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“The Justice Arm” by Durand Welsh

“The Justice Arm” placed Third in the Science in My Fiction contest.

Bogart straps me into the Popper’s scarred metal shell, wires the shunts into my carotid arteries, and then presses a hard cylinder into my left hand.

“What’s that?” I say, afraid to look in case I rip the shunts out.

“Whiskey.”

I’m on duty and, quite sensibly, I haven’t cracked the wetware that monitors my blood alcohol. I tell Bogart this and he takes the bottle off me. I hear a procession of long gulps.

I ask him why he doesn’t just tweak his reward pathways for the same high. He snorts and tells me that he’s a Scotsman. From what I’ve seen of Bogart over the years, the heritage of the noble Scot is the root of a multitude of sins, and now I can safely assume alcoholism ranks amongst them.

“What can I do for you, Jimmy?” Bogart says.

“How about a new job,” I reply, staring up at dried blood spots on the ceiling.

“Ha. You and me both.” Another gulp. “Seriously, lad, what are you after?”

“Phage Land kit. Antiviral updates. And a happy ending.”

“Very funny. You want some of that new Russian bootleg?”

I give Bogart the thumbs up, and in the long suffering tone of the beaten man, say, “Go on, download the Russki contraband. What doesn’t kill me …ah, you know the rest.”

Bogart gets busy adjusting the Popper’s settings, and I, subdued and compliant, have the opportunity to regret that last comment.

Last month, Bogart dragged in one of the Assyrian Lords, a bad guy who’d murdered Murtez three years ago in a botched search warrant. The Assyrian was supposed to go into overnight lockup for being intoxicated, and didn’t he look surprised when Bogart shoved him into the Popper instead. When I walked out the boys were turning the Assyrian’s arms into gelatinous flippers and making his skin liquid. Then they started playing with his mind, at least that’s how it sounded from the meal room where I was trying to eat my dinner.

I doubt it’d wash with IA that the croutons in my salad drowned out all that screaming, but after six years working the border with Phage Land, I know where my loyalties lie. Murtez was a good man. The turd who killed him had joked about stuck pigs while Bogart was kneeling in broken glass, trying to pack gauze wadding into the hole in his friend’s chest.

Have no fear, the audits will catch us all – but not tonight.

Bogart places a thumb in the keyhole and interfaces his wetware with the Popper. The shunts jiggle. Wetware caroms around my circulatory system, bustles into my tissues, sinks into my bones and cellular DNA. I bleed a little from my eyes.

I should have quizzed Bogart about the specifics of the download.

He leans over me and says, “I snuck an extra inch onto your pecker. One on the house, son.”

I’ve always needed an illegal, black market schlong; but Bogart is just kidding.

“Your missus will be a happy lady,” I say. No one laughs, not Bogart at my acidic joke, and not me at the feinted trespass on my manhood. “Hell, so long as you don’t make me look like Grace Kelly or Winona Ryder.”

“Who and who?”

“I guess you didn’t get those old movies in Scotland, just lots of guys who needed bigger dicks.”

Bogart says nothing. I hear whiskey being swallowed. I wish he’d thrown a joke back at me, but instead he’s clammed up. It makes me nervous, and the Popper isn’t exactly a therapeutic aide.

I start hemorrhaging from my nose and eyes. The straps around my forearms and shins are very tight.

“If you’re going upcountry,” Bogart says, “I take it you need the Judge put online?”

“I wasn’t in a rush, but since you’re offering, why not have all the agony in one lump sum.”

“And I thought I was a pessimist.” Bogart leans over me. “See if you can push some coagulants along your nasal lining, lad. The upholstery doesn’t clean itself.”

Anyone would have thought it was his machine, not department property. I let the blood flow, partly to needle Bogart, and partly because I don’t want to fiddle with my internals while billions of logic nodes awaken in my meat and blood. I like to monitor the Judge as he wakes. He can be truculent, and a truculent organic AI riding in your veins and arteries, running calculations in your spare grey matter, is not a good thing.

The Judge’s presence is like a malignant shadow that I can’t quite draw into the light. The Judge makes me want to peel off my scalp and claw apart the lobes of my brain. Induced schizophrenia – just another perk of this job.

“We’ve got a kid to find,” I subvocalize.

“A manhunt?” the Judge says, the auditory nerves inside my skull tweaked so that his voice sounds like a whisper from someone crouched just behind me.

A manhunt – Christ, we should all use such bad slang. “Yeah, except they’re not men.”

“What took her? Amazons? Hermaphrodites?” The sarcasm doesn’t suit his dead voice.

“Some bad things,” is my terse reply.

“Bad things. That’s cute. Is that why you’re on duty with a thirty eight degree fever and half a ton of black market wetware shoved in you?”

I wriggle uncomfortably in my straps. I’m no fan of being in bondage while someone, or something for that matter, whispers sarcastic comments about my shadier life decisions.

Bogart says, “Something wrong?”

“Just chatting with the chief,” I reply. “Bogart, why don’t you say hi to him?” There’s only a gassy, plopping noise as the whiskey bottle is viciously upended yet again.

“We’re about to go jaunting off to Phage Land, right?” the Judge says. Jaunting, like we’re trouping down the Yellow Brick Road, arm in arm, the Judge as the Tin Man, me as Dorothy, and the rest of the cast in absentia. Or maybe I’m the Scarecrow, still searching for my brain. If the Judge were a man, I’ve no doubt he would sound jovial. But he’s not a man, and the voice inside my head is flat and cold and dark.

“Where else but Phage Land?” I say.

“Better limber up your spanking hand, Jimmy. If they’re not men, then they won’t need a trial. I’ll have the death warrants punched through faster than you can pull the trigger.”

What a relief, eh.

Oblivious to the dialogue between me and the Judge, Bogart says, “Is this about that kid?”

The shunts hum in my neck, vibrate the bones in my spine like the keys of a xylophone.

Bogart’s voice softens. “And I understand how it is, wanting to save someone…but she’s already dead.”

I hesitate. Bogart has been in the job too long. In front of him, I can’t pretend I’m someone I’m not. So I don’t. I just lie there, eyes shut.

Bogart figures it out. What do I expect? In fifteen years in the detectives he must have absorbed more skills than simply reading the paper and drinking coffee. “I’m wrong, aren’t I?” he says, and exhales, hard. I smell whiskey and sour breath. “I should have known. You want justice, and justice isn’t necessarily the same thing as saving the kid, is it?”

I open my eyes, see him leaning way too close over me. “No, it isn’t. Like you said, she’s already dead.”

“I understand. Do what you have to do. When you get back, give me a ring. We’ll head over to The Greenhouse, get a bit of old school booze into you.”

He moves back, and with my personal space restored comes the realization that I’m oddly touched by his offer. “It’s a deal.”

“And as they say on the stage, go out there and break a leg.”

“That’s the plan,” I say. “I just hope it’s not one of mine.” I sink back and let the Popper pump its junk. The girl’s scarf is a hard, wadded ball in my pocket. For a moment I think I can smell it, can smell her, but it must be my imagination, because even an olfactory boost courtesy of the Popper won’t have taken effect yet.

“Tell me about the case,” the Judge says in the dark behind my eyes. “Tell me about the girl, and how we’re going to find her killers.”

I subvocalize the location of the electronic files, and then I wait for him to ask permission to dig through my frontal lobes for first hand evidence. He doesn’t ask, but I soon feel the thin ghost of him sorting through my memories anyway. He should ask permission. He really should.

I clamp down on my childish whining and give in to the flow of memory.

***

Two nights ago, I was leaning out a fifth floor window, trying to get a decent angle with my torch without falling twelve stories. Even if I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, the uniform meant I had to pretend to. Authority is what you give the uniform, not the other way around like some people believe.

The building was a cut-rate foglet lattice, malleable as putty. I once went to a job once where some nude freak had programmed the whole floor of his bedroom to pulsate with ten inch dildos – throbbing, pink stalactites that made the outcome of my crash-tackle arrest pretty tough to explain to IA.

My diligent scouring of the outer wall revealed nothing – no monkey grips, no pitons, no sticky feet. The station AI was interrogating the CCTV network, but most of the suburb’s feeds were corrupted. Someone had snatched a five year old child, and I didn’t have a clue how they’d done it.

Ruling out old-fashioned infanticide (for that rewarding line of enquiry the Police Force employs detectives), the most likely possibility was that the suspect had hacked the obsolete House AI. After that, he could have simply made the front door as insubstantial as smoke. Or he could have turned the outer wall into an escalator. Any cop would have gotten a headache accounting for all the possibilities.

Which wasn’t a problem for my erstwhile partner, Cuedos, because he was still down in the car. Ostensibly, he was rustling up a forensics team and detectives, but his absence probably had more to do with the apartment’s depressing air. I was too dispirited myself to bother ordering him upstairs. Through the open window, I couldn’t see any stars. What I could see were particles of the failed Sun Shield ablating away as they re-entered the atmosphere. Cheery. Very cheery.

It wasn’t the backdrop I’d have chosen for interviewing a grieving husband and wife. I say grieving because they both knew that if their little girl wasn’t dead, she’d probably be better off if she were. By now her organs were probably halfway to Lebanon, or she was being prepped as a mule for bootleg chromosomes.

The mother had a routine going where she’d wail, and then go catatonic, and then wail again. All I could think was help me out ma’am, I’ve got other cases to solve, other crying people to help. Maybe I’d have felt differently if I had kids of my own, but that’s one mistake I didn’t intend on making. And on a cop’s wage I’d have no chance of getting my sperm scrubbed of genetic pollution; about a quarter of that kid would be mine, and the rest would be from branches of the tree a long way from Homo Sapiens.

The father, he was just staring at his palms like he could read the future in them. They were pasty white, like baby flesh. He had gecko limbs, re-growths. Daddy was a war vet. I looked around the room again.

The foglet arrays were barely functional: the floor had birthed a couch that resembled a tumor eaten liver, and the walls, notionally green, were fried with static. Three empty 750 ml bottles of Beezer Crash stood tall and proud along the kitchen counter. I thought Beezer only came in stubbies, but then the local bottle shop probably served a thirstier clientele than the one on my corner. I asked if I could see the victim’s room.

Running on a functioning stretch of the back wall was a looped movie of a family outing to a park. Smiles, sunlight, real grass. The little girl was dusky and Asian – an Indonesian. I asked if she was adopted. She was, the father told me. No small investment, a child. Here was another vet who’d returned home with more than just holiday snaps of the radioactive slag that used to be Bali.

I didn’t need to ask how her parents died, or why a man in a slum would burn out his remaining credit raising a child who wasn’t his. Sometime in the future, I might need to atone for my own sins.

The father frowned as he watched me go through her toy box. “Sorry, I have to check,” I said.

“It’s not that,” he said. He glanced around the room again, checked behind the door. “The bastard took her toys, too. Why would a person do that?”

My blood went cold. “What?”

“Her toys…or whatever they are. Munchkins, like in that newsreel, the one where a bunch of them are dancing on the deck of that sinking freighter off Brazil.”

Munchkins: illegal playthings, gene engineered from koalas, pandas, extinct Paleolithic cuties, and other more exotic bases. Knowing the current market price, I had a hunch where the father got his. “You brought them back from Bali?” I said.

Along with the girl?

He shrugged. “So what if I did?”

Did he know we were talking about a capital crime? But a missing daughter adopted or not, earns a man some leeway. I tweaked my larynx with some karaoke wetware Bogart had lifted off a Jap site, and Bette Midler and Kamahl had my back as I compassionately explained. Had her father heard about the old African wars, and bombs that were disguised as children’s toys?

Bombs disguised as toys; sleeper killers disguised as Munchkins. Only the technology has changed, not the intent. The trigger could be time based, environmental, or a hormonal key. Our bombers had dropped thousands over Bali as we pulled out. Or so Bogart had told me, although he’d been half-cut on cheap Glenfinnig during the telling of that reliable tale.

Cuedos pinged me, informed me the AI hadn’t been tampered with and the house had been unlocked from the inside. With that said, he got back to whatever business still required him to hide twelve stories away on the street.

The father asked the obvious. “Why didn’t they just murder her in her sleep?”

“They’re not machines,” I said. I was paraphrasing Bogart now, passing his inebriated fables off as wisdom, but I had nothing else to offer this wrecked man. I didn’t know what he was feeling, and I couldn’t pretend to know, but all he wanted from me was the problem solved, not my understanding and compassion. I could respect that attitude.

I said, “They love her, even though, sooner or later, they’ll have to kill her.”

“If they do love her” – and I could see he struggled with that word – “why don’t they just kill themselves? Or each other?”

“Self-preservation is easy to code for, and they’ve been programmed so they can’t commit suicide – or indulge in pacts to kill each other.”

The father swallowed and for a moment I thought he was going to cry. Probably me standing there was the only thing which stopped him. Me, stoically representing the laws he fought for, the laws which sanctioned the seeding of these creatures, the laws which didn’t prevent a monster getting into the bedroom of his little girl.

“Can you get her back?” he asked. And there it was, the weight of my calling. He’d done his service, had lost his limbs in some equatorial hellhole with nothing to show for it but that little girl, and now he was expected to turn his fatherly responsibilities over to me. He was wondering if I was competent enough, he was wondering what slip of fate had allowed so much of his heart to ride on my abilities and not his own.

I felt ridiculously young, but also, somehow, very, very old. His stare held nothing new for me.

“No promises,” I said. If I had to make a promise I could keep, it’d be that his daughter was dead, or soon would be. But policing has never just been about helping people; it’s also, since time immemorial, been just as much about punishing them.

I took the most recently worn piece of her clothing, her scarf, for the scent profile. I took a photo and genetic profile of her and of each of the missing toys. In her photo, she was squeezing one of them so tightly his eyes were bugging out of his head.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Chilli Chino,” the father said. “Her favorite.”

He looked cute and cuddly and harmless. With a name like that, though, he deserved to die.

***

The Soup Kitchen is the only black market nanoware factory in the Southern Hemisphere. It lies five hundred klicks into Phage Land.

During the scorched earth policy of the retreat, the outlaw AI overseeing it overrode its self-destruct codes, and shortly afterwards opened its nutrient vats to private tenders. Assuming Bogart’s history lesson is accurate, (when pressed, he assured me it was), the kidnappers will want to excise their hardwired instincts before they cave in and slice and dice their little friend. How far would I go to stop myself killing the only person I’d ever loved; would I trek five hundred klicks through a plague riddled desert? It’s strange that I should even ask myself that, being as I intend to travel just as far, along those same bad roads, and with nothing but the thought of killing some bastardized toys as incentive. For love, who knows how far I’d go.

I take the Hume Highway North, spearing through the black swathes of land that used to house the gasoline farms, then pushing into unscrubbed territory, my bubble bike’s AI reporting increasingly frantic alarms from the last of the roadside pillars. The land here is grey sand and reminds me of battered tin sheeting. Nano warfare has stripped the soil and, in places, eaten all the way to the quartz bedrock. This used to be yellow pasture dotted with stringybards and, along the watercourses, the drooping shapes of weeping willows. The willows died when I was a boy.

I stop because of the dog. It’s squatting beside a black, tarry river, watching me. It’s a kelpie, same as my granddad owned on his sheep run. Black muck is caked around its mouth, and its tongue is lolling in the heat.

Running loose out here are viral mines; cancer causing bacterial plagues; and other, worse, things. My com system is already a casualty of the electronic chaff. The chaff is partly why I’ve got the Judge’s sublime company: it’s not as if I, a mere policeman, could be trusted to uphold the law unsupervised.

The bike’s sniffers give the all clear, and I dissolve the canopy and step out into the heat and wind. I remove the filtration mask and smell petroleum. The river is waste seepage from an underground reservoir where feral microbes from the gasoline farms have found a niche. The dog must be thirsty to attempt drinking that gunk.

The dog wags its tail. I try to feel nothing. I feel sad anyway. My granddad used to say that that’s the curse of being human: you get a heart, for better or for worse.

“Shoot it,” the Judge says. “Put the thing out of its misery and let’s get moving.”

I break my gaze from the dog and stare away at the bleak horizon. This is what the girl’s father fought for. This is what broke my granddad’s heart. But it’s still my country, for what that’s worth.

I leave the mask on the seat and override the warning messages that cycle through my ear. I take the smart-rifle from the chassis holster. The dog takes two steps forwards, wags its tail.

I line the rifle up and its OS interfaces with my nervous system, plotting trajectories across my vision and smoothing out any tics and twitches. I tap my trigger finger against the casing, thinking.

“You ever owned a dog?” I ask the Judge.

“Just shoot it.”

I fold the rifle shut. I pour three inches of water into an empty ration pack and leave it for the dog.

“What you’ve done is cruelty to an animal,” the Judge says. “Prolonging its life out here.”

“Should I charge myself? Wouldn’t that be great?”

“How about we skip the neglect of duty hearing and go to the bit where I hand down a stiff warning as your penalty.”

I almost laugh, the conversation is so absurd. But the Judge isn’t joking. He wouldn’t know how, grim bastard.

Ah, fuck it. He can go to hell. He’s borrowing my heart; he can abide by its decisions, too.

Back at the bike, I turn away from the breeze, and as the petroleum stink lessens, I smell an underlying odor that isn’t the dog or my sweating body. I magnify my sense of smell with some wetware trickery. Now I can pick out the stratas of scent that peel off the road: a herd of roos, which recently bounded north, one of them pregnant, one of them dying – and something else. I pull the scarf from my pocket, hold it to my nose.

The girl’s alive.

Hooking my olfactory wetware to the bike’s sniffers, I reseal the bubble, and follow the trail north.

***

In theory, Justice is blind, but it is the Judge who scans my speed-blurred vision, flags the imagery of footprints breaking away from the cracked and crumbling shoulder on the left. I wheel the bike in, sand blowing up in ballooning tails that hang gently in the air, telling me there’s not much in the way of breeze outside the bubble. Sweat’s already prickling my upper lip as I think about the afternoon heat. I leave the mask in its dash compartment and step outside.

“Footprints, heading west,” the Judge says. He’s supposed to be impartial, but you leave an organic AI in a man’s body for long enough, fail safes and protocols start to mean very little.

“I’m on it,” I say, annoyed.

I’d been focused on a nano storm in the middle distance, a seething, glittering mass capable of eating my bones, my fingernails, my teeth. Without a breeze to coax it, the storm has settled in a dry creek bed. Desiccated bushes and a furrow several klicks long show me the storm came from the north, indicating that if the wind picks up again, I’ll be right in its path. I keep that in mind. Unlike the Judge, I don’t have a back-up copy in a judiciary datacloud.

Screening the bike behind a sandy berm, I kneel at the tracks. Six pairs of prints. Five have divots cut by claws and circular impressions made by footpads. One pair, though, bears the zigzag tread of sneakers. I literally smell the girl.

I tap the smart-rifle’s magazine, make sure it’s snug. I link to the OS, and targeting data squirts across my vision. The footprints file down into a shallow gully, travelling two abreast, the girl in the centre of the column. They thread over the next rise. As I follow them, I check the map: Lake George and the Soup Kitchen are just ahead.

I feed a template into the rifle via the wetware interface. The rifle hums, grows warm. By the time I reach the rise’s crest the bio-mag is loaded with pheromone bombs cobbled out of my own DNA.

“Bio-weapons?” the Judge says. “Prohibited offensive ordinance, Crimes Act 2099. Section 45(1).”

I slot a can of intell motes into the rifle’s launcher and fire it high over the rise. While I wait for the motes to network I squat down just below the rise’s crest. “Help me out.”

The Judge says, “DPP v Drechler. If the ordinance contains more than fifty percent human DNA, it’s not an offensive weapon. Because it’s not something used to cause injury. It’s a legal extrusion of the host.”

This is why I’m not a lawyer. I jiggle the DNA percents inside the bio-mag.

“And you have to intend to use them defensively. Do you intend to use them defensively and what is the color of the sky?” the Judge says. I know what he wants. I tell him the truth.

“The sky’s grey, Baby J.” A faint tingle runs along the nape of my neck.

The Judge is silent. Then he says, “You’re telling the truth. Your intent is defensive and just. I’ve archived the lie detector results. The law’s got your back, Jimmy.”

The rules for the game are different out here. I don’t feel any guilt. This is about my life, the life of a girl, and a country I still believe in. This is about hard reality, and, God almighty, us cops are the only ones playing by any rules at all, anymore.

Electronic chaff has killed my Net link. There’s no ‘intrusive supervision’, no duty officer looking over my shoulder, no on-duty audits of my Net linkages. I don’t have to worry about appeasing minorities and the media and special interest committees. I don’t have to worry about some boss handing my ass to IA to get his next promotion. Here, the law is distilled. It’s back to being about right and wrong, me and them.

Although I still don’t know where the Judge fits in to this neat world view.

“Let’s kill them,” the Judge says. I shiver so hard my wetware can’t compensate, and the rifle stock tap dances across the gravel. The Judge is getting stranger. On the last excursion, he gave one of his verdicts in rhyme. Is it my imagination or do the nerves in my right hand, near my holstered pistol, twitch?

He’s getting to like the killing too much.

“If they were men, with a right to trial, we’d still execute them, Jimmy,” he says frankly.

“You’d have to find them guilty first,” I say. “Though I appreciate your confidence in my ability.”

Last year, in Phage Land, they have me down as executing twenty-three felons. It’s some sort of record. Twenty-three times I stood behind a cuffed and kneeling man, my pistol in my hand and the Judge’s verdict ringing in my ears. But that stellar record isn’t mine, never was, though only the Judge and I know the truth.

That final job, with the men who raped and tortured that girl out in Ararat – my arm wouldn’t stay steady, and I started crying, and whether it was for the girl, or for all the pieces of myself I’d sold to become the angel of vengeance for her and the innumerable others like her, I don’t know. All I know is that in an abandoned truck stop, alone, exhausted, three ribs broken where one of them had gotten lucky with an iron pipe, I lost my way. Pathetic, crying like a baby, I finally granted the Judge his wish. He hijacked my right arm, steadied the gun cool as you like, squeezed the trigger four times, and I thanked him for it. Our secret, he whispered. And afterwards, I opened my eyes to the empty sky and wiped my tears away.

The motes come online. Telemetry feeds in. The Soup Kitchen holds centre stage at the bottom of Lake George’s waterless depression. The factory is made of bone overlaid on a scaffold of silicon and mineralized collagen. The scene belongs in a fairy tale, some old school fable of butchery and blood. The Lake George earth around the factory is stained brown with leaking nutrient tar, and the factory might be a giant’s tooth in his slumbering, rotting mouth.

The motes pinpoint four of the Munchkins hunkered down amongst an outstation of prefab shacks. Leaning over the rise, elbows propped on the crest, I launch the first of the bio-mag rounds into the nano storm. The round vanishes with a sparkle. The storm convulses, a ravenous beast a kilometer wide and as tall as a skyscraper. I fire the next round into the sand a couple of hundred meters closer to the factory. The storm begins to crawl forwards, tendrils snaking out across the sand. I begin to walk the pheromone bombs down a narrow firing-lane, teasing the nano storm onto the prefab shacks.

The storm rolls down the dry, dipping shoreline. Pellets of stone skip past me. Dust whips across my face. I fish a pair of goggles from my belt and curse Bogart for skimping on nictitating membranes for my eyes. A furred head peeks out of one of the shack’s windows. It’s devilishly cute and blinks like an astounded child. I realize my instincts are screaming at me to charge down the slope and rescue it.

The Judge electronically stamps the outstanding death warrants. His instincts are nothing like mine.

The nano storm engulfs the shacks. The structures evaporate into streaming bands of particulates and vaporous waste. The bear begins to dissolve, its fur and flesh peeling back from a white skull, bony nubs of spine popping free. Struggling back inside the shack, the creature becomes a messy anatomy lesson, and then even that horrible sight vanishes into the storm.

From out of that maelstrom, a shot blasts into the ground near my head. I duck below the ridgeline and wait. All I hear is the hiss of molecular disassembly, and after giving the storm what I think is more than enough time to take care of the shooter, I jog down the slope, telemetry link screeching as the storm reaches skywards and gobbles my motes. One prefab remains standing – the closest to the factory. I raise the rifle to my shoulder. The storm is interfering with the scans, and before the motes went off-line, one of the Munchkins was at the back of the prefab.

On my left shoulder, the storm surges and growls. Dust kicks across my shins. Ripples shiver across brown pools of nutrient tar.

I lower the rifle and lope a circuitous route around the prefab. The storm plays along the prefab’s roofline, and the lip of the roof starts drooping like taffy. I feel terrifyingly exposed.

“Go easy on the endorphins, Jimmy,” the Judge says. “You got to stop being so scared.”

“I’ll take the advice onboard.”

The Judge laughs. It’s a rumbling boom, like tectonic plates subsiding. He told me once he chose the effect himself. Obviously just for me, since no one else has the pleasure of hearing him laugh.

Movement, near the prefab. I’m already loosely covering the doorway, but the movement is nearer the left wall. I drop to one knee and try to get a lock. The storm fools the targeting program, and the rifle chases phantoms until I switch off everything except the wetware that keeps my hands from shaking.

Rounds whistle through the air above me, followed moments later by the repetitive banging of the automatic that fired them. I sight along the wall. One of the Munchkins is around the back corner; I’ve got a fix on where its assault rifle noses around the wall. The creature’s shoulder and head are hunched around the rifle stock, but the pint sized crim mustn’t have had much chance practicing marksmanship in his toy box, because he’s a lousy shot.

Bone gleams through the Munchkin’s scalp. Even as I watch, the fur on its arms begins evaporating. The prefab sags as the storm continues to swallow micron sized chunks of the walls.

A shrill, keening cry rises above the roar of the storm. The Munchkin is dying; its siblings are already dead. I squeeze my rifle’s trigger, shoot too high, punching holes along the prefab’s side. Then the storm draws the Munchkin backwards into its maw. A final scream peels across the lake’s dust bowl. It sounds human – God, just like a kid’s scream.

The Judge guffaws.

Before I descended the ancient shoreline, the motes pinpointed the factory’s only entrance. At the head of the downwards canted corridor I prep another intell bomb, sight down to the blind curve where the corridor bottoms out, and squeeze the trigger.

Nothing happens. I realize my finger hasn’t moved.

The Judge declares — “In here, all the measurement from a mote umbrella might turn the Quantum AI psychotic.”

Maybe he’s got a point – he’d know more about psycho AIs than me – but to make that point he’s just stepped way, way over the line. I know that if I think too hard about it, about our history, there will be trouble.

I don’t think about it; I focus on the here and now. I test my traitorous hands by cautiously hefting the rifle up and down, like it’s a newborn babe, or a bomb. I tell myself that it’s a rifle not a pistol, and that I am not braced against a shattered countertop, ashamed of the tears on my cheeks and the fact I can’t shoot the convicted man at my feet. My ribs are not broken. I am just winded, slightly fatigued, and that’s all.

I say, “You should have just told me about the motes and the Quantum AI.”

There is only silence in my head. I unfurl my finger from the trigger and clench and unclench my hand.

The corridor opens into an emporium. Synthetic vegetation crowds the space, metallic hued and twitching with piezoelectric shivers. Above me, glass vats are suspended in fibrous hammocks slung between cables that have all the homely charm of fresh intestines. Static pulls at my scalp, strums my neck hairs. The vats sway slightly and rhythmically, throbbing to a metronomic beat. I feel that beat in my boot soles, in the faint drafts of air that whisker through the artificial jungle.

The first of the vats at ground level contains clear fluid and a man. The handsome fellow has a face bifurcated from crown to chin, as if cleaved by an axe. A burgeoning appendage, like a flexible root, grows from the fissure. His eyes track me from their separate hemispheres. His tongue’s halved strips waggle like rubbery scissor blades, churning sediment – flaking pieces of skin, perhaps – into a succession of orbiting ringlets. I give him a winner of a faked smile, one fucked-up gentleman to another.

I push on, through silver leaves, steely thorns, and vat after vat of Phage Land bizarre. I stare at a sleeping woman with a grossly elongated neck. Coil upon coil of her neck is squeezed into the vat, her face mashed against the glass like a bottled still-birth’s. No Snow White, this lady, no kisses and princes and fairy tale endings.

Who would choose this? Avant-garde artists? Rebellious youths? My gut tells me no. My gut tells me this is simple economics.

Flesh exotica sells. The appetites of the rich can be strange, and, as they say, money drives the market. It takes a special kind of girl to deep-throat the engineered monsters those insecure playboys tote inside their Calvin Kleins. As for the guy with the fissured head and forked tongue – I refuse to even think about that.

I force my way through a bower of conducting webbing – it crackles and hums as I fold it back – and five meters away, in his cozy vat, is Chilli Chino. He’s watching me. The girl is in an adjoining tank, tranked, or sleeping, or dead.

Tufts of Chilli’s fur have fallen out and now swirl around him in attenuated streamers. Pink skin shows in the bare patches. One arm seems slightly longer than the other and both are misshapen at the elbow, as if the bones have been broken and badly re-set. He looks sick. Perhaps he’s caught some virulent pathogen or a dose of high rads. Phage Land isn’t kind to tourists.

I pray the girl is okay. But that hardly means I clasp my hands together and beseech the Almighty; what I actually do with my hands is level the rifle and let it start calculating angles and fluid viscosity – all that techno jazz.

The rifle immediately powers down and drops offline. A Quantum AI’s existence depends on it not being observed and having its qubits collapse. They hate aggressive scanning. I switch the rifle to manual and reboot it.

Chilli raps on the tank glass. A foreign auditory App queries my wetware and I grant the connection. “Puncture the vat,” Chilli says through the link, “and the feedback will fry the girl.”

A no-win stand-off, or so I believe, until Chilli clarifies. “If you’re going to shoot me, at least wait until I’ve disconnected myself.”

“Don’t be shy with the trigger, now,” the Judge says. “This one won’t count for the record books, but it’ll balance your karma for not shooting that dog earlier.”

I lock gazes with Chilli. “Is she all right?”

Chilli smiles. He has teeth like a shark, but there’s a touch of something forlorn in the expression. “Better than when she was at home.”

Chilli wants me to ask what he means. I’ve got the gun, I’ve got the sanction of the State, but Chilli’s got the girl, and he can make me jump through a few hoops yet.

“What do you mean?” I ask, leaning forwards, earnest. Everyone wants someone to listen to their woes. You give them that, you nod your head and go a-ha in the back of your throat, and most times, sooner or later, they’ll do what you want. That’s what I learned from six years of talking criminals, derelicts, drunks, mental patients into the back of the police truck back home. It feels reassuring right now, talking, because it reminds me that there’s another version of me who doesn’t just put people in the ground.

“It was her idea to run away,” Chilli says.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because her father’s crazy. He’s spends more time drunk than sober. He went on a three day bender and started ranting about the war. Mistook me for her. You know what he did?”

“What did he do?”

“Broke both my arms at the elbows. What if it had been her?”

I know better than to play into that question. Never give them a piece of yourself. Keep it about them — but do it subtly. “That sounds bad,” I say. “So you just took her away to keep her safe?”

“Yeah,” Chilli says.

“I can see you care about her.”

“Yeah. I do.”

“You don’t want to hurt her.” As soon as I say that, I realize I’ve made a mistake. Chilli stares right through me.

“Why would I want to hurt her?”

I spout some garbled tripe about how hard it must be being a murderous toy looking to get their brain re-wired. I take far too long shutting my mouth again.

Chilli gapes at me. “You bought that story?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” I say.

“You got it the wrong way around,” Chilli says. He leans against the glass. His teeth are so close they scratch against the tank when he speaks. “Let me try and sell you something better. How about this? It isn’t my head that’s been messed with, friend. Now, who told you the story?”

“What do you mean?”

“First, who told you the story?”

I don’t want to give him Bogart’s name. Right now, information should be a one-way street, and I’m not in the habit of stabbing other cops in the back. But Chilli has shaken my confidence, because Bogart’s story about the Munchkins has always rung a little false, hasn’t it?

“His name is Bogart,” I say.

“A cop?”

I nod.

Chilli kicks back, uses his spread palms to steady himself against the tank walls. “You got a photo of Bogart?”

I place a portrait in the wetware channel. Chilli’s interface snaps up the image.

“You know him?” I ask.

I can see that Chilli does. He grins, headshakes to himself, eyes closed as he studies the digital image. “Bogart, huh. So that’s what he calls himself outside the house.” He snaps open his eyes. “Bogart’s the girl’s stepfather, he’s the guy who brought her back from Bali. And as for yours truly, while I’d like to admit to the noble heritage of being created in a clandestine government lab, Bogart bought me in a beachside flea market in St Kilda. You really think I was airdropped out the bomb bay of an ADF jet? Do you really believe I’m a sleeper agent?”

I look at Chilli, with his fuzzy body and outsized head, his tiny paws and stubby legs. “It takes all types,” I say.

“You don’t believe that. Think about what brought you here. Ask yourself if it all really happened the way you remember. Or maybe you’ve had a viral meme, a load of false memories, implanted in your brain.”

Who is he kidding? Viral memes. False memories. Maybe he’s innocent and I should just let him waltz off into the sunset – would that be the close to the story he’s going to pitch?

But I’ll humor him. If Chilli wants to play games, I can do that, too. “You make a good point. I’ll take the girl back, and I’ll get my head checked out by an AI shrink when I get back. What do you say?”

“I can’t let you have her.”

“Let me?” Boy, I’m a patient man. But my restraint is flagging. Bad enough that I’m playing manservant to a parasitic AI, now a toy wants to dictate terms to me. Really, this is too much.

The girl looks so peaceful; she’s sleeping through all this crap, this posturing and secret plotting. Has anyone asked her what she wants?

I study Chilli as he floats confidently before me. What troubles me are those crooked arms. There’s no denying the truth of broken bones.

In the end it comes down to peace of mind. Before I haul that sleeping girl home, I need to know for myself. I flush my occipital lobe with a recall program. Memory lane, here I come.

***

At the victim’s apartment, I had looked out the window and seen the Sun Shield’s burning remnants low in the Eastern sky. Analyzing the memory, I check the remnants’ positions against my internal clock. The Sun Shield fragments should have been smeared, not across the eastern horizon, but across the western horizon.

It’s as if I’ve reached down to scratch my balls and found a weeping hole instead. I scrabble through my other memories.

The 750 ml Beezer Crash bottles in the kitchen take on a new, sinister light. Bogart knows his whiskey, but he hasn’t drunk a beer in decades. If he’s responsible for doctoring my memories, this error fits: he wouldn’t know what size bottles Beezer Crash comes in. I access the hard data files. They’re all carefully edited. The genetic profiles of the Munchkins and the girl are the only certainties. The rest is sketchy, and now that I’m looking for holes, I find them everywhere. The data logs don’t corroborate the message Cuedos sent me from the car. Had Cuedos really stayed in the car, or had that been a neat way of writing him out of the picture and preventing him from later contradicting my memory?

Chilli says, “You let him inside your head, didn’t you?” I think of the Popper’s shunts rammed into my neck.

Chilli’s eyes widen. “Did you let him inside you while you activated your Judge?”

Oh no. That hole where my balls should be – it yawns open all the way into the cavity beneath my ribs.

The Judge works his big, grinding laugh. “I thought you’d worked out the kinks in the killer instinct, Jimmy. He’s a toy. He’s nothing. Shoot him.”

I pull in a shaky breath, feel every wisp of air sluice from my lips as I exhale back out. If the Judge wants, he can spasm my lungs shut. He can stop my heart. He can degrade me in every way imaginable. And if he’s been corrupted, he might just do it all.

“Kill him,” the Judge says. “Kill him or you’ll be trialed for neglect of duty and as an accomplice after the fact. Capital crimes, Jimmy. They’ll slice your cortex right out of your skull.”

I’m just buying time before the Judge hijacks my nervous system and the shooting starts. This time, though, it won’t be with my blessing.

I’ve been a fool. Bogart has screwed with my mind, altered the Judge, fed me lies, and sent me out to fix his own personal mess. I flash back on the easy beers, the slaps on the back, the times we partnered on the truck together, watching each other’s backs, covering each other’s asses. Us against the world – and now this betrayal.

Stalling, I subvocalize, “I just want to make sure the girl doesn’t get hurt.” The Judge doesn’t reply. Maybe Bogart has set his parameters so as not to harm the girl. There’s a sudden, clenching sensation inside my head. I suspect the Judge is busy in the recesses of my brain, burning my calories and neurons to find a solution.

So long as he’s distracted. I say to Chilli, “What was the plan? You aren’t stupid. You’ve got a plan.” I study the vat and the thrumming coils and conduits wired to the sealed tops of Chilli’s and the girl’s vats.

“Why are you here? What’s the AI working on, Chilli?”

Chilli grimaces. “Making me human. Overrated from what I’ve seen, but you guys do get some legal benefits.” Very overrated from where I’m standing. And my legal benefits right now aren’t exactly the envy of all and sundry.

“I didn’t hike into Phage Land for the comedy, Chilli.”

“Check my genes, smart guy. While we’ve been having this stimulating repartee the AI has been remodeling me using the girl’s genes. Jesus, you think I look this fine normally, what with half my fur hanging off and this dandy pink skin underneath? I’ve already passed the Humboldt Limit. You can’t shoot me without justification. A human being gets a trial. And if I get an acquittal, I want to be made her guardian.” He leans forward against the glass. “And I want my brothers to walk free. They did nothing wrong.”

“You’re too late,” I tell him. “Your brothers are dead.” I don’t babble apologies or flinch. The only concession I make is that I don’t particularly enjoy imparting the news.

“How? They can’t…I told them to go, to meet me later. How?”

I put on a grave face and tell him the truth. “A nano storm blew in while I was breaching the factory.”

Chilli rolls his head back and howls. I wait him out. The Judge is still lying low, stealing my calories and neurons for his mysterious thoughts.

“You sure they’re dead?” Chilli eventually asks.

“Yes.”

“You were there? With them?” Chilli’s eyes narrow.

I nod.

“Enough,” the Judge says, rumbling back into my head. “I’ve considered this case. We’ve only got his word he’s human, and I refuse to allow that evidence in. It’s hearsay – he can’t know he’s passed the Humboldt Limit. He’s taking the Quantum AI’s word, and I don’t hear the Quantum AI volunteering to be an expert witness. I find that he should be terminated outright. Like the dog, Jimmy, only this time you’ll listen to me. And that brings us to the girl.”

“The girl?” I subvocalize. “What’s the girl done?”

“Naïve aren’t you, Jimmy? No matter which way you look at it, she started this farce. Perverting the course of justice. Faking her kidnapping. Putting your life at risk by leading you out here. Wasting public resources.”

I want to bash my aching forehead with my fist, but I’ve got a loaded rifle jammed into my shoulder. The Judge has taken the final plunge into insanity.

“My memories are fake,” I argue. “They’ve been tampered with. You can’t safely convict.”

“You’re admitting to faking evidence, now?” the Judge says, wandering ever further down his twisted path of logic. “Conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. As I see it, you’re all complicit. It’s called ‘common purpose’, Jimmy. Ask a detective about that doctrine when I puppet you back for your cortex wipe. You let Bogart fake the evidence, didn’t you?”

“I had nothing to do with it,” I say, subvocalizing hard enough that I can feel my breath hissing between my teeth.

“How do you know?” the Judge says. “Would you remember, Jimmy? Under all the false memories, would you remember? Surely you’ve guessed that some of the guys you’ve killed out here were Bogart’s ex-business partners? All those cases we’ve tried, the easy convictions, didn’t you think that the evidence always fit too neatly?”

“You’re wrong about Bogart,” I say out loud, saying it for Chilli and the Judge. “He tried to convince me not to look for the girl.”

“Did he?” Chilli smiles. “You sure about that? Or is that another fake memory to throw you off the scent?”

I think about the shambling vets who we’d find while we were patrolling the slums. Guys so phage-fucked they thought they’d fought for Indonesia and could tell you all about their dead families over there, right down to their children’s middle names.

How badly had I been tampered with?

“Why didn’t you do something?” I ask the Judge.

“That’s not my job. I pass judgment based on the evidence I filter through your brain. And I like the killing. Don’t you? Don’t you, just a little?”

“I’ve never liked the killing.” I’m not even sure myself if I’m lying or telling the truth, or what that fine distinction really means. But what I do know is that my memories are fake, the Judge is insane, and there is a girl who needs my help.

I swing the rifle barrel towards the ceiling, eject the mag and the chambered round, and hurl the rifle as far as I can.

“Wake her up and run,” I say to Chilli.

Chilli looks shattered. He’s still trying to grasp that his brothers are dead. Fine, I’m all for reflective moments, but he needs to listen to what I’m saying.

“You just want to stop me finishing the gene swap,” Chilli says. Christ, do I really look that organized and conniving?

“Run!” I scream.

The Judge commandeers my voice box and I clutch my throat as my tongue locks and my teeth clamp shut. Chilli cocks his head, puzzled, and then, when he finally gets what is going on, scrambles around in his fish tank like a crab in a pressure cooker.

“Hello Chilli,” the Judge says through my mouth. “You’ve got about thirty seconds before you die.”

The Judge grips the nerves in my right arm. My arm descends towards my holstered pistol. I strain with everything I have to keep my hand away from the gun. My spinal cord feels like it’s been doused in acid and a flash migraine sledgehammers into my skull. I try not to think about my nervous system frying, my organs liquefying. My hand rises a couple of shaky centimeters.

The Judge, though, is just teasing me. The next instant, my hand shoots down and grabs the gun butt so tightly that pain skewers through my wrist. I feel the dreadful, slick rub of the pistol easing free of the holster. I was always going to lose.

“The girl, then Chilli,” the Judge says with my mouth. “It’s time for the arm of justice to reach out to the guilty.”

He frog marches me to the glass. My arm swings the gun up. There’s a clink as the barrel comes to rest against the vat. The gun bisects the girl’s face, the front sight lining up just below a small mole on her forehead.

Chilli is smashing his fists against the tank glass. The thumps sound distant, muted. Froth bubbles and shakes around his body.

My finger starts to pull the trigger. I wrench my waist clockwise, and the gun screeches across the glass. The Judge laughs and gets a tighter grip on my torso musculature. The gun comes back level with the girl’s forehead. My finger starts squeezing. Three pounds of pressure – that’s how much pull a Glock Cadmium needs.

I access the black ware and pirate gear in my tissues and blood – the stuff hiding in the margins. If the Judge wants that girl dead, he can crawl out of my corpse and do it himself. I activate a dozen different programs, overdosing on everything from coagulants to insulin. The Judge’s processing power is temporarily busied keeping both of us alive; it’s enough for me to swing the gun towards my temple. Better than a cortex wipe or becoming a prisoner in my own body. The Judge, two steps ahead of me, manages to get the last pound of squeeze on the trigger before I can push the barrel against my head. Only a handbreadth from my face, the gun fires. Hot air and cordite blows into my eyes. The retort is deafening.

When I open my eyes I see blood, and for a frantic instant I think the blast has ruptured my retinal vessels. One swipe with my hand, one rapid blink, satisfies me that I’m okay. The blood, every drop, is inside Chilli’s tank. A coin sized hole has been punched through the glass. Chilli is clutching his chest. Fractures blossom around the hole. A sliver of glass pops loose and tumbles to the floor. And then the whole vat explodes in a red torrent.

The girl dreams on. Chilli must have been bluffing about the feedback killing her; or else he did disconnect himself from the circuitry tying him to the girl.

My strength fails and my knees buckle. Everything – the metallic forest, the metronomic vats, the dreaming girl – rises up over me in a lofty, poised backdrop, as if I am shrinking down to nothing. The slurry is warm on my bent legs and it seeps through my pants like piss. What dignity can I muster, when I can’t even be sure of who I am?

I crawl over to Chilli. His fur feels sticky and is clotted into spikes. He retches a mixture of blood and nutrient goop.

Chilli’s skin is pink where the fur has sloughed away and I wonder if it disgusts him, whether he dreams of being human, or he is only doing this for the girl. How could he have expected a trial to deliver anything other than a guilty verdict and a short, ignominious execution? How could he be naïve enough to expect an acquittal? An uncomfortable ache in my thigh reminds me I’ve still got the solid knob of the balled up scarf in my pocket. Like my pants, it’s heavy with goop and blood.

I touch a patch of Chilli’s skin, and it’s fresh and flawless. That’s the Quantum AI’s craft – replacing one set of genes with another. How different would that be from replacing the programming in an organic AI? One set of coded sequences for another set.

I whisper into Chilli’s cocked ear, “You need to talk to the Quantum AI. Any moment now the Judge is going to come back and kill you and the girl. There’s only one way you’re going to be human, now.”

Chilli coughs, pulls a bloody paw away from his wound, looks down to where blood bubbles through his holed chest. He turns his head and suddenly his blue eyes are centimeters away. In that instant I see that he knows I killed his siblings, that I murdered his family. He clasps his bloody paw to my shoulder. Claws prick my skin. The paw’s grip tightens. And then relaxes, and Chilli nods.

The slick of nutrients is suddenly alive with traceries of light, like capillaries sketched in luminescent dye. My skin tingles. Followed by my muscles. And then my bones.

“The Quantum AI can do it,” Chilli says. “Really, there’s not much it can’t do.” Chilli’s just in time, too, because those words are barely past his lips when his torso slumps down over the propped arch of his ribs. His eyes roll up, show me their white, rubbery flanks, his blue pupils chocked somewhere behind his open lids.

Ever the optimist, I try again to get the Glock propped against my temple. That doesn’t go well. The Glock jumps loose from my hand and the rest of me does a twitching jig that ends with my face mashed into the floor, testing that vaunted theory that it only takes an inch of water (or toy blood and nutrient goop) to drown in.

As the icing on the cake, my friend the Judge decides the time’s ripe to pop back in to see how I’m managing the tenancy.

“What have you done?” he screams. That’s a good question.

Then the Quantum AI flexes what right minded people think of as reality and reaches inside me. The pain is unbelievable. It’s no picnic getting the genes inside your body rearranged. The only consolation is that they’re not my genes.

“You know what?” I tell the Judge, doing my best to sound tough – and I do all right considering I’m sub-vocalizing through spit, goop, and the urge to holler out my agony — “Sometimes I do like the killing.”

Then the pain really gets going, and the best the two of us can do through my vocal chords is a screaming duet. I leave the Karaoke wetware alone.

The girl dreams on, which is good; I mean, who wants a kid to hear them screaming?

Chilli stays dead. At least, his corpse does. But already, in my clogged vasculature, the Judge’s logic gates are stirring with fresh programming. Down there, in the weeping mélange of circuitry and life that I call my body, Chilli Chino is being reborn.

I envy little girls and their dreams.

The Quantum AI continues to rework me. Its vast intellect is perhaps the only power capable of telling me with certainty which of my memories are real and which are false. But for every man I’ve killed, I remember a good reason for them dying. What good would it do now to remember differently?

Lying there, thinking my too deep thoughts, I again notice the scarf in my pocket. It’s digging into my hip. If my memories are fake, where did it come from? Its realness, its insistent pressure, is disconcerting. I never tested it for contaminants. A deep unease slithers in my belly. The Popper isn’t the only way a viral meme could get into my head. Chilli expected an acquittal. But why? Unless he knew that whoever bagged the scarf and tracked him out here would have a Judge that would give that verdict. But reprogramming a Judge is tricky – it’d be just as likely the attempt would drive it insane. My memories might not even be fake; maybe it’s the wetware routines I used to analyze the sun shield fragment positions and the other data. Surely that’d be a simpler explanation. And am I even really sure what size bottles Beezer Crash comes in, or how Chilli’s arms became deformed? Oh Jesus, could it be –

That’s when I hear Chilli’s voice, whispering into my ear as if he’s standing just behind me.

“Let me help you up,” he says


.

About the Author

Durand Welsh resides in Sydney, Australia. He is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion Writing Workshop at UC San Diego. He has worked as a police officer for the past nine years. He has previously published stories in Apex Magazine, Borderlands magazine, and the Australian anthology Canterbury 2100.

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