Case in Point
A cyberpunk thriller
Frank Kincaid was not a happy man. He wasn’t even Frank Kincaid. At least, not the original.
It started like this: you want something done right, do it yourself. Don’t have the time? Copy yourself into a new body and send it instead. Expensive, certainly, but if the job was important enough, the payoff sufficiently high, you’d be crazy to send anyone else.
But what if the job was unpleasant? What if it was something you didn’t want to do? Well, that was easy too — you adjust the copy, tweak it a little so it won’t mind getting its hands dirty or, if it does, it’ll be stubborn enough to do it anyway. And then, assuming you’re a decent human being, you meet up afterwards, buy yourself a few beers, pat yourself on the back and reintegrate.
Assuming. Of course, if you’re not a decent human being, you take the money and run. Saves having to fill your head with all those unsettling memories. And then your copy would find itself stranded somewhere — say, a seedy bar in the low-rent part of a half-finished habitat dome on Mars — with no money, the wrong body, a head full of edited memories and personality algorithms, and exactly one certainty to cling to: that the real Them, whoever They were, whatever Their actual name might be, was an absolute, first class, no-holds-barred, unrelenting bastard.
As mental life rafts went, that one was pretty tiny, but Kincaid embraced it with a tenacity that must have cost his former self a fortune in psychosurgery bills to acquire. He glared at the barman defiantly and ordered a whisky. The man was a good foot and a half taller than he was, but then, so was most of the room.
There are places on Mars where people don’t ask questions when a paying customer places an order. Kincaid had hoped this particular dive, with its grimy windows and antique signage, its grimy floors and antique patrons, might be one of them. He was aware of being stared at and wondered if he’d misjudged the situation.
There was an air of baked-in malice about the place, the sort of crustiness acquired when petty larceny was allowed to ripen, mature into full-blown lawlessness and then fester, like a wheel of gorgonzola left too long in the sun. He felt like a racehorse that had wandered into a dog food factory and asked if there was anything to eat.
The barman peered down at him and laughed. “Nice try, kid. Orange juice or lemonade?”
Kid. Like Kincaid’s current body, that one was never going to get old.
He sighed and brought up his bank account, proffering a shiny, virtual ¥2,000 note. As bribes went, it wasn’t much, but he was low on funds. “How about a coffee, and maybe you could Irish it up for me? And throw in a packet of peanuts, would you? I’m starving.”
The barman shook his head in disgust but took the money anyway. He poured something oily into a cup, added a splash of what could be described as authentic Highland whisky, provided you weren’t fussy about which planet the highland in question was situated upon, and placed it on the counter alongside a pack of synthetic protein-grow peanuts.
Kincaid took his supplies and retreated to a quiet table in the corner, dodging beer-carrying servitor drones and the threevee wrestling match suplexing its way across the middle of the room.
“For the love of God, kid, read the sign. No smoking.”
Kincaid glanced guiltily at the cigar poised halfway to his mouth and returned it, unlit, to his top pocket.
That was another thing. Would it have been too much to ask to give himself a more age-appropriate set of habits to go with the new body? Say, a keen interest in football, sucking his thumb, and fizzy drinks from around the solar system. As opposed to booze, tobacco and womanising — the latter being particularly problematic. There was an old joke that went, “I wouldn’t touch any woman who’d be interested in the likes of me”. Ha. Welcome to Self Loathing, population: one.
He glowered into his coffee. A couple of the locals were nudging each other, looking his way and laughing. He tried to ignore them.
“Jen,” he subvocalised, “any interesting contracts in the area?”
Genevieve burst into glorious life in the corner of his retinal HUD and pursed ruby lips. “Some old lady’s offering fifty thou’ for the safe return of her missing cat?”
“Hysterical laughter. For the last time, I don’t find pets. Next?”
Above the bar, the lighting strips flickered. The pair of muscle-bound wrestlers vanished into thin air, and then the whole street blacked out. The room was plunged into the eerie half-light of a Martian evening.
There was a collective groan and a smattering of comments about the power company and Governor Chou, and what they could do to each other. Kincaid barely even noticed.
Third time this week.
“Hang on,” he subbed, “fifty grand? For a cat? Mark that one down as a definite ‘maybe’.”
“Sure thing, hun.” A pen appeared in Genevieve’s hand to let him know she’d done it. “Halcyon Interplanetary Industries have a bounty of one hundred and fifty thousand yuan on a Tricia Altmann, wanted for embezzlement. Civil case, so bring her in alive. I’m flashing up her corporate ID, address, known contacts and immediate family.”
A hundred and fifty? I owe more than that in rent.
He scanned the data sourly. “Aren’t they generosity incarnate. What did she do, make off with the petty cash?” He sniffed his drink, taking in the smoky notes of charcoal, burnt toast and rocket fuel. He took a cautious sip. Ugh. “How about something with a little punch? I’m not getting off this rock on cats and suits.”
That earned him a stern look from eyes the colour of molten bronze. “Suits and cats pay the bills, Frank. ‘Punch’ gets you killed.”
The lights came back on, and Kincaid flinched as an enormous fist flew through the air not far from his head. The locals cheered as the wrestler took his opponent to the canvas in a cloud of perspiration, big hair and testosterone.
“What are you, my mum?” he subbed, trying his best not to look fazed. “Come on, something in seven figures, at least. Make it worth my while.”
She raised an eyebrow but let it pass. “You know I hate the ‘armed and dangerous’ file.”
“We’re not having this discussion again. I’m going back to Earth. I’m going to find the real me. I’m going to punch him for a while, and then I’m going to bodynap the bugger.” He paused. “Okay, maybe reverse the order on that one and switch bodies first. The point is, I’m getting my body back, and my life, and the real me can have this one — see how he likes it. That’s going to take money. Lots of money. And that means spraying bullets — no two ways about it.”
He could hear gunfire, away in the distance, the sharp report of a pistol followed by the rapid boom-boom-boom of high-calibre automatic weaponry. He wondered vaguely if it was the Russian mafia or the triads this time. Between them, the two sets of post-communist criminal superpowers owned everything east of Turkey and north of India, at least half of Mars, and a fair chunk of the rest of the solar system besides.
Genevieve gave him a Look. “It’s only because I care.”
“You’re programmed to care. Don’t make it sound noble.”
He regretted it instantly, but the damage was done. Synthetic hurt feelings washed over technicolour features. Sculpted brows drew together in fury.
Now look what you’ve gone and done.
One of the locals chose that moment to saunter over, employing the kind of deliberate swagger that gave you time to relieve yourself before the show began. He was a retired merc by the looks of him, all muscle aug and attitude, with a cybernetic arm and skin so leathery you couldn’t tell where it ended and his clothing began.
Kincaid considered his drink ruefully. This is turning into a lot of trouble for one polluted coffee. He wished he’d picked a different bar. He wished he’d got changed first.
In his line of work, there were advantages to being stuck inside the body of a ten-year-old. The marks rarely noticed him coming, for one thing, and they certainly never saw him as a threat. He couldn’t help feeling that right now the school uniform was failing to provide its usual camouflage.
The locals had lost interest in the threevee and were watching on with an air of expectation, like a pride of lions scenting blood. The important thing, Kincaid reminded himself as the mercenary loomed over him, was never to show fear. He took a knife from his satchel and handed it to the merc.
“Here, hold this.”
The man peered at it. The blade was nine inches long and serrated in that special way that wouldn’t necessarily help when it came to stabbing someone, but would significantly increase the chance of spontaneous heart failure beforehand. It looked very natural, in that metal grip.
Kincaid shook his head, resisting the urge to wet himself. “No, like this.” He uttered a silent prayer and casually adjusted the mechanical hand, until the knife was at the right angle.
Don’t even blink now.
He sat back in his chair and threw a peanut. The nut ricocheted off the blade, struck the merc in the forehead, bounced back and landed plumb in Kincaid’s mouth.
“Took me ages to learn that trick,” he said, chewing.
If there was one thing you learned, living among hearty frontier folk twice your size, it was how to stare the lion squarely in the eye.
“Amazing how bored you get,” he added casually, “in between killing people.” He retrieved the knife from the merc’s unresisting grasp and began to clean under his fingernails. “Summing I can help you with, was there?”
There was a long pause while the other man considered this. Kincaid occupied it by counting the available exits and calculating the odds of his successfully reaching any of them in one still-recognisable piece. Not tremendous, in his professional opinion.
The mercenary grinned. Somewhere in the mix of black and gold teeth was a trace of humour. “Can I have a peanut?”
Kincaid tossed him the bag and the man sauntered cheerfully back to the bar. There was a ripple of laughter from the room.
He gulped down the coffee and waited for his heart to settle into something like its usual rhythm. “Listen, Jen–”
“Fine,” she snapped. “You want seven figures? How about eight. The Raminov brothers, Lev and Vadim, wanted for extortion, armed robbery and five counts of murder. Eleven mil’ for Vadim, seven for Lev, dead or alive. There’s your big score — might even cover the hospital fees. You can catch them now if you hurry, they’re all over the news, shooting up a housing fab three blocks away. Two badges dead at the scene, so — your lucky day — the reward should be going up any time now.”
“I–” The apology got no further than the back of his throat, or its mental equivalent, where it twisted into a grunt of annoyance. “Huh. Right then. Was that so hard? Flash me the address and let’s get going.”
She sulked all the way there. Well, he was a bastard, right? Case in point: young Frank, two years out of New Scotland Yard Crime Academy, working traffic in south London. That’s London, Earth. As in, real air, real whisky, real coffee. There he was, admiring the congestion, when a black roadster came screaming out of a side street, hotly pursued by a 2129 Ford Classique. They both swerved to avoid the gridlock, the Classique mistimed it, mounted the kerb and ran over a little boy.
Messy. Kincaid still remembered the shock of staring down into that ruined face as he dialled the emergency services, hoping against hope the boy’s parents were among the privileged few who could afford personality backup, because it didn’t take a medical degree to see nothing was going to be salvaged from what was left of that poor skull. The driver was beside Kincaid, sobbing that he was a copper in pursuit of a suspect, he hadn’t seen the lad, oh Christ, he came out of nowhere.
No sympathy. The man’s career was over, of course, and he didn’t try to fight it, but the higher-ups wanted to paint it as a freak accident. No Reckless Endangerment, just a blameless copper in the wrong place at the wrong time, resigning out of guilt and nothing more.
Kincaid wouldn’t have it. That much speed in a built-up area, someone was going to get killed, and he testified accordingly. Two more ruined lives to add to those of the family — the boy wasn’t backed up, so it was jail for the officer, and Kincaid was drummed out of the force on a trumped-up disciplinary a few months later. Or maybe it wasn’t so trumped up. He’d had a few issues since the accident, hadn’t exactly been cooperative with the mandatory trauma counselling. So some punches were thrown — big deal.
The fact was, he’d had it easy, threw it all away on a point of principle. And for what? To hammer another nail into the coffin of a man already riddled with guilt? Arsehole.
They drew up outside the fab, and Kincaid pulled himself back to the present. There was no sign of the Russians. He checked the action on his Glock needlegun, making sure the concealed armslide was unobstructed, and swung himself out of the beat-up VW that currently served his transportation needs. It was nearly as old as he was, the wheels so cambered as to be downright bandy, but he was fond of the little car. It was one of the few things he owned that wasn’t absolutely essential.
A trio of camerabots jockeyed for position outside the fab. Sunlight filtered through the dust-caked panes of the geodesic dome above, bathing the streets in a wash of crimson, like old illustrations of the Martian surface from the days when people thought the Red Planet was red. Kincaid pushed past the hovering bots, drawing angry electronic squawks as their live feeds filled with the back of his skull.
A shot rang out from inside the building as he reached the entrance, followed by a burst of automatic fire. Kincaid flattened himself against the wall. The distant wailing of sirens gave him about a two minute lead on the police — he couldn’t claim a bounty for men who were already in custody. He unclasped his satchel, pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The foyer was dimly lit and had the feel of a run-down hotel that had been converted, shoddily, into housing after the colonial bubble burst. Grubby carpet that might once have been beige ran beneath cracked plaster walls, past a cheap microse reception desk made up to look like wood. The desk was unattended, and there was no one about.
Kincaid decided against using the lift, given the state of the building, and was halfway up the first flight of stairs when more automatic fire rang out, answered by a couple of single shots. Next floor, somewhere off to the right. The bloody forms of two private police were waiting for him on the landing. No pulse.
He pushed through the door on the right and followed the gunfire down a dim corridor. Half the lighting strips were out and one in every two of the doorways had been crudely sealed up as part of the conversion, leaving the brickwork exposed. No one had even bothered to paint over.
He peered round the corner and then ducked back, hastily. Two men were taking cover beside a kicked-in door, automatic shotguns in hand. They had the kind of faces born of a lifetime of violence — broken noses, cauliflower ears, more scar tissue than unmarred flesh. Lev and Vadim. Bullet holes pierced the plaster behind them.
The shotguns thundered once, twice, three times. Kincaid risked a glance just as the pair piled through the doorway, firing as they went. He followed stealthily, pausing outside to take stock.
The Russians were advancing down a short hallway, weapons trained on the pulverised remains of the far door. The wreckage of a hand basin was visible through the splinters, along with a cramped bathtub and, fallen across it and bleeding heavily, a middle-aged woman. The handgun slipped from her grasp as Genevieve flashed up a photo ID.
Tricia Altmann, formerly of Halcyon Interplanetary Industries.
Kincaid considered the Glock tucked safely beneath the sleeve of his school uniform, but the odds of putting both men down cleanly without either one twitching off a shot into Altmann’s face weren’t promising. No time to think. The Russians were huge. Shit.
“Mummy!” He broke cover and ran towards them, satchel bouncing around at his side. “Don’t hurt my mummy!”
The brothers turned in confusion. One of them reached out a hand and grabbed him by the front of his blazer, hauling him into the air. Pitiless eyes stared into his.
“Your mummy’s gonna die, son. You can watch if you like.”
Kincaid reached into his top pocket. “Cigar?” he offered civilly, by way of a distraction, as his other hand found what it was looking for in the satchel and brought it out. “I’d run if I were you.”
He brought his legs up against the Russian’s chest and kicked hard as the grenade hit the ground, clattering away across the tiles. He landed awkwardly, rolled into the tub on top of Altmann and covered her eyes as the flashbang detonated.
The Glock slid smoothly into his hand. He was firing blind into the room before the flare died away, clusters of high-velocity barbs fanning out to pepper the walls and ceiling.
Huh. The Raminovs weren’t as stupid as they looked. There was no sign of them, which meant they’d either fled down the hallway or ducked into one of the side rooms. His ears were ringing too loudly to be much help on that front, but Genevieve reported the sound of running footsteps in the corridor outside.
“You okay?” He realised the futility of the question when his own words were drowned out by the ringing, so he settled for checking Altmann over by hand.
Her shoulder was a mess and blood was seeping from a wound in her side, but she was strong enough to push him away when he tried to lift the blouse.
“Listen–” He shook his head and switched to virtual audio courtesy of Genevieve. “Listen, you need medical attention. Here–” He fumbled in the satchel and brought out a medkit. He started to pantomime patching her wounds, but it seemed she’d had the same idea about virtual audio.
“Who the hell are you?” she subbed.
“Kincaid. Hi. How are you? Now help me get that blouse off before you bleed to death.”
It wasn’t pretty. Buckshot might not be the most sophisticated of technologies, but the shotguns were state of the art, military-grade kit — powerful, lethal, highly illegal but still relatively safe to use within the confines of a hab dome. Not as safe as his needle rounds, mind, but not everyone could be the upstanding citizen he was.
Kincaid tutted and sprayed on idiot mix, a combination antiseptic, anaesthetic and fast-acting clotting agent that was usually enough to get the drunk and accident prone to hospital before they bled out. The pockmarked flesh scabbed over and he added a layer of synthskin for good measure. It was a God-awful lumpy mess, but then it would all have to be redone anyway when the shot was removed.
She glanced at him questioningly and he shrugged.
“You’ll live. Probably. Here–” He offered his hand and half helped, half dragged her out of the tub. “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the sound of a dozen pairs of flat feet piling out of a rapid response unit. Fancy sticking around and explaining all this? Didn’t think so. Rear exit?”
He gave her his shoulder to lean on, and she led him to a stair. It was steep and narrow and looked challenging for someone in Altmann’s condition. It would have been, back home — but here, in a little over one-third gee, she weighed about as much as a border collie would on Earth, and the only tricky part was making sure she didn’t lose her footing.
They came out in the car park, and Altmann unlocked an expensive-looking corporate dronemobile. There’d be some explaining to do when the police traced Kincaid’s VW out front, but he’d have to figure that out later.
They got in, and the car guided itself out of the lot and into the last of the daylight. The surrounding buildings went up sixty feet or so, this close to the edge of the dome. To the west, tenements gave way to the exclusive one- or two-story houses of the suburban rim. Away to the east, the roofline rose in a gentle curve towards the taller, more delicate structures of the city centre. You could build high and cheap, away from the rigours of wind and weather and high gee, but only to a defined, hemispherical limit.
Office blocks, empty lots and abandoned construction projects mingled gracelessly around them. This might have been an okay part of town, once, but the money was long gone and the lustre with it. The broken windows and graffiti didn’t help. Neither did the sleeping bags and the figures begging for money by the side of the road.
“So what’s your story?” he said.
Altmann aimed a tired smile his way. “You first, ‘son’.”
She eased the seat back and made herself comfortable. There was plenty of room — if the car had physical controls, which the higher-end models sometimes did, they were tucked discreetly beneath the dashboard and out of the way.
Altmann looked better for being off her feet. Her hair was more dust than brunette, her face a patchwork of worry lines, pale with shock, but there was enough of a hint she might be bookishly handsome underneath it all for Kincaid to want to like her.
He grimaced. “You don’t want to hear all that.”
She laughed and clutched her side. “Ow. Sure, no one ever wants to hear that story, I bet.”
“Hardly anyone at all,” he agreed wryly. “Okay, fair point. My name may or may not be Frank Kincaid, and I’m not me. I’m a copy. If I can trust my own memories, which honestly I don’t, I was created to collect on a particularly tricky bounty here in New Beijing. Of the ‘wanted, dead or deader’ variety.”
He had no idea why he was telling her. It was probably all the adrenaline, but then again, he did know a couple of guys who wanted her dead. It was the kind of thing that forged a bond.
Altmann was too exhausted to react much, but she still took it well, considering. “Bounty hunter, huh? That mean we’re about to take a detour to Halcyon corporate HQ?”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” he said, although in truth it really hadn’t. Must be going soft. “But I’m happy to cruise around while we talk things through. I was after the Russians.”
Altmann probed the wound in her side and winced. “Isn’t it against some sort of code to take out the competition?”
“Those two, bounty hunters? Do me a favour.”
The car turned onto a broad avenue. Little grew in the hab domes that wasn’t at least nominally edible, but where trees might have stood in friendlier biomes, here the road was lined with curious, jagged-looking structures. They resembled a cross between a pagoda and something you might find in an alchemist’s laboratory, and they were everywhere in New Beijing — five-story, pentagonal towers with upturned eaves, each ending in a long, dagger-like spike. Aluminium frames replaced the wooden walls of a traditional pagoda, supporting densely packed reticulate pipework made of something fancy that let carbon dioxide filter through a bioluminescent soup.
The sun was beginning to set, casting honeycomb shadows across the asphalt. Through the clearer, dust-free panes of the lower dome, and in defiance of all common sense, the sun was blue. Kincaid didn’t claim to understand the science, but it had something to do with the atmosphere, apparently.
He snorted. “The pittance on your head wasn’t enough to get my attention, never mind the Raminov brothers.”
“Pittance?” She tried for a smile that wasn’t quite there. “I’m insulted. I thought Halcyon would at least stretch to a trifle. So if they’re not bounty hunters, who are they?”
“Thugs,” he said. “Crooks. Guns-for-hire. Any idea why they’d want to spray paint your home in buckshot grey?”
“Not if they weren’t after the reward. That wasn’t my home, by the way. That was temporary. Lying low…” Her voice trailed off, and she looked as if she might be sick. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You were telling me about this guy you’re not? If I’ve got it right, you’re some sort of edited copy, sent to kill a big shot here in town. Anyone I know?”
There was a room. Plain concrete walls with plush furnishings. Paintings in the background, the valuable kind. A thickset Chinese man with a young face and old eyes.
“Wu Lao Hui.” He smirked. No hiding her reaction to that little name drop.
“Wait, you killed–”
“The Dragon Head of the New Beijing Triad. Yep. Wu isn’t his real name, mind. He’s a bodyhopper — the man swaps flesh the way you’d swap shoes. Speaks eight languages and could pass for a native in half those. Which is exactly what he did, of course, when he took on the identity of Mr Wu. He went by Ahmad Ben Shah, once.”
“Shah?” Her eyes widened. “You mean the Butcher of Benghazi? That monster’s been living here this whole time?”
It would be hard to find a part of the solar system where they hadn’t heard of the Benghazi Atrocity and the man responsible. Even by the military standards of the last hundred years, unleashing a biological weapon on the population of an entire city was considered beyond the pale. Accepting the contract to kill him had been the easiest decision of Kincaid’s life.
“The very same. If you go back far enough, past all the false identities, you find a man called Theodore Valentinas. You won’t have heard that name before, but it’s the one he was born with. Valentinas. Wiped out a whole city, and no one outside the intelligence community even knows his real name. Anyway, that was me.” Kincaid grinned smugly. “‘Unknown government operative’, my bottom.”
Altmann frowned sceptically. “The Libyans couldn’t reach him, and you took him out in that piece of shit body?”
“Appearances can be deceptive,” he said out loud. “Which was the whole point.”
I really shouldn’t be telling her all this.
He took a swig from his hip flask and went on. “Valentinas had a brother, you see, lived with him in the bunker, and the brother had a family. Specifically, a wife, Lara, and their ten-year-old son, Lukas. This body I’m wearing was custom grown to look exactly like Lukas.”
S’pose it’s been a while since I’ve had anyone to talk to, besides Jen.
“I was created to occupy that body, and psychosurgically altered to suit the needs of the operation. Hence the, er, get up,” he said, straightening the school blazer self-consciously. “I strolled in past security, shot Valentinas twice in the chest and once in the head, and strolled right back out again.”
Altmann whistled. “So why–”
“–doesn’t anyone know it was me?”
“–am I still here? Because, first, killing the head of the most powerful crime family in New Beijing is one thing, living to tell the tale is another (hello, Frank Kincaid, blabbermouth, pleased to meet you), and second, I can’t afford transport off this rock. Frank one point zero welched on the deal. Collected the money and disappeared.”
He took a breath, staring out of the window moodily as the sunset faded into twilight. The pagodas began to bioluminesce in tones of jade, azure and gold. They were oddly jarring, in a beautiful kind of way — cultural icons stripped of spiritual purpose and reduced to scrubbing the air. The dome took on a fairy tale quality, but it was the sort of fairy tale where if you read between the lines you’d realise the prince wasn’t so heroic after all, the princess was in an abusive relationship and the goblins were racist. It was as if someone had built a geodesic snow globe the size of a small city, taken care to light it just so, and then replaced the snow with litter, deprivation and the odd stray corpse.
“That’s assuming,” he added, “there ever was a version of me working as a bounty hunter on Earth, and I wasn’t cooked up in a lab by Libyan Intelligence to take care of business. Plausible deniability, all that jazz.”
“Wow.” Altmann managed to look impressed, despite the pain she was clearly in. “That’s a lot of uncertainty to live with, and any way you look at it–”
“–I’m buggered. Yep. Speaking of which, your career prospects aren’t looking too rosy right now either. Care to fill me in? Maybe we can work out why two gangsters with military-issue hardware have taken such a dislike to you.”
She rubbed her eyes wearily. Some of the colour had returned to her face, but she was going to need medical attention, and soon.
That’s one advantage of living in a crime-infested rathole, at least. No shortage of “clinics” happy to look the other way.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Look, I work in accounts. The pay stinks, the hours are lousy, and my boss has bad breath and wandering hands. So I siphoned a little out of the slush fund. A couple of mil’. Just enough to tide me over till I found a new job — I didn’t think they’d even notice.”
Kincaid raised an eyebrow. Most of the time, he considered himself a fair judge of character, but he couldn’t read Altmann. Maybe it was just her condition — blood loss deadening the intonation in her voice, draining the emotion from her features. Maybe he’d been alone too long. He wanted to believe her.
“Okay, several mil’,” she said. “Nine, actually. Still, petty cash to a hypercorp.” Big brown eyes bore into his. “Please help me, Frank.”
He hesitated. Everyone thinks they’re a good judge of character, until they’re not. You got caught up in the surface detail, that was the trouble. The way someone moved, the way they smiled, the way they spoke. You were looking, not listening.
“Give me a second,” he said. “I need to check something.”
Turning his focus inward, he said, “Give me a replay, would you, Jen? Audio only, the last few sentences.”
This time, he listened. A couple of mil’. Several. Nine, actually.
He shook his head sadly. “Just when I was starting to like you. You’re a poor helpless pencil pusher who got greedy, and the big nasty hypercorp is trying to kill you.”
She tried to look offended, but he could see the lie now, written all over her face.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “They are trying to kill me, you know that.”
“Drop the act.”
She sat watching him for a moment, then her shoulders slumped. “They really are trying to kill me, Mr Kincaid,” she said in a small voice.
“Doesn’t wash. They don’t care enough. Otherwise, why set the bounty so low?”
“Because licensed bounty hunters won’t kill over simple theft,” she said. “It’s illegal. And Halcyon don’t want me alive, they want me dead. I took one hundred million yuan, and it’s still not about the money.”
Kincaid puffed out his cheeks. Now that’s more like it. “Go on.”
“It’s about our Russian friends, in a way. And corporate espionage, corruption, false accounting — all the happy things. A lot of big players went bust when the bubble burst, and Halcyon owns most of them now. There’s reasons for that. Dirty, shameful reasons. The kind of reasons politicians need an incentive to overlook. I was supposed to deposit the money in Governor Chou’s Swiss bank account, like I do every month. I opened one of my own instead.”
The pieces rotated in Kincaid’s mind and clicked into place. The best way to serve a lie was with a liberal garnishing of the truth. “So they accused you of petty theft to cover up a larger one. Posted a bounty so low they hoped you’d never be found. Sent in a team of their own to make sure.”
“That’s about the size of it.” She let out a slow breath and seemed to relax a little. “What do you plan on doing, now that you know? I’ll cut you in for half if you take me someplace safe. You could get back to Earth on that kind of money, set yourself up with a whole new life.”
He would have taken her offer — of course he would. He didn’t get the chance, because at that moment a black van T-boned the saloon, crumpling the chassis like so much tin foil. The impact punched the breath from his lungs, spinning the world around him like a hamster wheel. A wall reared up in front of the car and struck it.
It could have been worse. If the autodrive hadn’t swerved at the last moment, Altmann would have been crushed to a pulp, and Kincaid would have found himself pinned between the van and the wall. As it was, the car’s automatic restraints protected him from the brunt of it, and he was left with a nasty case of whiplash and a daft look on his face.
After that the shot started flying. The rear window vanished along with both rear headrests, followed shortly after by Kincaid’s. Fortunately, he was huddled in the footwell by that point, nursing his Glock and trying to kick the passenger door open. It wouldn’t budge. What did budge was the window, which exploded outwards, the roof support, which was neatly severed halfway down, and finally the windscreen, which shattered in several places before giving up the ghost entirely. Then the roof fell in.
It’s hard to describe the destructive force of a fully automatic shotgun if you haven’t witnessed one in action, but if you imagine a regular machine gun and scale up from there, you’ll get the general idea. Kincaid got the idea and hammered desperately at the door, wishing he had bigger legs. If the top half of the door had still been present, he might not have managed it, but as it was the composite cracked, split down the middle and gave way.
He wriggled out with all the grace of a beached turbot, leaving an ugly smear of red in his wake.
The firing had stopped. He reached into the footwell and fumbled out his satchel.
“You in there, Kincaid?”
He slid out the compact Heckler & Koch he kept for special occasions, extended the shoulder rest, smacked in a clip and thumbed off the safety.
“We know who you are,” the voice called in heavily accented English. “The kid who takes bounties — you’re getting quite the reputation. We work for powerful people, Kincaid. Wealthy people. We can pay you a great deal to walk away. What do you want? A fancy apartment? A new body? We can get you one custom grown — carbon-reinforced skeleton, muscle aug, the works.”
Custom grown? He could get his old body back. Or one just like it, anyway. Better, even. I could have abs. He glanced at the car guiltily.
He flipped open the access port behind the HK’s tactical display and pulled out the fibre optic viewer concealed there. Bellying forward across the debris, barely aware of the pain in his back, Kincaid slid the viewer round the corner of the wreck and monitored the display.
There was the black van, doors open, Lev and Vadim sheltering behind them. Their weapons were trained on the car watchfully. Kincaid synced the HK’s display with his retinal HUD and painted his targets. Then he fired twice into the air.
There was a brief flare as the micromissiles took flight, a streak of light across the tactical display, and both Russians dropped, headless, to the ground.
Kincaid laughed grimly and coughed up blood.
“Jen?” Technicolour curves filled his view. “What’s the damage?”
He didn’t really need to ask. Her playful expression was gone, replaced by a mask of concern.
“Multiple buckshot wounds to the back. You have liver damage, kidney damage, intestinal perforations, massive internal bleeding. I — I’m sorry, Frank. I’ve called an ambulance.”
She shook her head. “Without medical insurance? Too long. Idiot mix isn’t going to cut it this time.”
He craned his neck, tried hopelessly to move and gave up. He fed the fibre optic up over the remains of the side window and into the car. The interior was riddled with shot. There was precious little left of the driver’s seat — some of the frame, some cushioning. Scraps of fabric embedded in Altmann’s corpse.
He groaned. “You know, that wasn’t a bad offer they made.”
“You should’ve bid them up. They probably would’ve thrown in a swanky car and a house in France.”
“When you’re right, you’re right.”
He lay still, a cosy endorphin glow starting to replace the throbbing in his back. Drowsily, he said, “Would’ve been nice to get home. Teach that bastard a lesson.”
The mask cracked. Tears welled in amber eyes.
“It’s a lie, Frank. All of it.”
He frowned, half asleep. “Hm?”
“You’re not a copy. You never were. You’re not Kincaid, but you’re not a copy either. Your name is Webber. Frank Webber.”
The officer who ran the boy over, back in London. That made no sense. That’s not how it went.
“The Met wanted to go easy on you, but you wouldn’t have it. You talked to the press, told the family exactly what happened. Pled guilty to manslaughter. You served three years in hell when you could’ve walked away, and when you got out, it still wasn’t enough. You kept saying the punishment didn’t fit the crime. You hated yourself. So very much.”
She wept, electronic tears streaming down flawless cheeks. “You decided to run away. From yourself, from what you’d done. That wasn’t easy in the middle of a media frenzy, you were going to need a new body and fake ID, transport to someplace far away. You already owed a fortune — the kind of fortune it takes for a child-killing cop to survive behind bars.”
The words washed over him, seeped in past the haze of blood loss.
“It took you a while,” she continued through the tears, “but you were desperate and you came up with a plan. You went to the Libyans, agreed to solve their problem for them. They trained you, carved away those awful memories, built you a new reality. A new Frank, in a new body, living a whole new life. The punishment fit the crime, I guess.”
Thoughts tumbled through his mind. Memories clashing with facts. None of it matched, it made no sense, and every word of it was hideously, unquestionably true.
“Sh, Frank. Rest until the ambulance gets here. Just rest now.”
“I better bloody be dying, Jen.” He laughed wildly and coughed, red foam flecking his lips.
“Otherwise this was one hell of a wasted effort.”
The end — or is it?
This short story forms the opening chapters of the forthcoming novel, Case in Point. Feedback welcome.
Adrian Bagley is a writer and poet from the south of England. He is currently working on his debut science fiction novel, Case in Point. He writes serious and humorous fiction in a variety of styles, matching the prose to the needs of the story.
He has severe ME, which he combats with a strict regimen of blaspheming and coffee.