubles when he left. Perhaps this was all they could afford now.

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