Delek watched as the man in the black Syntech uniform tapped on his tablet’s touchscreen. The guy was a foot shorter, and about half as wide. He looked like a mech pilot in comparison to Delek’s massive frame, as if he could climb into a cockpit in Delek’s chest and operate him from the inside. The Syntech logo glowed lime green on the LED-infused fabric of the man’s shirt. A digital patch displayed his name in matching green letters: Roi.
“ID?” the man asked.
Delek slid up the sleeve of his work shirt. His thick forearm muscles rippled as he rotated his arm toward the ceiling, revealing a diamond-shaped formation of raised dots embedded in the underside of his wrist. Above the dots was a tattoo of a stylized skull, along with a banner reading Kill. Bathe. Repeat.
A laser the same color as the Syntech logo beamed from a lens above Roi’s touchscreen and scanned the dots. A friendly confirmation tone sounded.
“Got it.” Roi ran his finger down Delek’s dossier on his touchscreen, reading as he scrolled. He cocked an eyebrow and whistled. “Nice. Check out these numbers.” He tilted the tablet so Delek could see.
“What about them?”
“Highest I’ve seen for a Sentinel. Or for anyone, honestly.”
Delek motioned to his wife, Neera. She was standing behind him, leaning against the kitchen counter with her arms crossed over her chest, her taut biceps forming solid curves of muscle under the sleeves of intricate tattoos that covered her arms.
“Take a look.”
“I don’t want their money,” Neera sneered. She balled her fists and took a menacing step toward Roi. “Get out.”
Roi’s hand instinctively dropped to the electroshock baton dangling from his belt. Delek extended his arm, putting himself between his wife and the nervous Syntech rep. “Neera, please—”
Neera tried to push past Delek’s arm, but it didn’t budge. She stared up into his eyes, her jaw set, her teeth clenched. “I don’t want the money.” She poked her finger into his broad chest. “I want you. Here. With us.”
Ignoring Neera’s obvious displeasure, Roi swiped his tablet screen to reveal a long block of small-print text. “These are the terms of the agreement…”
“I’ve read them,” Delek replied pointedly, his gaze remaining locked on Neera.
Neera’s eyes narrowed. The thick cluster of dreadlocks bundled on top of her head swayed as she pivoted and opened the dented refrigerator. She snatched a bottle of Glint from the mostly-bare shelf, then slammed the door shut with a thud.
“Great!” Roi said. He handed the tablet to Delek. “Thumb, please.”
Delek turned back to Roi and gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. We’ve talked about this.” He took the tablet, pressed his thumb to the fingerprint scanner until it beeped, then handed the device back to Roi.
“You’ve talked about this,” Neera corrected.
“And you listened,” Delek shot back.
“Right.” Neera pressed her lips into a bitter smile. “That makes one of us.” She twisted the cap off the bottle and drained half of the sparkling silver liquid.
“Hey, look. I get it,” Roi said as he tapped the touchscreen. “It’s a tough decision. But you’re doing the right thing.” A drop of water dripped from above and plunked onto the screen. Roi looked up at the damp bloom of black mold on the ceiling overhead, then wiped the water off with his sleeve. He tapped the screen once more, then looked up and smiled at Delek. “Okay, we’re all set.”
“And the money…?” Delek asked.
“Should be in your account by morning.”
“The money’s just the start,” Roi continued, directing his sales pitch at Neera. “Anything you need, Syntech will cover it. Clothes. Food.” His eyes darted to the wide expanse of pill bottles lined up on a nearby shelf. “Meds.” He smiled reassuringly at Delek. “Don’t worry. They’ll be set for life.”
“You hear that?” Delek asked Neera. “For life.”
“We don’t need them. We’re fine.”
“No, we’re not fine,” Delek snapped. “This,” he gestured around the tiny, sparsely-furnished apartment, “is not fine.” He shot his arm out and pointed toward the short hallway that branched off from the kitchen. “Sev is not fine.”
Roi closed the cover of his touchscreen. “Ma’am, with all due respect, the contract is final. And it’s effective immediately, so…” He motioned Delek towards the door. “Shall we?”
“Can you give us a minute?” Delek said to Roi.
“The transport’s waiting.” Roi’s tone was colder now. It was clear his patience was wearing thin.
“Thirty seconds.” Delek took Neera by the elbow and guided her into the short hallway off the kitchen, out of Roi’s view.
“What?” she said sharply.
Delek lowered his voice and whispered to her. “You know the deal. If I try to back out now…”
“I know. That’s why I was trying to get you not to sign the fucking thing.” Neera slumped against the wall. Her arms dropped to her side. All the fight seemed to drain from her body. She looked tired. Defeated. She thumped the back of her head against the peeling plasterboard. “God damn it, Delek.”
Delek peeked around the corner at Roi. The Syntech rep was impatiently bouncing his electroshock baton against his shoulder. He idly picked up one of the medicine bottles off the shelf and inspected it, turning it toward the light as he read the label. His eyebrows shot up.
Delek ducked back into the hall. He took Neera’s hands in his and kissed her fingers. “I’ll be all right. And so will you. You’ll get yourself a new place, somewhere safe, outside the city. Get Sev the help he needs. Take him to Tuamotu. Teach him how to surf.”
“I can’t do that without you.” She exhaled a shuddering breath. “I need you, D. We need you.”
Before Delek could respond, a series of hacking coughs echoed from the next room. A small, weak voice called out. “Dad?”
Delek and Neera both turned toward the sound, then looked at each other.
“One second, Sev,” Delek called. He leaned down and kissed his wife’s cheek. “I better go say goodbye.”
Delek padded silently into the apartment’s sole bedroom. His six-year-old son, Sev, lay on a small mattress on the floor, facing the wall. The boy was bone-thin and shivering, his frail frame barely covered by a too-small blanket. The floor next to the mattress was littered with pill bottles, half-filled glasses of water, and crumpled tissues mottled with dried blood. Off in the corner, an empty IV bag hung from a rusty IV pole.
Delek lowered himself to the floor next to the mattress. He stroked the boy’s thinning hair with his hand. “Hey, Sev,” he said softly. “You okay?”
The boy rolled over. His face had a sickly yellow pallor. His eyes were wet. “You’re leaving?”
Delek didn’t answer. Instead, he opened his arms. “Come here.” The boy crawled onto Delek’s lap and closed his eyes. Delek enfolded his son in a warm hug and kissed the top of his head. “Take care of Mom for me, okay?”
“Until you get back?”
Delek noticed Neera leaning in the doorway, watching them. She put her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob.
“Yeah,” Delek lied. “Until I get back.”
The air inside the Syntech transport was rank with the smell of sweat and fear. The lights from the street outside strobed through the narrow, prison-like windows as the darkened transport rushed through the city towards the monolithic Syntech tower looming in the distance.
The transport was long and narrow, with benches running the length of the vehicle. Both were loaded with volunteers, about a dozen on each side, facing each other. Most were men. At the front, separated from the passenger cab by a thick pane of Plexiglas, were two forward-facing seats. The driver sat in one; Roi dozed in the other, his head resting against the window at his side.
Delek was seated toward the back of the transport, shoulder-to-shoulder with a pair of other volunteers. On his left was Paul, a hard-edged forty-something man with callused palms and grease caked under his thick fingernails. On his right was Adler, a wiry Black teen in an oversized Seattle Synths jersey and a pair of cargo shorts.
“This is bullshit,” Paul complained. He twisted his wrists in the heavy electronic cuffs binding his arms. “They’re treating us like fucking prisoners.”
“Or slaves,” Adler said.
“Come on, now. It ain’t nothing like that,” the man next to Adler scolded. He was a fifty-something Black man with a salt-and-pepper beard, named Kevan. “You volunteered for this shit. You’re getting paid for this shit.” He shook his head in disappointment. “Slaves,” he muttered disdainfully.
Delek’s knees were practically touching those of the volunteer across from him, a balding, bespectacled man in his forties named Mirt. The man’s dress shirt was soaked with perspiration. His face was clammy and pale. He raised his handcuffed wrists and tugged at his collar with one hand.
“I need to get out of here,” he gasped. “I can’t breathe.”
“Ain’t no way out now,” Adler said. “Unless you, you know…” He clasped his hands together into the shape of a pistol, pressed them under his chin, and pretended to blow his brains out.
Paul leaned over to Delek and nodded his head towards the front of the transport. He lowered his voice. “You think he’s one of them?”
“The driver?” Delek whispered. Paul nodded. Delek squinted his eyes, trying to see through the darkness. The driver was wearing the same black Syntech uniform as Roi, but with a chauffeur-style cap perched on his head. “I don’t know. Hard to tell from here.”
“Yeah, he is,” Kevan said. “I saw his siffo while they were loading me in. Wait for the next light. You’ll see.” The men paused for a moment until the transport passed under a street light. The glow through the side window briefly illuminated the driver. “See? Right there.”
“Ah,” Delek said, nodding. Sure enough, he could see a small black disc on the back of the driver’s skull, just behind his right ear.
“What’s a siffo?” Mirt asked.
“You know, siffo,” Kevan replied. “C-F-O. Stands for, uh …” He rolled his eyes skyward, trying to remember.
Delek thought for a moment before the words came to him. “Cemi Field Override.”
“Right. That’s it.”
“It’s like a remote control or something?” Mirt asked.
“More like autopilot, from what I heard,” Delek answered. “You’re along for the ride, but you’re not in control.”
“Then who is?”
Adler snorted obnoxiously. “Nobody, dumbass. That’s the point.”
“Syntech’s AI. Same as in a synthetic,” Delek explained, ignoring Adler’s wisecrack.
“Why don’t they just use synths then?”
Delek shrugged. “People are cheap.”
“I think you mean expendable,” Kevan said. “Like my dude here.” He jerked a thumb at Adler.
“Ouch. That hurts, bro.”
Kevan continued. “It’s true, though. Think about it. A siffo costs, what, like thirty bucks? Even with what they’re paying us, it’s still nothing compared to a synthetic. Those things cost four mill, easy.”
“Five,” Delek corrected.
Paul whistled in disbelief. “That much now?”
“They’re complex as hell, too,” Kevan said. “Thousands of moving parts, any one of which could fail and take the whole thing offline. Then Syntech’s gotta get some high-paid technician to peel the thing open and figure out what went wrong. But people? People are disposable. Something happens to one of us, fuck it. Dump the body, swap in a new one. That’s why they give us all the shit jobs.”
“Literally,” Adler added.
Paul shuddered. “If they make me a shit diver, so help me God…”
“Shit diver?” Mirt asked. “Is that a real thing?”
“I think the official term is human waste disposal technician.”
“Oh, God.” Mirt made a groaning, belching sound. He raised his fists to his mouth. His cheeks puffed out as a noxious, vomit-tinged breath escaped his lips. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“It’s still better than being a Sentinel,” Paul said. “At least you won’t have anyone shooting at you.” He glanced at Delek. “No offense, big guy.”
“Ay, yo.” Adler knocked his sneaker against Mirt’s scuffed leather loafer. “Why’d you volunteer if you’re gonna be such a pussy about it?”
Kevan elbowed Adler in the ribs. “The fuck’s wrong with you?”
“I’m just asking.”
“No, it’s okay.” Mirt dropped his eyes to his lap. He spoke quietly. “Because of my daughter. Cancer.”
“Hey.” Adler bumped his shoe against Mirt’s foot again. Mirt looked up at him. “Mine too.”
Mirt nodded. A heavy silence fell over the group.
Delek’s thoughts turned to Sev, to the terrible blood disease that was consuming him from the inside out. It wasn’t curable, but it was treatable…for a price. Unfortunately, it was a price far greater than Delek could pay, even with his and Neera’s military pensions, even after his paycheck from operating loaders at the port, or his other paycheck bouncing merk-addled investment bankers at Greenfingers Pub down in the Finance District. He could afford just enough meds to keep Sev alive, but not enough to give him any kind of life. After the boy’s latest episode—a terrifying incident where Delek and Neera watched helplessly as Sev nearly drowned in his own blood—Delek made the call to Syntech.
As the driver dutifully steered the transport through the gates of the Syntech campus, Adler spoke again. His tone was pensive. Subdued. “I wonder what it feels like.”
“Well, my dude…” Kevan leaned forward so he could see out the front windshield. An eerie green glow filled the transport as it passed under a giant Syntech logo and into a loading dock. “You’re about to find out.”
“This conversation will be the last thing you remember.”
Roi paced in front of the assembled group of volunteers. Delek and the others from the transport stood in two rows, roughly in the same order in which they sat during the ride. They were joined by several dozen more, all of whom had arrived at approximately the same time in a caravan of similar transports from different areas of the city. There were men and women, young and old, in every size, shape, and color. The only thing they seemed to have in common was a willingness to forgo their free will in exchange for a sizable payout from Syntech. Of course, none of them would ever see a dime of the money. It was all intended for their designated survivors, the people they cared about enough to give their lives for.
“After this, we’ll proceed to the installation bay for processing, and then you’ll be deployed to your respective units. Are there any questions before we head out?”
The volunteers exchanged glances, waiting to see if anyone would speak up. Finally, a petite Asian woman in her early twenties raised her hand tentatively.
“Yes?” Roi said.
“Will I…will I still be me? When you’re done?”
“Right. Interesting question,” Roi said, nodding. “Physically, of course, you’ll still be you. But Syntech’s AI overrides your conscious thought, so to the extent that ‘who you are’ is defined by what you think, then no, you won’t be you.”
The woman’s expression sagged.
“But!” Roi exclaimed, holding up a finger. ’What we can’t control is your subconscious: your fears, your passions, your morals, what you hate, who you love—the siffo can’t change that. Although, trust me, we’re working on it.” He winked at one of the volunteers, a matronly middle-aged woman who looked like a kindergarten teacher. She smiled in return.
Roi continued. “In the meantime, we can’t make you do anything you wouldn’t do yourself under similar circumstances. That’s why we’ve pre-screened you up front to understand what your boundaries are and how…let’s say…flexible they might be. If you’ve found yourself in a Personal Service unit, congratulations, you are very flexible. Maybe in more ways than one.” A few volunteers smirked and chuckled. Roi returned his gaze to the woman who asked the question. “Make sense?”
“I think so.” She didn’t sound sure.
“Great. Any other questions?” Roi waited for a few seconds. Nobody else spoke up. “Okay then, this is it. Last chance. Anybody who doesn’t want to continue, there’s the door.” Roi pointed at a door to his right marked Exit.
A slight commotion behind Delek caused him to look over his shoulder. Mirt, the bespectacled man from his transport, had stepped out of line and was walking quickly toward the door. He hurried behind Delek, keeping his head down and avoiding eye contact with the other volunteers.
As he passed Adler, the teen mumbled a single word under his breath.
Mirt ignored Adler. Roi met him at the exit and opened the door, ushering him through with a slight gentlemanly bow. “After you.”
The door swung shut behind Mirt. A moment later, a muffled shout was cut short by the sound of a gunshot, followed by the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground.
Roi turned to the rest of the volunteers. “Anybody else?”
FOUR YEARS LATER
Neera gripped the overhead handrail as the maglev train left the station and began picking up speed, quickly accelerating to over 200 mph. It was the thick of evening rush hour, with hundreds of commuters packed into the cramped confines of the train, their bodies pressed together in strangely intimate ways. Neera always thought it odd that the only acceptable places to maintain such intensely personal contact were on public transit and in the bedroom, and few places in between. Today, though, it would work to her advantage.
As the train approached the next station, Neera released her grip on the handrail. The momentum of the rapidly-slowing train sent her stumbling against the man next to her. He was forty-ish, handsome, with graying hair combed into a neat part. Based on the expensive cut of his suit, he appeared to be an executive of some sort. Neera ended up nearly face-to-face with him, bracing her hand against his torso to steady herself.
“Whoa, there,” he said with a laugh. “You okay?”
“Oh my God, I am so sorry!” Neera exclaimed as she backed away. Her hand lingered for a moment on his chest. A brief but intense moment of eye contact flashed between them. She brushed a loose dreadlock behind her ear and smiled shyly. “I’m Ainsley.” As the man opened his mouth to reply, a pleasant tone sounded and the doors to the train opened. Neera was immediately swept away in a tide of exiting commuters. “Nice to meet you!” she called as she was crowded out through the doors.
“You too!” The man smiled at her wistfully. Then another tone sounded, the train doors closed, and the moment was lost.
Neera looked down at the ID badge she had swiped from the man’s chest pocket. The logo on it was a stylized illustration of a bank vault, next to the words Ironwill Financial. Below the logo was the man’s name, Reston Wills, and his title: CEO.
“No, really,” Neera said to herself as she pocketed the ID. “The pleasure was all mine.”
Neera stepped into a gilded elevator, swiped the purloined badge across the card reader, then punched the button for the 85th floor. A woman’s silky voice emanated from an overhead speaker. “Welcome back, Mr. Wills.”
The doors slid shut silently on their air rails. Neera felt her stomach lurch as the elevator accelerated upwards. Within seconds, it arrived at its destination. Neera glanced at the digital display as the doors opened, mentally noting the time: 1:05 AM.
“85th Floor. Executive Suites. Have a nice day, Mr. Wills.”
Neera stepped from the elevator into a lavishly-appointed lobby with an emerald green carpet and rich leather couches. Exquisite lighting bathed the space in a warm amber glow that made Neera think of liquid gold. A pretty blonde woman was sitting behind a mahogany reception desk emblazoned with the Ironwill Financial logo. She looked up from her computer and smiled.
“Hello. How may I help you?” Her voice was the same as the one in the elevator.
“Yes, hi. I’m here to see…” Neera reached into her jacket, withdrew a small black pistol with a silencer, and shot the woman directly between the eyes. The woman’s head snapped back with the impact. She slumped in her chair, then slid soundlessly to the floor behind the reception desk.
Tucking the pistol back in her jacket, Neera quickly circled the desk and squatted down next to the woman’s body. There was no bullet wound. Instead, a flat disc made of matte composite material was embedded in the receptionist’s forehead. The edge of the disc was ringed with tiny, needle-thin electrodes that dimpled the woman’s flesh where they had punctured her skull. Her eyes were wide open, revealing irises that flickered from black to neon green with thousands of pulses per second. After a moment, the flickering stopped. Her irises faded to a dull, lifeless gray. Her head lolled to the side.
“Sweet dreams,” Neera whispered.
Satisfied that the synthetic had been neutralized, Neera quickly made her way out of the lobby and through the darkened office until she reached a pair of doors with a brass nameplate: Reston Wills, CEO. With a swipe of the stolen ID badge, Neera slipped into the office, then closed the doors behind her.
She turned to find herself in a sprawling executive suite with a breathtaking view of the city lights. A desk the size of a small aircraft carrier dominated the center of the room. Behind it was a credenza with an ornate wooden box in the middle. The box seemed to be an antique of Southeast Asian origin, with intricate carvings of dragons embellishing the lid and sides. Neera ran her fingers along the side of the box until she found a small latch hidden in the tail of one of the carved dragons. She flipped the latch.
After a moment, a hidden drawer lined with red velvet slid out from under the box. In the middle of the drawer was a flat, thumb-sized rectangle, titanium gray with the Ironwill Financial logo laser-etched on the side. A small LED screen on the front of the thing cycled continuously through a series of strange digital runes. It was a hardware authentication key, the kind that had to be physically present to access the bank accounts of high-net-worth individuals. Oil barons. Heads of state. Narcoterrorists. The kinds of people whose accounts had more zeroes than people had fingers.
As Neera slipped the auth key into the pocket of her jeans, a flashlight beam swept through the glass walls of the office. Instinctively, Neera dropped to the floor and belly-crawled across the luxurious, deep-pile carpet until she was concealed behind the desk. Another beam joined the first one, playing across the credenza where she had just been standing. The muffled crackle of a security radio echoed through the otherwise silent office.
Shit, she thought. Sentinels.
She had a full clip of disruptor rounds in her pistol, but those only worked against synthetics—they were useless against Sentinels. A disruptor worked by short-circuiting the complex electronics in a synthetic’s Cortical Processing Unit. A Sentinel’s brain, on the other hand, was organic. An ordinary hollow-tip round would turn it into pudding; a disruptor would just shoot out a few harmless sparks before getting flicked away like an oversized mosquito. It was a nuisance at best.
Neera looked around the office, searching for something she could use to extricate herself from her current predicament. Her eyes settled on a small mini-bar set up in the corner of the office. Crystal decanters of alcohol sparkled in the moonlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows. A flash of inspiration curled Neera’s lips into a small smile.
She knew what she had to do.
The Sentinels swept through the empty Ironwill Financial office, their flashlights cutting through the darkness. They had discovered the incapacitated receptionist during their routine hourly rounds. The lone elevator was still on the 85th floor, meaning whoever had attacked the synthetic was still in the office somewhere.
The larger Sentinel, a muscular Japanese man named Aki, motioned to his partner, indicating the CEO’s office. His partner, a fair-skinned Swede named Nils, nodded. Aki approached the double doors from the left. Nils approached from the right. They pressed their backs into the wall on either side of the entrance.
Suddenly, the sound of shattering glass rang out from inside the office. Aki sprang into action, kicking open the door and sweeping into the office with his compact assault rifle at the ready. Nils followed him in, right on his tail. Both men were immediately buffeted by a freezing, gale-force wind blasting through the shattered 85th-floor window. The men rushed to the opening. Shards of glass crunched beneath their boots, concealing the squish of the sodden carpet underneath.
“The fuck?” Aki exclaimed. He edged carefully towards the broken window and looked down at the street. The wind whipped his black hair around his face. “You think he jumped?”
Nils knelt and picked up one of the several crystal liquor decanters lying empty in front of the window. He lifted the bottle to his nose and sniffed, then touched the soaking carpet and smelled his fingers. “Whiskey,” he said. He dropped the decanter, wiped his hand on his pants, then stood and joined Aki at the window. “Anything down there?”
“Not yet,” Neera said from behind them. As the men turned toward the sound, they found themselves doused with a flood of stinging alcohol. The liquid drenched their faces. Their hair. Their uniforms.
Before the Sentinels could react, Neera raised her silenced pistol and fired at the floor by the men’s feet. Pfft. Pfft. Pfft. The sparks from the disruptor rounds ignited the alcohol-soaked carpet, engulfing the Sentinels in blinding columns of flame. The fire consumed flesh and fabric alike, turning both men into whirling bipedal torches.
Nils stumbled away from the inferno. His heel searched for purchase in the open air as he blindly stepped backward through the broken window and into space. As he fell, his weapon discharged wildly, riddling the wall and ceiling with gunfire. One of the errant rounds blasted Aki in the face, sending a spray of blood and brain matter across the office. Aki’s flaming body immediately went limp, then toppled forward out the window like a drunk who had just been cold-cocked during a bar fight. His limp form tumbled lazily head-over-heels behind Nils’ flailing death spiral as they both plummeted eighty-five stories to the street below.
Neera was gone before they hit the ground.
Neera slipped into her apartment and quietly closed the door. It was the same apartment she and Delek had been living in when he signed his contract with Syntech. The place was identical to when he left: same shabby furniture, same dented refrigerator, same bloom of black mold on the kitchen ceiling. The only difference was that the mold had spread into the living area as well. Water plunked from several areas of the moldy ceiling into strategically-placed cups and bowls scattered around the apartment.
As Neera latched the door, a body on the couch stirred, then sat up. The blanket fell away to reveal an elderly Honduran woman named Marta. She squinted against the first rays of daylight peeking between the broken blinds. Sunrise.
“Sorry, Marta!” Neera whispered. “It’s just me. Go back to sleep.”
Marta mumbled something incoherent, then fell backward onto the couch and pulled the blanket over her face.
Neera slipped off her jacket and draped it over a chair, then tip-toed past Marta and into the bedroom. Sev was asleep on his mattress, in the same spot as when Delek had said goodbye for the last time. Now, however, the boy was much bigger. His feet dangled past the end of the toddler-sized mattress, his legs barely covered by the undersized blanket.
His health hadn’t improved; if anything, he looked worse. His hair was mostly gone, with only a few sparse wisps clinging to his scalp in haphazard clumps. His spine and collarbone protruded cruelly through his sallow, tissue-paper skin. A yellowed IV tube ran from his arm to a mostly empty bag dangling from the same rusted IV pole.
Neera knelt next to the mattress and unclipped the IV connector from the needle taped in the crook of the boy’s elbow. Then she climbed onto the mattress and laid down behind him, draping her arm over his shoulder.
Taped low on the wall next to the mattress was an old 8×10 photo of her and Delek, from when they were stationed in the South Pacific. Neera had put it there after Delek left, so Sev could see his father’s face every morning when he opened his eyes.
Delek was shirtless in the photo, wearing only a pair of board shorts, his muscled torso dwarfing Neera’s lithe, bikini-clad frame. A narrow bandage was affixed to her taut stomach—she had been grazed by a pulse round in a firefight a few days prior, and was still recovering. Both of them held surfboards propped up in the gleaming white sand, next to a hand-painted sign that read “Welcome to Tuamotu.” Behind them, water the color of blue topaz glimmered in the afternoon sun.
They both looked so cool and confident, like two surf rats who had grown up with the beach in their backyards. Nobody would have guessed from the photo that they were actually a pair of city kids who had never surfed a day in their lives. The picture had been taken immediately after their first surfing lesson, where they were tossed by the waves like two dishrags in a washing machine. They had bellies full of saltwater and sand gritting in their teeth, but it was the happiest day of their lives.
Neera sighed, smiling wistfully at the memory. The breath on Sev’s neck caused him to stir. He rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. “Mom?” he whispered. His voice was hoarse and weak.
“Yeah, baby. It’s me. How are you feeling?”
“Like shit on a shingle.” He started to laugh, but his laughter quickly dissolved into a coughing fit. Neera reached for a glass of water from the floor and handed it to him. He sat up and sipped it until his coughing subsided. Then he fell back on the pillow and looked at the photo. “I wish I could go there sometime.”
“That beach. Tuamotu.”
“You will. Once you’re better.”
Neera frowned. “Hey,” she scolded. Sev turned his head away, avoiding her disappointed gaze. “Hey,” she said again, taking his chin in her hands and turning his face back toward hers. “Look at me.” Sev reluctantly met her eyes. “We don’t use that word, remember?”
Sev nodded. “I know.”
“You’re gonna get better. And when you do, the first thing we’ll do is go to Tuamotu. Okay?”
“You and me?”
“Yep. You and me.”
Neera’s breath caught in her throat. She smiled tightly, then nodded. “And Dad.”
“Yeah, Sev.” She kissed the boy’s forehead. “I promise.”
Sunlight streamed through the open blinds as Marta folded the blanket and hung it over the back of the couch. Neera emerged from the bedroom, wiped at her eyes with her wrists, then trudged tiredly down the hall and into the kitchen.
“Thank you for staying with him last night.”
“No hay problema, Ms. Neera. I sleep better here than in my apartment anyway. Mr. Mejia snores like a chainsaw.” She laughed a hearty, throaty laugh.
Neera smiled weakly. She opened a cabinet. It was empty except for a box of cereal. “Did Sev give you any problems?”
“A few, but it’s okay. He was just tired. He misses his papa.”
“We both do.” Neera poured the remnants of the cereal into a cracked bowl and spooned some into her mouth, dry. As she chewed the flavorless crumbs, she asked Marta, “Can I ask you a favor?”
Marta didn’t respond. Neera turned around to see the elderly woman staring at her, a concerned look on her face. She was holding Neera’s jacket. It was splattered with blood and bits of dried brain matter, from when Nils had blown Aki’s head off a few hours earlier. Apparently, Neera had been more in the line of fire than she had realized.
“¿Qué es esto? Are you hurt?”
“No,” Neera said. She hesitated, then continued. “It’s not my blood.”
Marta nodded warily. “You were looking for Mr. Delek, yes?”
“And the men whose blood this is … They deserved it?”
Neera didn’t answer. Did they deserve it? They were Sentinels, just like Delek. They might not have even realized what they were doing, or why. And yet Neera had killed them for it. She hadn’t been thinking about them as people, as human beings who had been deceived into making the same fateful choice as her husband. She was only thinking of them as targets to be eliminated. But they weren’t. They were people. They had families. Friends. Kids. Why else would they have volunteered to give up their autonomy, if not to improve the lives of people they loved?
Marta hung the gore-splattered jacket back on the chair, then walked over to Neera and drew the exhausted woman into a comforting embrace. Neera wrapped her arms around Marta and buried her face in the woman’s wiry gray hair. A sob heaved through her body.
“You’re a good person,” Marta whispered. “A good mother.”
“I’m not. I’ve done horrible things.”
Marta pulled back and looked Neera in the eyes. “But you’ve done them out of love, yes?” Neera nodded. Marta took Neera’s face in her hands and wiped her tears away with her thumbs. “Then God will understand,” Marta said. “He knows what’s in your heart.”
“How do you know?”
“You’re not the only one who has done horrible things, mi hija,” Marta said softly.
“When Mr. Mejia and I first came from Honduras, we had nothing.” Marta stared down at her hands for a few seconds, then sighed and looked back up at Neera with a tired smile. “We do what we must.”
With that, Marta walked over to the couch, opened her purse, and retrieved an object wrapped in a yellow felt cloth. Placing it on the counter, she unfolded the cloth to reveal a freshly oiled 9mm handgun. Neera watched in awe as the old woman expertly dropped the clip from the pistol, eyed the ammunition, then slapped it back into the gun. She checked the safety, then handed the 9mm to Neera. “Don’t let what’s right get in the way of what’s necessary.”
Neera took the gun and tucked it into her belt. The old woman was right. Neera had to keep doing what she was doing. She had to get Delek back, whatever it took.
“You’ll stay with Sev?” she asked.
“Of course,” Marta said. “Now, go. Find Mr. Delek. And bring him home to your boy.”
Neera sat in a circular booth in the VIP section of the high-end sex club, Depravity. Dark, grinding dance music thumped loud enough to cause the empty Glint bottles on the table to jump with each pounding bass hit. On the elevated stage in the middle of the club, a pair of nude Syntech-powered Dancers gyrated against each other, their tongues intertwining as they kissed.
The sides of the club were lined with small private rooms, where digital distortion fields obscured the intimate—often disturbing, sometimes illegal—activities taking place inside. The distortion allowed just enough of a glimpse to be titillating, by intelligently blinking to full transparency when the booth AI detected a particularly lascivious moment. The brief tease was an effective way to drive demand for the club’s Personal Service attendants. It was like offering a few free bumps of merk to a new customer to get them hooked. Of course, the club did that too.
Wedged into the booth across from Neera was Artem Golovkin, a wealthy oligarch with deep ties to Sino-Soviet organized crime. His right eyelid sagged under a thin scar that cut diagonally across his eyebrow, a present from a now-deceased cellmate at Rancor Island Prison.
Neera had heard rumors about Artem from several contacts on the street over the years, about him having a device—an interrupter—that could override a Syntech siffo. Unfortunately, you couldn’t just walk into a store and buy an interrupter. Each unit was hand-made by a lone genius working exclusively for Artem. If you wanted one, you had to offer Artem something he didn’t have and couldn’t buy. Something that would add a few extra zeroes to the end of his bank account.
Something like an Ironwill auth key.
With the auth key, Artem could siphon cash from the accounts of his rival oligarchs, enriching himself while undercutting his competitors. Of course, when he actually tried to use the auth key, he’d inevitably find that it had been deactivated by Ironwill’s cybersecurity team. Two Sentinels plummeting to their deaths from the window of the CEO’s office would inevitably raise some suspicions. It didn’t matter to Neera though—by the time Artem realized he’d been conned, she would be long gone, interrupter and all.
Neera watched Artem’s fat, bearded face as he examined the auth key in the pool of white light spilling from the stylish lighting fixture overhead.
“How much?” Artem shouted over the music in his thick Slavic accent.
“It’s not for sale.”
Neera slid around the booth to Artem’s side and spoke into his ear. Artem nodded, then motioned to one of his hulking henchmen standing nearby. As the henchman approached the table, Neera noticed the siffo embedded behind his ear. A Syntech Bodyguard. It looked like Artem was one of Syntech’s best customers. And its worst, if the rumors about interrupters were to be believed.
The henchman leaned across the table. His suit jacket fell open, revealing a pair of handguns in holsters on both sides of his chest. Neera suddenly became hyper-aware of her own 9mm, which was tucked into the waistband of her jeans. She hoped she wouldn’t need to use it.
The henchman’s nicotine-tinged breath wafted across Neera’s face as he spoke.
“What’s up, boss?”
“Take her to the back.”
This is it?
Neera turned the interrupter over in her hands. It was a small electronic device about half the size of a cigarette pack, wrapped in black rubberized tape. A single LED button glowed green at one end. She had expected the thing to be stylish and high-tech, something befitting of its exorbitant price and mythical reputation. Instead, it looked like a high school science project. A bad one.
She was in the club’s sprawling supply room, surrounded by shelves lined with bar-sized bottles of Glint, racks of glassware, and cases of condoms and lube. The muffled thrum of the music was still audible, even through the thick cinderblock walls. Large wooden crates with spray-painted Cyrillic writing were stacked along one wall. The lid of one of the crates had been pried off and was resting askew across the top. Neera didn’t need to be a weapons expert to recognize the SN640 pulse rifles inside—they were the most recognizable killing machines on the planet. Just another one of Artem’s many side businesses, she supposed.
“So, how does this thing work?” she asked Artem.
“Vim!” Artem walked up behind a weasel-faced man sitting at a workbench surrounded by haphazard piles of electronic components, 3D printers, and soldering rigs. The man’s head bobbed to the music in his bulky over-ear headphones as he typed code into a terminal. “Vim! Explain your thing to her.”
“Busy …” Vim muttered. He kept typing, his mechanical keyboard clacking loudly under his fingers.
“Hey!” Artem snapped his fingers in front of Vim’s face. “You hear what I said?”
Vim spun in his chair toward Artem. He tore his headphones off and tossed them on the workbench. “Can you see that I’m busy? You can see that, right? Me? Being busy?”
Artem grabbed Vim by his shirt and yanked him to his feet. “Tell her how it works,” he growled.
“Fine …” Vim said. Artem released him. Vim adjusted his shirt, then plunked down in his chair and swiveled toward Neera. “You know what a siffo is?”
“Yeah. The Syntech thing.”
“You know what it does?”
“Not really, no.”
“All right. So, your brain has what’s called a cemi field, which is basically an electromagnetic field generated by billions of action potentials firing synchronously every second. What we experience as consciousness is really just the effect the cemi field has on your neurons, which in turn makes you feel like you’re thinking.” He recognized the puzzled look on Neera’s face. “I’m losing you.”
“No, I get it,” Neera insisted, despite her confusion.
Vim glanced at Artem as if to say, I can’t believe you’re wasting my time with this. He sighed, then tried a different approach. “Are you married?”
Neera hesitated. “Um …”
“Lady, it’s not a trick question. Are you married or not?”
“I was.” She shook her head, then corrected herself. “Am. Yes. I am.”
“You and your husband, you probably really click, right? Like, you two just get each other?”
Neera thought back to the last time she saw Delek. He definitely didn’t get her then, and she didn’t get him either. She could barely remember a time when they were on the same page about anything. They argued about everything: money, work, Sev. Especially Sev. How they should treat him, where they should treat him, how they were going to pay for it. Delek had insisted on signing up with Syntech based on some fanciful promise that they’d take care of her and Sev in his absence. She begged him not to go through with it—not just on the day he left, but for weeks before—but he had already made up his mind. Nothing she said was going to change that. It was like he didn’t even hear her. Or maybe he did. He just wasn’t listening.
Of course, she wasn’t going to dump all that personal baggage on Vim. Instead, she said, “We did at one point, yeah.”
“When you first met?”
Neera smiled fondly at the memory. “It was like he could read my mind.”
Vim clapped his hands and pointed at Neera. “Yes! That! That is the cemi field. Your cemi field and his were vibrating at very similar frequencies. That’s why you fell for each other. You were literally on the same wavelength. And the more time you spent together, the more your cemi fields fell into sync. What most people experience as ‘falling in love’ is really just the gradual synchronization of their cemi fields.”
The absurdity of the explanation—and the passion with which Vim delivered it—was too much for Neera. She covered her mouth to suppress a laugh.
Vim’s expression fell. “What?”
“I’m sorry, I just … That’s very romantic, Vim.”
“Hey, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Cemi fields can fall out of sync too. That’s usually when shit goes off the rails. Suddenly, everything he does annoys you, and you’re like, ‘Ugh, why is he blinking his eyes like that?’ Or, ‘I hate the way he chews.’ That sort of thing.”
Neera smiled and nodded, recalling the way Delek used to unconsciously tap his finger against his skull while he was thinking. The sound drove her crazy.
“Anyway,” Vim continued. “A siffo overrides your cemi field with a field generated by Syntech’s chip, so instead of your own conscious thoughts, you’re getting thoughts from their AI instead. You experience the thoughts as your own—as reality—but they’re not. Everything is coming from the chip. Syntech could make you see flying elephants if they wanted to. But that little beauty …” He pointed to the interrupter in Neera’s hand. “That interrupts the signal from Syntech’s chip and puts the person’s cemi field back in control.”
Neera nodded thoughtfully. She turned the interrupter over in her hand. “How do I use it?”
“Just push the button.”
“Like this?” Neera pressed the green LED button on top of the interrupter with her thumb. The LED turned red, followed by an electronic whine so high-pitched it was barely audible.
“The hell?” a deep voice from behind Neera said. She turned to see Artem’s henchman rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. The man dropped his hand from his face and looked at the others in the supply room through squinted eyes. “Who are you?” He pivoted his head on his neck, taking in his unusual surroundings. “Where am I?”
“Shit,” Artem mumbled. He pointed at the device in Neera’s hand. “Can you …?”
“Oh, sure.” She pressed the button again. It changed from red to green. The high-pitched whine cut out. The henchman’s eyes cleared. He seemed to notice for the first time that everyone in the room was staring at him.
“What? Y’all good?”
Artem held up the Ironwill auth key to Neera and wiggled it between his fingers. “We good?”
“Yeah.” Neera tucked the interrupter into her jacket pocket. “We’re good.”
“Hello, little one,” Zahara said. At well over six feet tall, Zahara towered over Neera. She was a striking Sudanese beauty with high cheekbones and short, reddish-brown twists in her hair. “Come in, come in.” Zahara ushered Neera into her basement apartment.
The place was stuffy and dim, lit only by a pair of small lamps with heavy beaded shades the color of fresh cranberries. Incense smoke drifted in lazy spirals through the air. The furniture was an eclectic mix of thrift store cast-offs in an assortment of clashing colors and patterns.
“Did you get it?” Zahara asked. Neera reached into her jacket pocket and produced the interrupter. Zahara grinned broadly and offered Neera a fist bump. “My queen.” Neera returned the fist bump. “Think it’ll work?”
“It better.” Neera tucked the interrupter back into her pocket. “Let’s call Bresh.” She noticed Zahara’s expression change. “What?”
Zahara winced. “We can’t.”
“I told you about his little side hustle?”
“With the merk?”
“Yeah. Turns out his stupid ass was dealing out of his van like he was the goddamn ice cream man. And Quan found out.”
Neera’s stomach plummeted. “Oh no.”
“Dude camped out behind one of the Syntech lockers along Bresh’s route. As soon as Bresh pulled up, Quan dragged him out of the van, beat his ass, then ran him over. Like, eight times.”
“Not yet, but …” Zahara shook her head sadly.
Neera sank to the couch, defeated. Bresh was her key to locating Delek. He worked for a Syntech affiliate called The Body Shop, picking up Sentinels and other Syntech units that had been killed or maimed on the job. His job gave him access to Syntech’s inventory system, which kept track of where every active Sentinel was assigned. Neera had promised Bresh that, if he could help her find Delek, she would make it worth his while.
A bolt of frustrated rage surged through Neera’s body. “Fuck!” She punched the couch cushion, then braced her arms on her thighs and let her hands and her head hang toward the floor. “Goddamnit.” She looked up at Zahara. Her eyes were red and wet. “I’m this close.” She held her fingers an inch apart.
“I know, honey.” Zahara sat down next to Neera and put a sympathetic hand on her back. “I know.”
Neera racked her brain for ideas. The inventory computer was in the van that Bresh had been driving for The Body Shop. From what she understood, the computer required biometric input—a thumbprint—to unlock it, but maybe she could figure that out. It didn’t sound like Bresh would be needing his thumbs any time soon. “What about the van?” she asked Zahara. “What happened to that?”
“Before or after Quan set it on fire?”
All right, so Bresh’s van was out of the question. But it wasn’t the only one. There had to be dozens of them around the city. “Is there anyone else? A friend of his? Another driver?”
Zahara shrugged. “Sorry.”
Neera stood and walked over to the thin sidewalk-level window. As she stared out at the pedestrians’ passing feet, a car pulled up to the curb outside and parked. An idea flashed in Neera’s eyes. She turned back to Zahara.
“Where’d it happen?”
“Southside. By the Stacks there. You know where I mean?”
Neera grabbed Zahara’s jacket off a hook on the wall and tossed it to her.
The Stacks was a large industrial area on the south side of the city, so-called because of the dozens of smokestacks that belched noxious black smoke into the air. It wasn’t surprising that The Body Shop would be doing rounds there. Most of the factories were operating illegally, manufacturing everything from low-quality electronics to high explosives. The owners often employed Sentinels to patrol the grounds.
Neera rode the subway with Zahara to the zone where Bresh had been attacked by Quan. Within minutes, they found the exact spot where the attack had happened—there was a large rectangular scorch mark on the street where the burning van had melted the asphalt. And just as Neera suspected, there was a Syntech storage unit right nearby.
Once Neera found the site of Bresh’s demise, she sent Zahara home. There was no point in making her friend stay. She didn’t know how long she’d have to wait.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long.
Neera watched from the shadows as a filthy black van pulled up to the curb outside the factory building where she was hiding. The side of the van was stenciled with a logo: The Body Shop. Below the logo in a smaller font were the words, A Syntech Company.
The door of the van creaked open and a man in a bright green jumpsuit climbed out. Neera recognized the outfit—it was the same one Bresh wore when he made his rounds. The guy was clearly Bresh’s replacement. He had the same uniform. The same kind of van. And, if Neera was right, the same Syntech inventory computer inside.
The driver wheeled a portable gurney over to the Syntech storage unit and swiped his key card through a slot on the front. The storage unit’s door slid open with a quiet whoosh, revealing a naked man hanging from a hook inside: a Sentinel. Its muscled torso was riddled with a half-dozen bullet holes. Rusty streaks of dried blood were smeared across its bluish-gray skin.
The driver hauled the limp body out of the storage unit and dumped it face-down on the gurney. After depositing the body in the back of the van, he slammed the doors closed, returned the gurney to its slot, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
Neera was in the van waiting for him. She pointed her 9mm at his head. “Where’s Delek Foster?”
The driver’s face went pale. “W-who?”
“Delek Foster!” Neera said again, more forcefully. She thrust the gun closer to the driver’s face. “Where is he?”
“I-I don’t know! I don’t know who that is.”
“He’s a Sentinel.” Neera nodded her head toward the grimy tablet screen mounted to the center of the dashboard. “Find him.”
The driver pressed his thumb against the dash-mounted biometric scanner. The tablet unlocked, revealing a map of the city dotted with small green icons representing other pickup locations. “Hey, dispatch?” the driver said. “Find by name.” The tablet’s voice recognition made a confirmation tone. The driver signaled to Neera to say the name.
“Delek Foster,” she said, enunciating clearly.
“Locating,” an automated voice from the tablet responded. After a moment, the voice said:
The Body Shop van slowed to a stop in front of a massive multi-story warehouse located on the edge of a shipping port. A cacophony of overlapping clanks and mechanical whirs echoed between the buildings as the port’s loaders moved shipping containers onto and off of mile-long barges docked at the water’s edge.
Neera exited the driver’s side of the van. She had left the van’s original driver behind at the last location, but not before relieving him of his key card. She tucked her 9mm into the back of her jeans, then looked up at the warehouse.
The flickering sign on the front identified it as belonging to AG Imports. Beside the building, the fog drifted lazily between rows of industrial cargo mechs sitting idle and dark behind high iron fences topped with razor wire. A crooked, rust-scarred sign warned of armed Sentinels patrolling the premises. She was in the right place.
Neera walked quickly over to the black storage unit with the Syntech logo glowing green on the side. It was identical to the one at the last location. She swiped the stolen ID card through the slot. The storage unit door slid open. It was empty.
She stepped inside.
“We expecting anything from Syntech?” The shipping clerk squinted out the window at the black van parked by the curb. He was a young guy with a thick head of curly red hair and a round belly hanging over his belt. His name was Timm.
“Don’t think so,” his coworker said through a mouthful of burrito. He didn’t look up from the porn video he was watching on his tablet.
“Hmm,” Timm murmured. “Weird.” He scooped up a lanyard from his desk and pushed through the atrium doors to the exit. Swinging the lanyard around on his finger, he sauntered down the sidewalk to the Syntech storage unit and swiped the key card. The door slid open to reveal Neera. She pointed a gun directly at Timm’s face. His eyes went wide. He raised his hands.
“Quiet,” Neera hissed. Keeping the gun trained on the frightened clerk, she stepped out of the storage unit and shoved the man toward the entrance to the warehouse. “Inside. Go.”
Hands still raised, Timm walked quickly back to the atrium and scanned his palm on the biometric reader next to the door. He entered the atrium. Neera followed close behind.
Once inside, Timm paused. “N-now what?”
Timm turned toward Neera, his brow twisted in confusion. “What?”
“You heard me. Call security.”
Still not sure if the woman was serious, Timm kept his eyes on Neera as he tentatively called out to his co-worker. “Hey, Sam?”
A voice rang out from inside the shipping office. “Yo!”
“Can you, uh …” Timm paused to double-check whether Neera was serious. She nodded. “Can you call security, please?”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Timm’s co-worker, Sam, appeared at the door of the shipping office, his half-eaten burrito still in hand. He saw Neera pointing the gun at Timm’s head. “Oh. Shit.”
Neera watched from a catwalk overlooking the warehouse floor as a pair of Sentinels trotted down the center aisle to where Timm and Sam were waiting. Neither of the Sentinels was Delek.
Neera listened as the two shipping clerks explained how some crazy woman had held them at gunpoint, insisted that they call security, then had disappeared into the shadows of the warehouse. No, they didn’t know what she wanted. No, they didn’t know if she was still in the building. No, they hadn’t seen which direction she went.
Neera scanned the length of the warehouse, desperate to confirm that her husband was even in the building. Had she gotten the address wrong? Were the Syntech records out-of-date? Had something happened to him? Damn it, Delek, she thought, trying to suppress a feeling of panicked desperation. Where are you?
Then she saw him.
He was stationed at the far end of the warehouse, near an open loading dock. He was wearing the same all-black uniform as the other Sentinels, with an SN640 pulse rifle gripped in both hands. He held a finger to his earpiece. “Copy that.” He flicked the safety off his weapon, then stepped silently toward the right side of the warehouse.
Neera removed the interrupter from her pocket and moved along the catwalk in Delek’s direction. She knew she had to get within close-enough range for the device to work. The only problem was, she didn’t know how close she needed to be. She had neglected to ask Vim for the specifics.
She peered over the catwalk railing. The warehouse floor was at least twenty feet below. Delek would be directly beneath her within seconds, but she thought it unlikely that triggering the interrupter from such a height would work. She would need to get closer, to climb down to ground level. She turned to look at the ladder she had climbed to get up to the catwalk in the first place. It was too far in the opposite direction. There had to be one closer—
Suddenly, a blinding light shone in Neera’s eyes.
“Freeze!” a voice commanded, the sound echoing through the cavernous warehouse. “Hands up! Don’t move!” Neera’s stomach lurched. She recognized the voice.
It was Delek’s.
Delek looked up at the woman on the catwalk overhead. “If she blinks, blow her brains out.”
“Yes, sir,” the Sentinel named Harlow replied. He held his sights on the woman’s head, a red laser centered between her eyes. “Keep your hands up!” Harlow bellowed at the woman. “If you move, we will shoot you.”
Another Sentinel named Grace had the intruder sighted from a different angle, her laser focused on the woman’s heart. “We’ve got you covered,” Grace reported.
Delek slung his weapon around his back and began climbing up to the catwalk.
He had spotted the woman by chance, catching a glimpse of a small green LED hovering in the air far overhead, at the edge of his peripheral vision. He looked up to see a white woman with an athletic build and short blonde hair crouching on the catwalk over his head. She didn’t match the description provided by the shipping clerks, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t supposed to be up there.
Once on the catwalk, Delek unslung his weapon and moved quickly toward the woman. As he drew closer, he saw the handle of a 9mm pistol protruding from the waistband of her jeans. He tightened his grip on his pulse rifle. “Don’t move,” he ordered. “Keep your hands up.”
The woman remained frozen, her arms high in the air. Delek noticed that she had a small black device clutched in one hand, her thumb poised over a green LED button at the end. A detonator? No. He didn’t detect any traces of explosives on her.
Delek moved within arm’s reach, then snatched the pistol from the woman’s waistband and tucked it into his own. He removed a pair of handcuffs from his belt and clamped one of the electronic rings around her left wrist, then bent the cuffed arm down behind her back. As he reached up to grab the other arm, the woman’s thumb pressed the green LED button on the device in her hand. The light turned from green to red. A high-pitched whine rang in his ears.
“Delek?” the woman said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, wondering how she could have known his name. He lowered her other arm and closed the cuff around it. Then he plucked the device from her palm and tossed it into the darkness. It clattered to the ground somewhere far below.
The woman looked over her shoulder at him. “You don’t recognize me.”
“No, ma’am. Can’t say I do. Now, let’s go.” He grabbed the woman by the bicep and pushed her ahead of him down the catwalk. “Mr. Golovkin will want to have a word with you.”
It didn’t work, Neera thought to herself wildly. Why didn’t it work?
She was convinced that she had done something wrong with the interrupter, right up until she heard Delek say Artem Golovkin’s last name.
She cursed herself for not having made the connection earlier: AG Imports. Artem Golovkin. It was so obvious in retrospect. Not that she expected to find Delek working for Artem—she had no reason to suspect he would be, and she doubted Artem had connected the dots either. He probably had hundreds of Syntech units in his employ; Delek was likely just another faceless drone to him.
Neera was handcuffed on a ratty couch in the shipping office, awaiting Artem’s impending arrival. She could only hope he hadn’t tried using the Ironwill auth key yet. If he hadn’t, she might be able to talk her way out of the situation, explaining her efforts to extract Delek from Syntech’s control. But if he had tried the key—and if it had failed, which was almost certain—she would be in deep shit.
Neera looked over at Delek. He was standing by the door, back straight, eyes forward, his weapon held across his chest. He showed no signs of recognition whatsoever. It was like he had never seen her before. But then again, who knew what he was seeing? Based on how Vim had explained it, Delek would see what the Syntech AI wanted him to see. Flying elephants or whatever. Neera wasn’t sure if he didn’t recognize her, or if he wasn’t even seeing her in the first place. Did it matter though? The result was the same. Either way, she was fucked.
The thought of Vim made Neera’s jaw clench. His interrupter didn’t work. Was it defective? Or was it a con? Neera sighed. Yet another distinction without a difference. Whatever the reason, Delek was still under the influence of Syntech’s AI. His cemi field was still overridden. Whatever wavelength it was vibrating at, it wasn’t his own. And it certainly wasn’t hers, either. So much for the romance of cemi field synchronization.
A commotion outside the office broke Neera from her thoughts. She heard Artem’s booming voice echoing in the atrium as he tore into the building, howling expletives in his heavy Slavic accent. When he was finished upbraiding Timm and Sam, he stormed through the door of the shipping office where Neera sat. Upon seeing her, he immediately ground to a halt, his face a mixture of confusion and rage. “You?”
“Mr. Golovkin, I can explain—”
Before she could finish, Neera found herself being lifted off the couch. Artem pulled her within an inch of his face. She could smell his breath, a sour mixture of Turkish coffee and clove cigarettes. The telltale odor of vaporized merk hung in a sour cloud around him. His pupils were wide black chasms. The man was out of his mind.
“Your auth key was shit,” he growled. He threw her backward with both hands, sending her crashing into the wall behind the couch. Delek didn’t react. He remained at his station by the door. He didn’t even look in her direction.
“Then I guess …”—Neera gasped—“we’re even.” She immediately regretted answering with such attitude, but she couldn’t help herself. “Your interrupter is shit too.”
Artem laughed. “Of course it is. Vim makes those things by the hundreds. Twenty cents each, and people will give their life savings for one. The margins are incredible.” His stomach bounced with another hearty chuckle. “Who are you? Where am I?” he droned, mimicking the henchman who had allegedly been affected by the interrupter when Neera first tested it. He laughed again. “Worst actor ever. Or the best, I don’t know. You fell for it.”
Neera scowled in disgust. “You’re pathetic.”
Artem’s grin dissolved into an animal snarl. He grabbed Neera by the dreadlocks, dragged her off the couch, and threw her to the ground. With her hands still cuffed behind her back, she was unable to break her fall. She hit the floor face-first, then rolled onto her side just in time to see Artem’s boot swinging for her stomach. She managed to draw her knees up enough to partially deflect the blow, but he still hit her hard enough to knock the wind out of her. A stabbing pain ricocheted through her body. She cried out in agony.
The sound of her scream seemed to capture Delek’s attention. He glanced down at her with something resembling concern. He winced, seemingly in pain himself, then lifted his finger to his right ear as if listening to an earpiece.
Neera made eye contact with him as she struggled to speak through bloodied lips.
“Delek …” she wheezed, her voice a breathless rasp. “Help … me …”
Then Artem’s boot swung for her head.
At first, Delek wasn’t sure why Mr. Golovkin was so angry with the woman. But once they started arguing, it became obvious that the woman wasn’t just some random intruder. She had given or sold something to Mr. Golovkin that didn’t work as expected, and he had done the same to her.
Out of the corner of his eye, Delek saw his boss grab the woman by the hair and throw her to the ground. Delek flinched a little as she hit the floor face-first. For a split second, a ghostly image flickered in his peripheral vision. It was just a momentary glitch, as if a frame from one movie had been swapped into a completely different film: the fair-skinned, blonde-haired woman was replaced by a woman with darker skin and dreadlocks. An electronic whine began to pulse in Delek’s right ear. The sound dulled his senses, as if his mental reflexes were somehow impaired. He felt drugged.
Delek turned his head to confirm what he had seen, but the effect was gone. He watched as Mr. Golovkin reared his leg back and kicked the woman in the stomach. The volume of the whine in Delek’s ear spiked with the blow. This time it was joined by another sound, a second tone out of phase with the first. The clash of the two sounds produced a jarring, discordant squeal, like a pair of violins badly out of tune with each other. Delek reflexively pressed his finger into his ear to block out the sound, but it made no difference. The sound wasn’t in his ear. It was in his head.
The woman’s eyes locked with his. Suddenly, the sound vibrating in Delek’s head transformed from two separate, inharmonious notes to a single sinusoidal tone, pure and crystal clear, a sound like a wet finger tracing the rim of a wine glass, or a Tibetan singing bowl oscillating at just the right frequency. It was perfectly resonant. Perfectly tuned.
Delek blinked. He was no longer seeing a blonde woman with blue eyes and fair skin. Instead, the woman had dark eyes and dark skin. Her blonde pixie cut had turned into a dark bundle of dreadlocks. Tattoos now covered her arms, including one he recognized: Kill. Bathe. Repeat. He looked down at his own forearm. He had the same tattoo.
He knew this woman.
It was his wife.
“Delek …” she gasped. “Help … me …”
As Golovkin raised his boot to stomp on Neera’s head, Delek swung his pulse rifle and opened fire. The fusillade caught the fat man in the chest, erupting out his back in a spray of blood and gore. His body crumbled to a heap on the floor next to Neera.
At the sound of gunfire, Delek’s Sentinel colleague, Harlow, rushed into the room. Delek swung the butt of his rifle, knocking Harlow out cold. Harlow’s pulse rifle dropped to the ground. Delek kicked the weapon away, then dragged the man’s unconscious body out of the office, stepped back inside, and locked the deadbolt.
“Delek?” Neera asked tentatively. She struggled to sit up, grinding her teeth against the pain in her ribs as she moved.
“Neera.” Delek rushed over to her and dropped to his knees at her side. “Here, let me …” He gently helped her sit with her shoulder against the couch, then unlocked the electronic cuffs. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been looking for you.” Neera’s arms came free. She flexed her wrists, trying to bring feeling back into her hands.
“Why? What happened?” Delek remembered signing the contract with Syntech. He remembered the transport. The onboarding center. And then … nothing.
The door to the shipping office jumped in its frame as something—or someone—crashed into it. Muffled voices shouted from the other side. Another crash rattled the door, this one accompanied by the sound of cracking wood as the doorframe began to splinter.
“We’ve gotta get out of here.” Neera limped over and retrieved Harlow’s pulse rifle from the floor. “How many others are there?”
“I … I don’t know.” Delek’s mind felt fuzzy, like he had consumed an entire case of Glint in one sitting. He couldn’t even remember where he was or why he was there.
Neera swept her arm across one of the desks, dragging its contents onto the floor. She pressed her hip into the edge. “Help me with this.”
Delek joined Neera. With his extra muscle, the desk slid easily across the carpet until it banged into the wall under the window. Neera hopped up onto the desk and swung the butt of the pulse rifle at the glass, shattering it. She smashed the jagged shards out of the window frame, then pulled herself up onto the ledge. As she swung one leg out the window, she looked back at Delek.
Delek rode shotgun while Neera steered the stolen Body Shop van onto the busy freeway. She swerved from lane to lane, dodging through traffic, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and Artem’s other Sentinels while she could.
“Where’s Sev?” Delek asked. He gripped the door handle as Neera cut sharply between two Syntech transports. The tires squealed as the vehicle threatened to tip over.
“So, he’s okay?” Delek’s voice felt thick in his throat. Neera didn’t answer. Delek noticed her hesitation. “He’s better, right? They were able to help him?”
Neera gripped the steering wheel tighter. “No.”
“No? Why not?”
“They lied. There were no payouts. No benefits. Nothing. They fucked us.”
Delek furrowed his brow. How could there be no payout? He had signed a contract on Roi’s tablet, right there in their apartment. Neera was there. She knew that. “They said you’d have the money by morning.”
Neera spat out a bitter laugh. “Yeah, well …”
“Did you talk to the guy?”
“Oh, you mean Roi? That lying sack of shit. I never heard from him again.”
Delek stared out the window at the monolithic Syntech tower that loomed over the city. The neon lights rimming its roof cast a pulsing green glow on the dark clouds above. “It’s gotta be a mistake,” he said, almost to himself.
“It’s not just us. It’s everyone. Every spouse. Every family. We all got screwed.”
“How long has it been?”
Neera opened her mouth to reply, then closed it again. Her expression was pained.
“How long?” Delek asked again.
Neera took a long pause. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “Four years.”
The color drained from Delek’s face. “Four years?” He pressed his fingers into his eyes as he processed the information. “Jesus.” For a while, he sat in silent disbelief, trying to comprehend how so many years could have passed in what seemed like just days. “What did you do? How did you live?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She glanced at him, then returned her eyes to the road.
“But it does.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said again, more emphatically this time. “KBR, okay?”
A lump formed in Delek’s throat. KBR was shorthand for the slogan they each had tattooed on their arms: Kill. Bathe. Repeat. As a Special Forces soldier, you did what you had to do, sloughed off whatever residual effects it may have had on your psyche, then woke up the next day to do it again. KBR basically meant “You don’t want to know.”
It also meant “I’ll be okay.”
Delek examined Neera’s face. Dried blood trickled from her hairline, down her neck, and into her shirt. A dark purple bruise was already spreading under one of her eyes. Tiny flecks of broken glass glinted in her dreadlocks. But beneath the immediate damage that Artem had inflicted, there was something more profound: an intense exhaustion that he had never seen before. The lines in the corners of her eyes and around her mouth were deeper. The bags under her eyes were darker. Her cheeks were more drawn. Whatever she had done, it had aged her.
Delek was overcome by a profound appreciation for his wife. He reached out and put his hand over hers. “Thank you.”
She squeezed his hand in return. “Of course.” After a quiet moment, a playful smile curled the corners of her mouth. “So, how long before I can say ‘I told you so?’”
Delek clutched his heart in mock agony. “Ow. It hurts when you’re right.”
“It must be exhausting.”
“It is. Thank God it doesn’t happen that often.”
Neera swung her arm and playfully hit Delek across the chest. For the first time in as long as Delek could remember, they laughed.
Delek waited outside his old apartment, holding a pulse rifle in each hand and keeping his eyes trained on the stairwell at the end of the hall. If anyone was going to come after him and Neera, they would have to come through there.
The apartment was on the tenth floor of Block 12, a densely populated tenement filled with poor families and elderly retirees. Shouts echoed through the halls at all hours of the day and night. Arguments were often punctuated by gunshots. Screams were commonplace, sirens were not. The cops had long ago abandoned their attempts to police this part of the city. Delek’s deal with Syntech was supposed to have been his family’s ticket out of there, but instead, they were still trapped in the same shithole they were in when he left.
Delek heard the familiar squeal of the apartment door opening on its rusty hinges. Neera poked her head out. “He’s asleep,” she whispered. “Come on in.”
Delek followed Neera into the apartment. As he entered, he saw Marta standing at the kitchen counter. Her face broke into a wide grin.
“Mr. Delek!” she exclaimed, keeping her voice low. She opened her arms in welcome.
Delek deposited the pulse rifles on the couch, then went to hug her. “Marta. How are you?”
“I’m so happy to see you.”
“I’m happy to see you, too.” Delek indicated the bedroom. “Can I—?”
“Yes, of course. Please.”
Delek slipped into the room, pausing when he saw Sev’s long, spindly legs protruding past the edge of the toddler-sized mattress. He couldn’t believe how much the boy had grown. It made him even angrier at Syntech, at Roi. Not only had they lied to him—not only had they screwed his family out of what they were owed—but they had taken something that could never be replaced.
Delek squatted beside the mattress and placed a hand on Sev’s shoulder. “Hey, sleepyhead.”
Sev’s eyelids fluttered, then opened. “Hey, Dad,” he mumbled. His eyes began to drift closed again before the realization of Delek’s presence hit him. “Dad!” He threw his blankets off, then hurled himself at Delek and wrapped his arms around his father’s neck.
Delek fell back against the wall. The photo of him and Neera on the beach in Tuamotu crumpled under his weight. He laughed in surprise at Sev’s reaction. “Whoa! How’d you get so strong?” He kissed Sev’s head and returned his embrace. The boy pressed his face into Delek’s shirt and sobbed. Delek could feel every one of Sev’s bones through his pajamas. He felt like a bundle of sticks in a cotton sack.
“Wait …” Sev suddenly pulled away from Delek and peered into his eyes. “Are you … normal?”
“Normal as I ever was,” Delek said with a grin.
“Thanks to Mom,” Delek said, mustering the best answer he could think of. The truth was, he didn’t know how. The only thing he remembered was the sound he had heard back in Artem’s warehouse: that pure tone, two notes becoming one, resonating in perfect harmony. And then he was awake.
Sev felt along the back of Delek’s neck until he found the siffo. “But the thing’s still there. The … what’s it called?”
“The siffo. It’s okay. It doesn’t work anymore.”
“You have to take it out!” Sev snapped.
“I can’t just—”
“Take it out!” The boy clawed at Delek’s head, trying to rip the siffo from his skull. He began to sob. “Take it out!”
Delek grabbed for Sev’s wrists, trying to control him. “Hey, hey. Calm down. Relax.” He folded the boy’s arms into his chest. Sev’s words dissolved into incoherent crying. “Okay,” Delek said gently. “Okay. We’ll take it out.” He rocked the boy back and forth while shushing in his ear. “We’ll take it out.”
Delek exited the bedroom and closed the door behind him.
“Everything okay?” Neera asked. She tried to maintain a casual air, but it was clear she had heard what happened with Sev.
“He looks—” Delek began, but he was unable to finish his sentence. Emotion rippled across his face. He quickly covered it with a cough. “Sorry.” He opened a cabinet in the kitchen, removed a faded coffee mug, filled it with water from the tap, then guzzled the lukewarm liquid down. After recovering his composure, he spoke to Neera. “He doesn’t look good.”
Delek exhaled a shuddering breath. “I’m so sorry. I tried to—” He took another deep breath, trying to contain his emotions. Frustration surged through his body. “God damn it!” He hurled the coffee mug against the wall, shattering it into a thousand ceramic shards. He slumped against the counter and wiped his wrist across his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Neera put a hand on Delek’s arm. “I know.”
“Please, Mr. Delek,” Marta said. She pulled a chair out from the kitchen table. “Here. Sit. Let’s get you some food.”
Delek was quiet for a moment. Then he stood up straight and stiffened his spine. “No. Sorry, Marta. I can’t stay.” He walked over to the couch and picked up a pulse rifle.
“Where are you going?” Neera asked.
Delek popped out the clip, checked the rounds, then slapped it back in. “Syntech.”
Neera laughed incredulously. “Ha! Are you nuts?” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“I have to.”
“We’re supposed to be getting away from them, D.”
“Yeah, but what about this thing?” He tapped the siffo behind his ear. “Sev’s right. We’ve gotta get rid of it. They could be tracking us. Or, what if they get it working again? What if they make me hurt you? Or Sev?”
Neera knew Delek was right. They would never feel completely safe as long as he had that thing implanted in his skull. But going to Syntech was a massive risk. He could get caught, or killed.
“And besides,” Delek continued, “they owe us.”
He was right about that, too. They had no money, no place to stay, no meds for Sev. Still, Neera didn’t want him to do it. It was too dangerous. “No,” she insisted. “There’s gotta be someone else who can remove that thing.”
“I don’t know. We’ll find someone.”
Neera felt her pulse rising. She couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. It was right back to the way things were before. “I just spent four years trying to get you back, and now you want to leave again? No way. We stick together.”
“Yeah, that’s great,” he said sarcastically. “Leave Sev as an orphan.”
“I’m not just gonna stand by while you get yourself killed! Besides, it’s not safe here either. They could be outside right now for all we know.” She turned to Marta, hoping the old woman would say something sensible. “Marta?”
“Mr. Delek’s right, mi hija. He needs to end this.”
“Exactly,” Delek said.
“And Ms. Neera’s right too,” Marta continued, fixing Delek with a hard stare. “She needs you. And you need her. You go together. Or not at all.”
Delek frowned. He slung the pulse rifle around his back, then headed for the door. “I won’t be long.”
“Goddamnit, Delek!” Neera shouted. She stepped in front of him, blocking his way. “You’re not listening to me!”
“Then you just don’t care what I have to say. Is that it?” She glared at him, daring him to contradict her, to tell her it wasn’t true.
Before Delek could reply, a quiet voice spoke. “Dad?” The bedroom door opened. Sev peered out. “You’re leaving?”
Delek looked at Sev, then at Neera, then back at Sev. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m leaving.”
Neera’s stomach twisted. She couldn’t believe it. He was really going to do it. He was going to walk out on them—again.
Then Delek looked back at her. “We all are.”
Neera helped Sev climb into the passenger seat of the stolen Body Shop van. The undersized blanket from his bed was draped around his shoulders. “Whose van is this?” Sev asked.
“A friend’s,” Neera said. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” Neera closed the door, then went around to the back of the vehicle. Delek emerged from the rear exit of Block 12 carrying two huge duffel bags. He had changed out of his blood-smeared Sentinel fatigues and into civilian clothes: a pair of khaki cargo pants and a plain black t-shirt. He dropped the bags on the ground behind the van.
“That everything?” Neera asked.
“Everything that’ll fit. You’ve got his meds?”
“In the front.”
Delek yanked the back doors of the van open. Inside was a tangled mess of corpses. Neera recoiled a bit at the sour smell of death. She frowned. “Ugh. We’ve gotta get a new ride.”
“We will.” Delek hauled one of the duffel bags up and tossed it on top of the piled bodies. “Once we’re in.”
“You know that part where I say, ‘I told you so?’” Neera asked.
Delek nodded. “Mm-hmm.”
“Am I gonna need to say that again?”
Delek heaved the other bag into the van, then slammed the doors shut.
“Let’s hope not.”
Neera slowed the Body Shop van to a crawl as it pulled through the Syntech gates. She glanced down at Sev. The boy was huddled on the floor under the passenger seat dashboard, concealed from view by the blanket draped over his head and back.
The Syntech security guard stepped out of his booth and used his tablet to scan a QR code on the side of the van. Neera rolled down her window.
“Dropping off?” the guard asked.
“Incinerate or recycle?”
Neera thought about Delek hiding in the back of the van with a load of dead Sentinels. “Incinerate.”
“Bay 143.” The guard printed a receipt from his tablet, then handed it to Neera through the window. He pointed to a row of vans parked along a long loading dock, each under a sign displaying a neon green number.
Neera put the van in gear and began driving toward the loading dock, keeping her eyes on the side mirror while she drove. As soon as the guard’s back was turned, she swung the van into an underground parking garage. An illuminated sign cast a red glow on the windshield as the van passed under it.
Delek hauled the duffel bags out of the van and tossed them into the trunk of a silver luxury sedan parked next to it. He pressed the trunk’s auto-close button, then went around to the driver’s side of the sedan. Neera was behind the wheel. Sev was in the back seat.
“Did you hurt him?” Sev asked.
Delek’s eyes darted to the Valet slumped on the ground next to a giant wall of numbered hooks, each containing a key fob. “Not at all,” he replied. He wasn’t lying. He had twisted the synthetic Valet’s head hard enough to completely sever its Cortical Processing Unit from its neural column. It hadn’t felt a thing.
Neera tapped a button on the sedan’s GPS screen. A pleasant female voice said, “Destination set. Approximate arrival time: eight minutes.”
Delek handed a key fob to Neera. “You know what to do?”
“Yep.” She took the key, then passed her 9mm to Delek. “Be careful.”
Delek tucked the gun into the back of his waistband, under his shirt.
“This conversation will be the last thing you remember.”
Roi paced in front of a new group of volunteers, just like the group that Delek had come in with four years earlier. They were lined up in the same onboarding center, listening to Roi recite his scripted introduction.
“After this, we’ll proceed to the installation bay for processing and then—”
A series of muffled shouts echoed from behind a door marked Exit to Roi’s right, the same exit where Mirt had met his untimely end during Delek’s onboarding. There was a thud, then a groan, then another thud. The door rattled in its frame. Roi glanced over with a concerned look as he continued his spiel.
“And then you’ll be deployed to your respective units. Are there any questions before we head out?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a question,” Delek boomed.
The Exit door swung open. Delek stepped into the onboarding center. Behind him, two Syntech security guards were sprawled on the ground outside the exit, unconscious. Delek raised Neera’s 9mm and pointed it at Roi.
“Where’s our fucking money?”
Neera steered the silver sedan down an impeccably manicured suburban street and into the driveway of an ultramodern, glass-walled house. The garage door opened soundlessly.
Inside the car, a pleasant chime pinged, followed by the voice of the GPS.
Delek pushed Roi out of the processing center door and into a long hallway. At the far end of the hall was a pair of frosted glass doors under a sign that read Installation. Roi walked with his hands raised. He looked over his shoulder at Delek. “I didn’t know. I swear.”
“Bullshit.” Delek shoved Roi again. “Move.”
Roi stumbled forward, then regained his footing. “What are you going to do?”
“You mean what are you going to do.” Delek jabbed the barrel of the gun between Roi’s shoulder blades. “First, you’re gonna get this siffo out of my head. Then, you’re gonna give us what we’re owed, with interest.”
“I can’t do that. I don’t have the authority—”
Delek grabbed Roi by the back of his collar and swung him violently against the wall. Roi’s cheekbone smacked into the concrete. Delek spun him around, wrapped his hand around Roi’s neck, and lifted him off the ground with one hand. Roi’s heels dangled helplessly above the floor.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Delek pressed the barrel of his gun against Roi’s cheek. “Right?”
Roi choked out a strangled reply. “Right.”
Delek loosened his grip and lowered Roi to the floor. The smartphone in Delek’s pocket began to buzz. He pulled the phone out, looked at the screen, then held out the phone to Roi.
“It’s for you.”
The house’s kitchen was impeccably decorated in various shades of black and gray. Indirect LED light radiated from under the cabinets, casting a soft glow on the granite countertop. A lighting fixture that looked like an exploding star hung from the ceiling.
“Speak up,” Neera said. “So he can hear you.”
She pointed her pulse rifle at Roi’s wife, Yara. The woman was dressed in a form-fitting white pencil skirt and a sleeveless white blouse that accentuated her perfect golden tan. Streaks of black mascara ran down her face as she wept into the camera of Neera’s smartphone.
“She’s going to kill me,” Yara whimpered.
Neera leaned into view of the camera. “Hi, Roi. Remember me?” She lifted her pulse rifle in greeting. “Nice to see you again.”
“Please,” Roi begged from the smartphone screen. “Don’t hurt her.” He looked off camera at Delek. “Why are you doing this?”
The video spun as Delek snatched the phone from Roi. “Insurance,” Delek replied. Then the screen went dark.
“See? That was easy,” Neera said to Yara cheerily. “Now, let’s go find that auth key.”
“Remove it? On whose orders?” The installation tech, a young South Asian man named Joh, looked from Roi to the installation bay where Delek was waiting in a contoured chair. The bay was stocked with trays of medical instruments and racks of vital signs monitors. A dual-eyepiece surgical microscope on an articulated arm was affixed to the ceiling. Joh dragged his finger along his tablet screen, scrolling through a series of work orders. “There’s no req here.”
“Listen …” Roi pulled Joh by his elbow into the hall. Once they were out of Delek’s earshot, Roi spoke quietly. “He’s sentient.”
“Come on,” Joh scoffed. “That’s impossible.”
“Tell that to him.”
“Even if he is, we don’t need to remove the siffo. We can wipe it, re-image it. Get him back online.”
“No. We have to remove it.”
“You know I can’t just—
“He’s got my wife, okay? He’s going to kill her.”
Joh’s jaw dropped. “Shit, man. Are you serious?” He peeked back through the door into the installation bay where Delek was seated. “Did you call—” He stopped mid-sentence. Delek’s gun emerged through the doorway, aimed at Joh’s forehead.
Delek stepped into the hall. “Was there someone you wanted to call?”
Joh shook his head. “Uh-uh.”
“Great. Now, as our friend here mentioned,” he dropped a heavy hand on Roi’s shoulder, “I do have his wife.” Delek’s tone was regretful. “But as long as nothing happens to me, she’ll be just fine.” Delek cocked an eyebrow at Joh. “Nothing’s going to happen to me, right?”
“No?” Delek asked Roi. He squeezed Roi’s shoulder.
Roi clenched his teeth. “No.”
“All right.” Delek released his grip. “Then let’s get started.”
Yara sat in her lavishly furnished home office in front of a curving, ultra-wide computer screen. Neera stood behind her, the pulse rifle in her hands. She watched as Yara logged into her online banking site, then consulted the hardware authentication key in her hand. It was the same kind of auth key that Neera had stolen from Ironwill Financial. Yara typed in the time-limited code displayed on the auth key, verifying that she was authorized to access the account.
After a few seconds, the login was accepted. She was in.
“Perfect.” Neera leaned over Yara’s shoulder. “Now select Transfer, then—”
“I know what I’m doing,” Yara snapped. She clicked the Transfer tab and opened the peer-to-peer transfer interface. In the center was a large text entry box labeled TRANSFER AMOUNT. Below that was a small reminder: Current Balance: $34,562,458.00. “How much?”
“Hmm,” Neera pondered. “How about …” She tapped her finger against her lips. “All of it.”
Delek blinked his eyes, then touched the back of his head behind his right ear. There was a shallow depression where the siffo used to be. The spot was covered with a knot of thick, twisted scar tissue from where the wound had been cauterized by a surgical laser.
Delek looked up at Joh. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” Joh acknowledged. “How do you feel?”
Delek rotated his head on his neck, testing it from different angles. Aside from a little soreness behind his ear, equivalent to a mild tension headache, he felt fine. “I’m good. ”
As he stood up, Delek noticed the blood-streaked siffo resting on the tray next to his chair. The little button-like nub that had been visible on the outside of his skull belied the true size of the device. In reality, it was a tapered cylinder about the length of his thumb, with a thick cluster of nanofilaments sprouting out of the thin end. It looked like some kind of mechanical root vegetable, akin to a radish or a beet.
Delek picked up the siffo and held it up to Roi. “Mind if I keep this?” Without waiting for an answer, he stuffed the siffo in his pocket, then held up his smartphone. “Let’s check in on the ladies.” He tapped Neera’s name on the screen to initiate a video call.
Neera answered on the first ring. Her face appeared on screen, looking relieved. “Oh, thank God,” she breathed. “How’d it go?”
“I want to talk to my wife,” Roi demanded from behind Delek.
“Hey, now,” Delek said to Roi. “Don’t be rude.” Returning to Neera, he said, “I’m good. How’d it go there?”
“Perfect. Just chit-chatting with Queen Bitch here while we wait.”
“Roi?” Yara’s voice called from off-screen. The sound was shrill. “Are you there?”
“Yes!” Roi answered, raising his voice so she could hear. “Are you okay?”
“She’s fine,” Neera swung her smartphone camera to point at Yara. She was sitting on a wide leather couch, her hands bound behind her. Her ankles were tied with what looked like a green necktie.
“No, I’m not fine!” Yara yelled. “She tied me up! And pointed a gun at me!”
“Not in that order,” Neera reminded her.
“Just get her out of here!”
Neera turned the camera back to herself. “You’re a lucky man, Roi.”
“See you soon?” Delek asked Neera.
Neera smiled. “On my way.”
Delek disconnected the call, then pocketed his phone. He grabbed Roi by the arm. “Let’s go.”
As Delek pulled Roi toward the installation bay doors, Roi gave Joh a small nod. Joh dipped his chin slightly in response.
Delek didn’t notice.
As Neera drove the sedan through the Syntech gates, she glanced in the rearview mirror at Sev. The boy was curled into a ball in the back seat of the sedan with his blanket drawn up to his chin, asleep. He looked so frail. So weak. And yet, for the first time in almost a decade, Neera felt something resembling hope. The money Yara had transferred into their account was more than enough to get Sev the treatment he needed. No, not just the treatment; the cure. Even better, it was enough to support the three of them for decades, somewhere far from the Blocks, far from the city, far from Syntech. They could start over as a family, together.
Neera steered the sedan into the drop-off loop in front of the main Syntech tower, an oval driveway that encircled a massive fountain with the Syntech logo in the middle. As she came around the curve of the loop, she spotted Delek exiting Syntech’s multi-story glass atrium with Roi slightly behind him. She waved at them. Delek didn’t wave back. Instead, he held his right hand across his chest, over his heart. His first three fingers were rigid and straight, his pinkie finger was folded down. It was a subtle signal; one she knew well from her time in the Special Forces.
It meant distress.
Neera didn’t hesitate. The moment she saw Delek’s gesture, she hit the gas and accelerated around the curve of the loop. The tires screeched. The centrifugal force pressed Sev’s sleeping body against the back door, causing him to stir.
“Hang on!” she shouted as she turned the wheel.
Suddenly, a black military-style SUV with a green Syntech logo on the side appeared directly in front of the sedan, blocking its exit from the loop. Neera slammed on her brakes, narrowly avoiding a collision. Sev was thrown forward against the seat belt.
“Mom! What’s happening?”
Neera didn’t answer. She threw the car in reverse, then turned to look out the rear window. The car jumped over the curb, its bumper scraping against the side of the fountain. Neera put the car in drive again, then jammed her foot on the gas and turned the wheel, swinging the car back the way it came. She hit her brakes again. Shit. Another Syntech SUV was parked across the entrance to the loop.
She was trapped.
Delek could feel Roi’s gun pressing into his spine. He was furious at himself for letting his guard down after leaving the installation bay. Roi had arranged with Joh to alert Syntech security once it was clear that Yara was safe. When the elevator doors opened to the Syntech lobby, Delek was faced with a half-dozen armed guards. He still had his 9mm in his waistband, but the guards would have killed him if he had tried to reach for it. Instead, he raised his hands and surrendered.
Once Delek was disarmed, Roi told the guards his plan: he would use Delek to draw Neera out of the sedan, then have the guards nab her as well. Delek had tried to warn Neera about the setup with his distress signal, but he hadn’t been quick enough. Now she was trapped—with Sev in the back seat, nonetheless—and it was his own damn fault.
Roi poked the gun into Delek’s back. “Tell her to get out.”
Delek raised his hands to show he meant no harm. If Roi was perceptive enough, he would have noticed that Delek’s right pinkie finger was still folded down, continuing to signal distress to Neera. He would have known that Neera would recognize the signal and would ignore whatever Delek was saying. But Roi wasn’t perceptive enough. Not even close.
“Neera!” Delek called, distress signal on full display. “It’s over, babe. Come on.” He beckoned to her to get out of the car.
Neera looked at Delek through the driver’s side window, then put the car in reverse. She began slowly backing up in a wide arc.
“What’s she doing?” Roi asked, his voice verging on panic.
“Just relax. Let me talk to her.”
Neera continued in reverse until she was parked perpendicular to the road, with the car pointing directly at the Syntech atrium, facing Delek and Roi head-on.
She revved the engine.
Neera thought back to something Vim had said to her in the storage room of Artem’s club when he was first telling her how a siffo worked. He had been explaining about cemi fields, about how her cemi field and Delek’s must have vibrated at very similar frequencies, about how “falling in love” was just the gradual synchronization of their cemi fields. He had asked her how she felt when she and Delek first met. What had she said …?
“It was like he could read my mind.”
Neera stared at Delek through the windshield, hoping that whatever connection they had was still there. With one finger, she nudged the switch on the steering wheel to open the sedan’s sunroof. As it slid open, she covered the noise with additional revs of the engine. She flicked her eyes skyward to signal Delek about the sunroof.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure if he understood her meaning. Then he nodded ever so slightly, and she knew that he had. At least, she hoped that he had.
“Sev?” Neera said, making eye contact with the boy in the rearview mirror.
She watched as Sev scrunched down low in his seat and clutched his hands around his seat belt. Then she jammed her foot down on the gas, sending the pedal to the floor.
The car lunged forward at full speed, heading directly for Delek and Roi.
As the sedan accelerated, Delek took two running steps toward the car and jumped into the air, timing his jump perfectly to avoid being hit. Instead, he planted one foot on the hood of the car as it sped under him, using the momentum to launch himself up and over the roof.
At the same time, Neera reached over to the passenger seat, grabbed her pulse rifle, and tossed it up through the sunroof.
Delek caught the weapon in mid-air as the car passed under him, then landed on the ground with both feet and rolled head-over-shoulders to slow his momentum.
For a brief second, Roi stood frozen in shock as he watched Delek leaping over the car. But any sense of wonder he might have felt was quickly neutralized by the feeling of the sedan crashing into him at full speed. The impact hurled him backward, sending him cartwheeling through the wall of the Syntech atrium. The glass shattered, raining a hail of razor-edged shards down on Roi’s broken body.
Delek finished his acrobatic landing by springing to his feet and firing his pulse rifle. The rounds exploded the windshield of one of the Syntech SUVs that was blocking the loop, killing the driver. Before the glass had even finished falling, Delek swung his weapon in the opposite direction and blasted the other SUV as well. The driver of the second SUV slumped forward against the steering wheel. His foot weighed down on the gas. The SUV’s engine roared as it plowed into a concrete barrier, opening a partial gap in the loop.
After hitting Roi, Neera slammed the brakes and jerked the wheel, skidding the car sideways before crashing into the Syntech lobby. The guards stationed in the atrium reacted swiftly, rushing through the broken wall toward the car. Suddenly, the air was punctuated with the sharp brrrrrrrp of Delek’s pulse rifle firing on fully automatic. The guards fell in quick succession as the pulse rounds tore them to pieces.
Inside the car, Neera leaned over and threw open the passenger side door for Delek. “Get in!”
As Delek ran toward the car, a volley of pulse rounds pierced the air. A ribbon of blood erupted from Delek’s shoulder. Another jumped from his bicep. A thick chunk of muscle exploded from his thigh. Delek stumbled and collapsed to his knees, then toppled forward onto his chest. As he fell, he saw who was firing at him.
It was Roi.
Roi’s face was a grisly mask of gore and exposed bone. His legs and one of his arms were visibly broken. But somehow, despite his injuries, he had managed to drag himself over to a weapon dropped by one of the fallen guards.
With Delek down, Roi turned the gun in Neera’s direction and pulled the trigger again. It fired wildly, sending a crooked stripe of bullet holes zipping across the side of the car. The driver’s side windows exploded. Neera ducked in an attempt to shield herself against the spray of shrapnel. Slivers of broken glass sliced into her cheek and arms.
Steeling himself against the pain in his shoulder, Delek dragged his pulse rifle into firing position, aimed it at Roi, and squeezed off a burst. The rounds tore into Roi, killing him.
Using the weapon for leverage, Delek raised himself onto his knees, then to his feet. Blood poured down his leg. He half-limped, half-fell into the passenger seat of the car. Grabbing his pant leg, he dragged his wounded limb into the car, then pulled the door closed. “Go! Go!”
Neera sat up and gripped the steering wheel. Out of habit, she glanced in the rearview mirror as she put the car in gear. Her eyes went wide. In the back seat, Sev was slumped forward against the seat belt. Blood streamed down his face.
“Sev!” Neera shouted. The boy didn’t answer. Didn’t react. Didn’t move.
Delek turned around to look at his son. “Oh, no,” he groaned. “Sev … no …”
Neera put the car in park, then unbuckled her seat belt, climbed over her seat, and tumbled into the back with Sev. She slid over close to the boy and cupped his face in her hands, wiping the blood out of his eyes with her thumbs. “Sev! Look at me.”
“Is he okay?” Delek asked.
Sev’s eyelids fluttered. He moaned weakly. Neera let out a sound halfway between a sob and a shout.
“Drive!” Neera shouted at Delek.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Delek dragged himself over the center console and into the driver’s seat. He grabbed the wheel, put the car in gear, and hit the gas.
Delek’s eyes shot open. A surge of panic seized his chest as he scanned his unfamiliar surroundings: the sprawling master bedroom, the stylish mahogany furniture, the balcony overlooking the ocean. It took a moment before he realized he was in his own bed.
Even after several months, the place still felt foreign to him. He woke up every day feeling disoriented, unsure of where he was or how he had gotten there. He didn’t know if it was a side effect of having the siffo removed or if he was just having trouble adapting to such a radically altered existence, but he couldn’t seem to process the fact that this was his life now. It felt like a dream, one he might wake up from at any moment. But he wouldn’t. For better or worse, it was real.
Delek kicked the covers off and swung his legs down to the floor. He was wearing a simple black tank top and a pair of knee-length athletic shorts. A thick pink scar twisted around his shoulder and down his bicep from where the doctors had repaired his bullet-torn muscle. He stood and stretched, limped over to the French doors, then stepped out onto the beachfront balcony. As he watched the surfers gliding along the waves in front of Tuamotu’s brilliant sunrise, he thought about Sev.
He would have loved this place.
The doctors had done everything they could to save the boy, but in the end, his body was too weak to recover from the stray bullet that had ricocheted into his skull. The bullet caused a hemorrhage; the hemorrhage caused a stroke. One by one, Sev’s organs shut down. Within a few days, he was gone. Delek and Neera had done their best to move on, buying a house on the beach in Tuamotu just like they had planned. But it all felt meaningless without Sev.
Neera appeared in the doorway behind Delek. Her dreadlocks were gone in favor of short, golden twists. “Morning.” She placed a kiss on his neck, then wrapped her arms around him. Her cheek was cool against his shoulder.
“Did you hear back?” Delek asked.
“Let’s give him a call.”
Neera returned to the bedroom and retrieved her smartphone from the nightstand. Delek followed her in, watching as she tapped a name in her contact list. A moment later, a familiar face appeared on the screen. It was Vim, the hacker who had worked for Artem making interrupters.
“Hey,” Neera said. “Any progress?”
“A bit,” Vim replied. He reached off-screen and picked up an object, turning it over in his hands and bringing it within view of the camera. It was the siffo, the one that had been extracted from Delek’s skull. The device’s nanofilaments were patched into a small circuit board, which in turn was connected to Vim’s monolithic quantum computer. An indecipherable wall of random characters was displayed on the computer’s monitor. “I have to say, single-photon encryption is a bitch.” Vim typed a command into his terminal. “Luckily …” He hit the Enter key. “It’s my bitch.” The wall of characters suddenly transformed into human-readable code.
“So, it’s possible?” Neera asked. She glanced at Delek. Her eyebrows went up as she waited for Vim to respond.
“Just say the word.”
Delek stared out the window at the sun setting over Tuamotu’s rolling surf. On the pool deck outside, a Syntech Personal Service attendant in a mini skirt massaged the shoulders of her owner, a wealthy executive with a tan the color of old leather. The siffo behind the attendant’s ear stood out in stark contrast to her platinum blonde hair. A bright flare of anger flashed in Delek’s eyes as the executive’s fingers slipped along the attendant’s inner thigh.
Delek thought back to that first night on the transport, after he signed his life away to Syntech. He thought about Adler. About Kevan. About Mirt. About the thousands of people—people just like him—who had sold themselves into virtual slavery trying to help the ones they loved. People who had sacrificed everything and had gotten nothing in return.
Everything Delek did, he did for Sev. And now Sev was gone. It was all so pointless. He knew he couldn’t bring Sev back … but he could make sure his son hadn’t died for nothing. So, with his old siffo—and a seven-figure payment—in hand, Delek had reached out to Vim to see if the hacker could help. He knew more about siffos and cemi fields than anyone outside of Syntech. With Artem gone, Vim was basically a free agent, willing to sell his services to the highest bidder. Delek made sure that was him.
After a few months of hacking, Vim finally had a breakthrough: he found an exploit that allowed him to permanently disable the siffo’s onboard AI, rendering the device incapable of overriding the brain’s cemi field. All Vim had to do was push a small program out over the network to whoever Delek wanted to target, and the person would be free from Syntech’s control forever.
Vim typed a few more commands into his terminal, then rubbed his palms together in anticipation. “All right. Whose siffo are we gonna disable first?”
Neera put her hand on Delek’s shoulder. He reached up and laced his fingers through hers. “How about …” Delek looked out the window at the Personal Service attendant below. “All of them.”
“Man, you don’t fuck around, do you?” Vim cackled gleefully. “Go big or go home, I guess.” His fingers flew over the keyboard. After a few seconds, he finished typing. His finger paused over the Enter key. “You sure?”
Neera’s fingers tightened around Delek’s. He squeezed her hand back. “We’re sure.”
Vim tapped Enter. “Done.”
A counter on Vim’s monitor began running as siffos across Syntech’s network were taken offline forever. The numbers were a blur. The counter hit five figures … six figures … seven …
After ending the call with Vim, Delek walked back over to the French doors. Outside on the pool deck, the over-tanned executive watched in confusion as his Personal Service attendant strode off the deck and out through the exit.
“Hey!” the man yelled after her. “Where are you going?”
Delek smiled as the attendant shouted back her answer.
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