Volume Two: Sub-Version

subversion_cover_tiny“Let’s just say,” the woman said, laughing, “that this old acquaintance of yours is going to be … insurance.”
“I’m telling you,” Steven warned. “It’s a bad idea. He won’t play along!”
“Oh, I’m well aware of that,” she replied. “As a matter of fact, I’m counting on it!”
The year is 2182, and someone is trying to kill Private Eye Joe Coyne. While Joe has his fair share of enemies, this one is different: a mysterious and powerful woman known only as Cassandra. Framed for murder, with every cop on the planet after him, Joe finds he has no choice but to track down this “Cassandra” if he ever hopes to clear his name. His only clue is a man by the name of Maxwell Sanders.

Excerpt from The Version Sequence: Sub-Version
(c) 2011 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.

This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.

Author’s note: This story takes place at a time when many of the centers of world power have changed, and the career soldier functions as a super-powered secret agent with built-in technology and genetic modifications. After all, why build tanks and bombers and battleships to fight wars the old-fashioned way when you can turn an ordinary human being into a one-man army and accomplish the same political and economic goals with no one the wiser? But that sort of power can go to people’s heads, and they start thinking themselves as gods while acting like devils.

Somewhere in Southeast Asia
September 21.520, 2176 (Asian Pacific Standard Time)

I remembered the last time Steve and I worked together, the incident that got me kicked out of the service. The place was a crowded, dirty neighborhood in a crowded, dirty city in Southeast Asia whose name I never could pronounce. Not that I cared. Drowning in the humidity and filth of the place, it wasn’t hard to make myself believe that the locals were less than human. I was the ultimate super-hero, here to save the day for Americans everywhere. These others were just backdrops – actors in a badly written play.

Back then I believed all that. As for Steve, well, he made me look like a humanitarian by comparison. While I struggled to retain my humanity in a world of violence, greed, and deception, Steve acted like he was entitled to do anything he damn well pleased. If he ever had any scruples, they’d been surgically removed a long time ago, the way some cultures used to practice circumcision.

Steve Malcom was average height, average build, average just about everything – which allowed him to blend in pretty much anywhere in the world. That’s the point, you see. To blend in. Soldiers, generally speaking, are all cut from the same mold. If you pass the entrance tests, and the training, they’ll fix any physical imperfections you might have, making the necessary cosmetic adjustments so that you could be a native of just about anywhere! When you first see your reflection in a mirror, there’s a better than even chance that you won’t recognize the stranger staring back at you.

The idea is to be invisible.

They can perform all sorts of medical and technological miracles with your body, but the mind remains your own, for good or ill. Those miracles make you strong enough to literally break a normal man or woman in half, and your job lets you get away with it, because you’re a soldier, and Uncle Sugar will protect you as long as you don’t hurt anyone important.

Some guys trip on power like that. Guys like Steve would often kill a local in the “heat of the moment” as he put it, and laugh about it later as if it were a terrific joke. I have to confess that I used to do the same. How many broken bodies I discarded like used Kleenexes before I was twenty, I couldn’t tell you. As long as I followed the rules nobody gave a damn.

Except maybe the families of my victims.

Steve and I were sitting at a table in an outdoor café on an unpaved street that the afternoon rain had turned to mud. We were on assignment. While it was unusual to assign two men to what should have been a simple job, it wasn’t unheard of. So, I didn’t question Steve and I being together on this one. We had been teammates before, of course, but never for something this small.

Looking back on it with 20/20 hindsight, I should have seen it coming. The end, I mean. The psychs are pretty thorough in post-op interviews. They have to be, I guess. The last thing they want is one of their pet “super-heroes” going rogue. Hell, that’s an excellent way to end a good war. Or start a bad one!

The mission briefing was simple. A new tropical disease was ravaging parts of the United Republic of Africa. Until now, this disease had proven resistant to all available treatments, resulting in thousands of deaths. Now, a tiny pharmaceutical company here in Southeast Asia had successfully tested a treatment based on the local flora. The head of the company was sympathetic to the plight of the URA, having spent much of his youth there, and intended to license the treatment to several URA firms for minimal profit. Our goal was to stop that license agreement from taking place, and to see that someone less sympathetic to the URA replaced the current head of the company.

“I still say, we eliminate this guy, and that’s it,” I said, taking another gulp from a bottle of too warm American beer.

“Nah,” Steve said, waving his own bottle around in front of him, as if he were conducting an orchestra. “Suppose the wrong guy replaces him? Hell, all these damned wogs look alike, you know. They all probably think alike, too, the bastards.”

“Not likely.” I said. “The target spent a lot of time in Africa. He has a lot of friends back there. You can’t very well say that about the rest of the Board. I think all we have to do is leave evidence that someone back there in Africa did it.”

“Why?” Steve replied, shaking his head. “They won’t believe it if we can’t give them a good reason why. The target’s trying to save African lives, right? So, why would anyone in their right mind bump him off, when he’s already helping?”

“Hmmm,” I said, thinking it over for a moment. “How about…this person or persons found out that he’s planning to back out of the deal. Maybe someone in the SJC made him an outstanding offer to screw the Africans.”

“Not bad. If you can pull it off, it gets the locals mad at both the Africans and the Sino-Japs, and the Africans mad at the locals and the Japs. I like it. Good thinking, buddy. All them wogs fighting each other. It warms my heart just thinking of it.”

I nodded agreement. Even then, I think Steve’s racist attitude bothered me a little, although it was the sort of thing I tried not to think about very often.

“So, how do we do it?” Steve asked, taking a long pull on his beer.

“Well, who’s in town? Anyone from Africa?”

“Ah, come on now, Joe, you can’t use just anyone. Nobody will believe it.”

“Yeah,” I replied, thinking out loud. “Who’s going to come all the way from nice, clean, modern Africa to this shit hole?”

“Businessman?” He said, raising an eyebrow.

“Bingo,” I said, snapping my fingers. “But let’s not use just any businessman. Let’s go right to the source. That bunch of suits negotiating this deal. What about using one of the mules they’ve got along to do the grunt work? Somebody who gets all the shit and none of the glory, who gets paid puke to carry the real load.”

“Sounds good to me. So who’s our victim?”

“Take your pick. We burgle some incriminating evidence tonight, and leave it for the cops to find at the scene of the murder.”

“How do we get in? These Africans are Muslims, you know. They ain’t going to be out drinking and screwing till all hours.” Steve shook his head, and waved his bottle in a broad arc. “God,” he said venomously. “I hate people like that!”

“Yeah,” I said quietly, feeling uncomfortable.

“Maybe,” Steve continued, “we can get them to go to a prayer meeting or something. Yeah, that’ll work, won’t it?”

“Steve,” I said, annoyed. “Stop it, I’m being serious here. We’ve got to make this look like someone other than Americans did it, remember? Give them an answer they can believe and want to believe and they won’t look any farther.”

“I know the drill, buddy! You can stop the sermon.”

“Good,” I said. We went back and forth a while longer. Eventually, I convinced Steve that I would handle distracting our URA victim, while he broke into the man’s room, and obtained suitable evidence. I told him I’d let him know who the victim was “When I figure that out myself,” I told him.

“A man who flies by the seat of his pants,” Steve said laughing as he toasted me with his bottle of beer. “You’re the man, Joe!”

September 21.754, 2176 (Asian Pacific Standard Time)

The local Hilton was the only subscraper in town. The locals, not accustomed to this unique Western style of living, thought it was funny that rich men preferred living underground. It gave new life to the old nickname of “Western Devils”, and the natives loved it. But the people who built it knew their customers well. It wasn’t the local natives who’d be staying there, after all, but foreign businessmen and dignitaries. The facilities were absolutely top notch and commanded top dollar. Why, I was so intimidated by the place that I actually wore my good suit!

The Hilton boasted state of the art hospitality, and I had no trouble abusing that hospitality by mining their computer system. All it took was a quiet booth in the back of the automated bar, and the computerized ordering system built into the tabletop. It was the work of seconds to break into the database, and minutes to locate the six men from the URA, and cross-reference their payment account numbers with usage history. I took each man in turn, and traced his movements since he got into town. I was looking for vices.

Now if Steve had a fatal flaw, it was racism. The man had a need to label and pigeonhole everyone and everything, to the extent that he was often blinded, unable to see opportunities when they stared him in the face.

The URA businessmen were a case in point. It would never have occurred to Steve that not everyone to whom he assigned the same label had the same likes and dislikes, the same virtues, and the same vices. That was why, on a mission, Steve would substitute violence for finesse. At the time, I figured that would eventually get him kicked out of the service. My own blind spot, if you could call it that, was that I actually put a premium on finesse.

Makes you wonder which one of us was really clueless.

Anyway, while most of the men were good, upstanding citizens of the URA, one fellow in particular was saddled with several vices.

In my opinion, a state that holds too much control over its citizens’ private lives runs the risk of overcompensation when those citizens finally get out from under.

I can safely say that this man overdid overcompensation!

Having identified my mark, I notified Steve, passing him the room number. I then managed to meet the mark “accidentally” in the hotel lobby, where I introduced myself as a fellow African (I could imagine Steve thinking all Africans are the same color) here on business. My brief research on the man enabled me to pick the right topics for conversation, and we got along almost immediately. I promised to introduce him to some of the city’s unique vices, and he eagerly went along.

Let’s just say that when it comes to vices, I don’t do half measures! After a couple hours of sex and debauchery, we settled into a bar around midnight to recharge and recover before heading out for more of the same. The bar was a small, particularly nasty hole, with waitresses that looked like they could use a visit to the local STD clinic. But neither one of us was interested in high class at the moment, so we sat at the bar and ordered a couple of beers.

While we waited, my new best friend (and no, I don’t want to remember his name – my conscience feels better if he’s just another face in the crowd) reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a small plastic bottle.

“I don’t want to sound like your mother,” I murmured as he thumbed the white cap off the bottle and tapped a pink pill into his palm, “but Moodies and alcohol don’t mix real well. You’ll feel like warmed over shit in the morning. You know that, right?”

“So I’ll take a couple more in the morning,” he replied, tossing the pill into his mouth and swallowing it dry.

“I thought you had that meeting to go to.”

“Maybe I’ll take a couple more just before it starts. That alright with you?”

“Is that a smart idea?”

“If I wanted to be smart, I’d have stayed home.”

I figured it was time to keep quiet, and wait for the man to continue talking. I began to see that there was more to tonight’s festivities than overcompensation.

In the meantime, our drinks arrived, and I spent time nursing it – not only did I want to remain sober, but the beer was warm and putrid. It was so bad, it made me wonder if the bar’s water recycling plant was on the fritz. I resisted the temptation to analyze the drink with my sensors. There were some things I didn’t want to know.

As I waited, I kept an eye on the rest of the room, finding myself strangely amused by one man – a local by the looks of him – trying to make out with this woman who had definitely seen better days. Her face was pock marked and scarred, as if from some awful disease.

She did have nice legs, though, I’ll give her that. Her date, however, only had eyes for the breasts that strained at the elastic band holding them captive. The man’s fingers were moving nervously of their own accord, as if eager to start a prison break.

“It’s not like I wanted to be here, you know,” my friend was saying. I turned my attention back towards him.

“I thought this was a great opportunity for you,” I commented to keep him going. He looked up from his glass and stared at me for a moment.

“What was that you do again?” he asked, suddenly suspicious. He wasn’t three sheets to the wind quite yet, but he was definitely working on that third!

“Imports,” I replied with a snarky grin. The man nodded and took another swig of the warm piss that passed itself off as beer. He wasn’t surprised. By all accounts, there were more smugglers in that part of the world than legitimate businessmen.

“You ever find yourself stuck in the middle of something way bigger than you are?” the man asked, running a wet index finger in circles across the bar.

“I try to avoid things like that,” I replied. “Bad for business!”

“Wish I had a choice,” he grumbled, “but I don’t!”

“You always have a choice,” I replied, “even if you have to leave the country and start over somewhere else.”

He looked up at me, and I was started to see a glimmer of real fear in his eyes.

“You don’t understand,” he said, and drained his glass in one big swallow. He motioned for a refill. I let the silence stretch out for a few moments. Sometimes, the best interrogation technique is to know when to just shut the hell up and listen.

My parents taught me the wisdom of shutting up. Painfully, and repeatedly, but that’s a tale for another day.

My eyes wandered again while I waited for him to continue. On the other side of the room, a girl who couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen had pulled her barely-there skirt up to her hips and was giving one of the patrons a lap dance. Maybe she needed the money, or maybe she was being forced, or both. Either way, I felt my blood boiling.

I’ve got a thing about people hurting kids, you see, and tend to get real nasty about it. But I was on a mission here. As much as I wanted to get involved and get the girl out of the mess she was obviously in, I had higher priorities. I didn’t like it much, but nobody was interested in my opinion.

I tore my gaze away from the little girl and found my buddy staring at me.

“When I was younger,” he was saying, “I saw this video about two monsters fighting in the ruins of some city. They were huge – bigger than the Mendicine Tower in Bankok – and all these helpless people were running around underneath. That’s me. That’s all of us, me and my friends, trying not to get stepped on.”

“How do they feel about it? Your friends?”

“Nervous, but it doesn’t seem to bother them.”

“Why should it bother you? I mean, it’s just a business deal, right?”

The man looked at me. He was desperate to tell me the whole story, and I was desperate to hear it. I was afraid something was going on here that I hadn’t been told about. You see, the people in those Ivory Towers in Washington tend not to let us poor soldiers know what’s really going on all the time. Some, like my buddy Steve, for example, don’t want to know. Just tell him what to do, and who to do it to, and he’s happy.

Not me. My philosophy is: what you don’t know may kill you. And yeah, as you can imagine, that’s gotten me in trouble before with the Chain of Command. I’m told I ask too many questions.

Well, excuse me for living!

“I’ve got a family,” said replied suddenly, grabbing hold of the fresh glass of beer as if it were a life preserver and he a drowning man. He shook his head and then drank deeply. He’d said too much already, and was afraid what his bosses would do if they found out. I know from experience that the Africans play for keeps. They didn’t get where they are on the world stage by being Nice Guys.

But, then again, neither did Americans.

I’d hoped to find out what he was afraid of, and figured that at the very least I’d pick up some valuable intel on the enemy. However, just about then, the Moodie he’d taken started to kick in, and all his worries evaporated. In a few short minutes, he was back to his old lecherous self again, urging us to move on.

Dismissing his concerns as drunken paranoia, I outlined my plans for the rest of the evening.

We didn’t get back to the hotel until nearly dawn, and I can honestly say that, despite what the politicians claim, and men like Steve believe, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between “them” and “us”. We all love and hate the same things – we just put different labels on them, is all. In a way, I found myself hating what we were planning to do to the man. He was a friendly, intelligent, and fun fellow, and I couldn’t help but enjoy myself amid the hell we raised that night.

You know, guilt is a funny thing. I don’t know which made me feel it more: liking the guy despite American propaganda, or betraying my new friend by framing him for murder.

They don’t tell you about things like that when you’re a fresh-faced recruit.

September 22.383, 2176 (Asian Pacific Standard Time)

I got an even bigger shock the next morning, when I sat down with Steve for a late breakfast.

“Here,” he said, sliding a paper bag across the table to me. “Present for ya.”

“What’s this?” I asked, opening the bag. Inside was one of those small ceramic-and-plastic handguns, the kind that shoot small caliber lead slugs. This particular model was known for being quiet. It didn’t occur to me at the time that, while the slugs would kill an ordinary human being, they’d be useless against a soldier.

Like me. Or, more to the point, Steve.

“Go ahead,” Steve said. “Scan it.”

I probed the bag with my sensors. The gun wasn’t there.

“Cloaked?” I asked.

“Nah, just invisible to sensors. You can carry these through Customs or into any high security area…”

“…Like the company lobby…” I said, nodding.

“Precisely, and the sensors won’t even peep.”

“Where’d you get this?”

“In the room last night when I planted evidence about the target’s double-cross with the Japs.” Steve said, quite satisfied with himself. “Your new drinking buddy is either real paranoid, or he has a part-time job I’m sure the cops would love to know about.”

I thought back to our conversation the previous night, and the hints of something big going down.

“Makes it easier to frame him,” I said. “We won’t need to play around with fingerprints, hair follicles, and crap like that.”

“Yeah, and it gave me an even better idea,” he said, grinning.

“What?” I asked, not really wanting to hear it. I knew Steve’s bright ideas, and they were never pleasant. Quickly, he told me what he had in mind.

My instincts were right: I didn’t like it.

“Look, if we just frame the guy for murder, sooner or later somebody’s gonna lock on to what we did. Won’t take a genius to ID Uncle behind it, either. The way I see it, my way we kill two birds with one stone, and we’re outa here by lunch!”

I thought about it a moment. “Gonna be a late lunch, though, don’t you think?”

Steve’s laughter filled the outdoor café, and caused a lot of heads to turn our way. We waited until the attention had died down, and then stood up.

Steve clapped his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s kill us a wog, partner!”

I think it was at that point that I really started to question what I did for a living. Still, I don’t know whether it was inertia or lack of courage that had me respond to him, “Let’s do it!”

September 22.462, 2176 (Asian Pacific Standard Time)

I called my friend from the previous evening, and told him I was in trouble, and needed his help. I laid it on thick, and as we had become good friends last night, he agreed to meet me in back of a particularly shady bar in the north part of town.

“What’s wrong?” he asked after we shook hands in the dirty alley next to a row of stinking trashcans. Before he knew what was happening, I had stunned him with my Neural Jammer and stashed him in a rather large trunk I’d hidden behind the cans. When it was secured, I threw it over my shoulder, and followed the back alleyways to my rendezvous with Steve.

I left the trunk, along with the body, in a large trash dumpster in the rear of the pharmaceutical company. I knew it wouldn’t be emptied until the next day, so it was a safe hiding place for the moment. Then I met Steve, and we went to work.

Steve waited out back while I went in the front door, and asked to see a minor company official whom I already knew was on vacation, having mined the company’s computer system the day before. I went back and forth with the receptionist, explaining that I had an appointment, and that the man assured me he was coming in just for the meeting. She asked me my name.

I gave her the name of the man in the dumpster out back. She excused herself, and turned her back on me to use the house phone.

I was a little far for a good connection, but I figured I was close enough to her computer terminal to try linking to it. In seconds, I was in, altering security locks and biometric data. I also added a few memos and emails to the system to convince the poor receptionist to let me pass.

“I’m sorry for the delay,” she said, apologetically. “He left instructions for his assistant that you were coming. Take those stairs over there up to the third floor, and someone will meet you.”

“Thank you very much,” I said, and walked over to the indicated stairway. I walked slowly, monitoring the receptionist with my sensors. When her attention turned away from me, I accelerated and ran down the first floor corridor out of her line of sight. Once safe, I returned my metabolism to normal.

“I’m in,” I told Steve via our Tangled connection. It was funny that we should be standing so close to one another, yet be communicating through routers located on the other side of the planet. One nice thing about it, though: no one can intercept your conversation, or even know that it’s happening. I walked softly down the corridor to the office at the very end. In another era, I would have donned a pair of latex gloves to conceal my identity, but fortunately, my genetically modified hands possess no fingerprints, and leave no DNA traces behind. Reaching the office door, I did a quick sensor scan to make sure the target was inside. More than one man was inside, but none of them were armed. It didn’t matter. I had enough ammo to share with everybody. I widened the sweep, just to make sure no one would interfere.

I was clear.

In one smooth motion, I opened the door, stepped through, and closed it behind me.

“Who are you?” the man behind the big mahogany desk demanded. “You’re not supposed to be in here!”

Time froze as I recognized the man standing next to the irate speaker.

United States Senator Charles Davis, rumored to have the inside track in 2180 for President of the United States! With him were two of his aids. But what the hell were they doing here, half a world away from Washington, in the middle of an African pharmo purchase?

The target went to call for help, but of course the internal phone system wasn’t working.

Where the hell was the Senator’s security? Didn’t anyone at least have a headphone they could use to call for help? Someone, it seems, had made a lot of careful preparations.

Steve!

Looks like he was doing more than just burgling hotel rooms! Somehow, he helped to set this all up.

I took three steps forward, raising my gun.

“Shoot them!” Steve commanded over my own headphone connection.

I couldn’t! I found my thumb immobile. It was one thing to murder a foreigner – but a US Senator? And a prominent one, at that. What the hell was going on? What was I involved in? I thought back to the conversation of the night before, of tiny people getting crushed beneath the feet of towering behemoths.

And understood.

Shots suddenly exploded from the window, shattering it and killing the men standing in the front of the room. A sensor scan showed they were identical to those in the pistol supposedly discovered in my drinking buddy’s luggage.

More lies, probably!

With the security system safely in my control, shattering the window had failed to set off any alarms. Steve appeared, standing on the window ledge with a body draped over one shoulder: my friend from the previous night. Steve placed the now-empty gun into the man’s hand, and dumped him into the room, just inside the window. A quick scan told me he was already dead, a bullet in his brain.

“He broke in through the window,” Steve explained, “and there was a big fight. In the end, they killed him, but not before he shot everyone else.” I knew there’d be more to the story. Steve would have already planted the evidence supporting his tale. “It would have been simpler if you had just shot them like you were told,” Steve continued, “but this will work, too. When your friend’s buddies come in later on for their big meeting, they’ll find the mess, call the police, and the ensuing investigation will make it clear that this was an African plot against the United States, giving The Good Guys ammunition in the upcoming negotiations in Geneva. I just have to wipe the computer records of your visit to the lobby just now. Otherwise, it’ll look like our man is in two places at once.”

Steve carefully moved to the original Target, and placed in the man’s hand a small pistol purchased yesterday from a black market dealer on the other side of town.

“This way, it looks like he was in on it, and got caught in the crossfire,” Steve explained.

“Did you change the serial number registration?” I asked, numbly.

“What do you take me for, a child? Of course I did. Mr. Executive Wog here is now the official, registered owner of the gun that killed his murderer!”

He looked around the room, and artfully re-arranged a few of the bodies. He stood back and admired his work.

“Done, and done,” Steve said with a cheerful smile. “We’re outa here.”

We exited through the window to the alleyway. Five minutes later, the building’s computer reset the security systems I’d taken over, removing all traces that we were ever there.

We were in a Tubeway capsule headed out of the country less than an hour later.

We rode home in awkward silence, while I tried to work out the events in my own mind. Finally, I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

“This was a political hit, wasn’t it?” I demanded of my partner.

“Well, shit, yeah. You come to that conclusion yourself of did someone help you? Come on, man, the Senator made too many enemies on The Hill. He finally pissed off the wrong people, and they made arrangements. He was suckered into this humanitarian mission to save African lives, hoping it would help the US with the negotiations. Too bad about him. He won’t be missed.”

“That’s just wrong,” I told him.

“Oh yeah? What’s wrong is a soldier refusing to do his job. You don’t have all the facts, my friend. Your job isn’t to gather those facts, or ask questions! Your job is to do as you’re told. If every soldier questioned his orders, where would this country be? Where would this world be? Your John Q Public lives his life in blissful ignorance because we do the nasty jobs that need to be done, without fuss or bother, and without anyone being the wiser. You really screwed up, my friend. And this time, I won’t be able to help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember the Vatican, two years ago? When I had to complete the job you refused?”

“That was wrong, too, and you know it.”

“Well, I covered for you, and the Brass never found out. Can’t do it this time, though, even if I wanted to.”

I thought about that for a long stretch of minutes. Then, abruptly, I looked up at Steve.

“That’s right,” he said, nodding. “This was a test. That’s why they sent both of us on such a simple assignment. You’ve been noticed, and they’ve been watching, trying to decide if you’re worth the trouble keeping on the team. After this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the court-martial papers have already been drawn up, and are just waiting the Colonel’s signature.”

A million thoughts ran through my head. I knew better than to even consider blowing the whistle on the Senator’s assassination. That wasn’t an option, given what I knew of The System, and how it worked. No doubt Steve would kill me right here in the Tubeway capsule if he even suspected I might do that. I had few options.

I asked myself if I should even try to avoid a court-marshal! After all, it had been a long time since I believed in my work. Once upon a time, I did as I was told, proud of what I was doing. But here I was, with no happy ending at the end of that particular fairy tale.

They tell me I think too much. Well, I did a whole lot of it on that last ride home.

In Transit from Southeast Asia

September 21.131, 2176 (Rocky Mountain Standard Time)

The distance from Southeast Asia to Ft. Seville in the Rocky Mountains is over twelve thousand kilometers, which at Mach 2 made the trip home last about 230 metric minutes. That’s a very long time to spend in a cramped Tubeway capsule with a man who had just threatened to kill you. I had no doubt that Steve was as good as his word, even though the battle would no doubt wreck the capsule and probably kill us both.

Strangely enough, my emotions at the time weren’t about anger or betrayal, or even humiliation. They were all about fear. Oh, I wasn’t afraid of Steve, not in the slightest. I was confident I could take him any time anywhere. No, I was afraid of my superiors, of the government itself.

Someone way above my pay grade had authorized the assassination of a United States Senator. A U.S. Senator, for God’s sake! How the hell did that happen? Were all those years spent fighting for “Liberty and Justice for All” completely wasted?

I was disillusioned, stunned that the world I thought I knew didn’t exist. So, yeah, there was the silence of the tomb in that capsule as we rode in silence all the way home. My old life was over, dead and most likely buried and I was afraid of what would come next.

We arrived at the base with Steve bored out of his skull, and me eager to get out of that sardine can. I never had a problem before with close spaces, but it felt like the walls of the capsule were closing in on me by the time it came to a stop at the platform. The doors slid open to reveal my welcoming committee: two Military Policemen with drawn pistols. I didn’t need a sensor scan to know those guns were loaded with amour-piercing anti-soldier rounds. It didn’t matter that the two were ordinary men, and that I could kill both of them without raising a sweat. For one thing, Steve was there to answer any objections I might have to being arrested. For another, their presence was a mere formality. My fate had already been decided, and there was nothing I could do to change it, except for the worse.

The MP’s said nothing, just took their place on either side of me as I stepped onto the Tubeway platform. I fully expected Steve to give me some sort of snide farewell remark, but he kept quiet. When I glanced back a few moments later, he was gone. Apparently, he’d taken another exit.

I was feeling numb as I was taken to a nearby holding cell: a bare concrete room with a single item of furniture inside: a large white box that resembled a coffin. One of the men approached the thing, and manipulated a control panel set into the short end. In response, one side of the coffin dropped down to the floor while the lid moved to one side. Neither MP said a word. They didn’t have to. Without protest, I climbed into the device and lay back while the walls closed, sealing me inside. A switch was thrown, and I was abruptly elsewhere.

You should understand that keeping up-to-date with stasis chamber technology has never been a military priority. This particular unit looked like it might have been 20 years old, but it still worked, and that’s all anyone cared about. Nowadays, stasis units are thin layers of vinyl-wrapped tech that fit underneath a mattress without betraying so much as a wrinkle, but when this thing was made, they were still large, clunky coffins.

I found myself in a bare white room. The room had no furniture, no color, and no detail. Looking down at myself, I discovered a similar lack of color and detail. I wore a plain grey shirt and pants, clothing that lacked buttons, zippers, or any kind of seams. Lifting my arms, I saw hands that were so basic they were almost cartoon drawings of human flesh.

God, talk about a budget simulation!

According to regulations, the maximum time anyone could be held in Virtual was one hundred and eighty days, and I fully expected to serve that maximum. Not that it would seem that long to me. Unless that guy at the controls was really a bastard, my clock would be altered to make those six months seem like an instant. Six months was long enough to invalidate any intel I might possess making me a negligible security risk. Cut off from the real world, with nothing to do but stare at four walls slowly changing color from white to pink to red (and so on through the spectrum), the time dragged by until it began to seem like a genuine six months.

I’d like to say I spent the time thinking about something important, like strangling the man responsible for this whole mess (whoever that was), but in all honesty, my thoughts were focused on myself. I knew I was in trouble with Command, probably a whole lot of trouble, and feared the worst. I’d known many guys who’d left the service one day, suddenly and without any warning. I knew what that meant. I was afraid to find out what it would be like to join their ranks. So I stood in that empty non-room watching the hypnotic display of color, feeling sorry for myself.

Fort Seville Military Base, Colorado

March 20.339, 2177 (Rocky Mountain Standard Time)

When my prison cell vanished and I found myself lying in that white coffin again, it was almost a relief. Once again, two burly, albeit human, guards stood ready to escort me to my next destination. Naturally, neither one offered to give me a hand climbing out of the stasis chamber, but that was alright. I straightened my clothes without a word of conversation – I certainly had nothing to say to these two who didn’t even qualify to become soldiers – and followed them out the door. My heart was pounding, and I felt like my life was flashing in front of me. For indeed my life was just about over. Oh, my body and mind would continue on after today, but me – the real me – would soon be gone. It was only now that I regretted those times when I stubbornly held onto my morality. I should have saved it for when it really mattered, and not waste it on meaningless situations. Life wasn’t black and white, always right or wrong. You’d think I’d know that by now. I wasn’t a child, after all. I wasted the opportunity I’d been given to do some good in the world, and now they’d be taking me out of the game for good.

Such were my thoughts and my depression when the last door opened, and I entered the office of my Commanding Officer.

I stood at attention before Colonel Bertrum’s grey metal desk holding the salute until such time as he should acknowledge my presence and return it. The two chaperones had taken up a position on either side of the door, while a woman in a plain white lab coat stood behind and to one side of the Colonel. She had something in her right hand, and I used my enhanced vision to zoom in on the object: a metal cylinder that resembled a thick silver pen. Tiny red numbers were etched into the side of it, but her hand covered up most of them. It didn’t matter. I knew what they were: my military service serial number.

The Colonel looked up at me and stared at my face long and hard while I remained frozen in place. Finally, he returned my salute. “At ease,” he said, standing up. Still staring at me, he slowly walked around the desk and stopped about a meter to my right. I continued to stare straight ahead, but assumed the Parade Rest position.

“So, Lieutenant,” Bertrum spoke in an even, unhurried tone of voice. “How many times have you stood there while I gave you a new asshole, mmm? How many times did I warn you to not make waves, to stop questioning your orders, to stop … ah … ‘making things up as you went along’? And now, you’re here once again. What do you have to say for yourself this time, eh?”

“S ..sir,” I stammered, “it was S … Senator Davis. He …”

“So you took it upon yourself to alter the mission, is that correct? Did it ever occur to you that the Senator might be an integral part of the mission?”

“Sir, I thought …”

“You don’t have enough information to think, Lieutenant. Thinking is not a part of your job. You do what you’re told, when you’re told, how you’re told to do it, do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“This office, with the assistance of the State Department had to spend four of the last six months cleaning up the mess you left behind.”

“Sir? I don’t …”

“Because you failed to execute the plan, your partner had to improvise. As a result, shell casings and bullet trajectories were out of position, forcing the local authorities to investigate the incident far deeper than they would have otherwise. We have neither the time nor the resources for all that extra work. State is asking pointed questions and demanding a sacrifice. Congratulations, Lieutenant, you’ve been nominated Scapegoat.”

“Sir, I’m sorry.”

“Oh, that makes me feel so much better! Don’t get me wrong, Lieutenant, you’ve been a valuable asset to the Service. When you’re not going off half cocked with your own unique interpretation of Orders, that is. I’m tired of having my people clean up after you. That’s what this all comes down to, you know. You’re good, but not that good, and this time, your antics are finally going to cost you. Big time. I’m sorry, but you were warned. I guess listening isn’t one of your special skills. I’d tell you to work on that, but I’m afraid it’s too late.”

The Colonel nodded to the woman in white, and she came around the other side of the desk. She came up behind me, and I came to attention once again. She pressed the tip of the little cylinder against the back of my neck.

“Lieutenant Joseph A. Coyne,” The Colonel announced formally, “After an extensive study by a panel of medical experts, along with a detailed analysis of your recent actions in the field by your Commanding Officer, it has been determined that your services are no longer required by the United States Armed Forces, and you are therefore relieved of all duties and responsibilities pursuant to your Oath of Service. I remind you, however, that you are still bound by the terms of the Military Secrets Act of 2123, and anything learned in the course of said service must be held in the strictest confidence under penalty of law.”

I felt a warmth against the back of my neck, where the cylinder pressed against my skin. The warmth spread, leaving behind it a cold numbness as my mods were turned off one by one. The world became smaller and darker as vision and hearing were reduced to human norm, while my surroundings became claustrophobic as my sensors went off-line. I squeezed my eyes shut, and thought I was dying.

“Involuntary separation pay,” the Colonel continued, “in the usual amount has been added to your bank account. It should be enough to carry you over until you can find gainful employment. Your Tangled Link has been detached from the Pentagon servers and transferred to a civilian communications provider, who will bill you directly from here on. Naturally, your access to all military databases has been cancelled and all classified software residing in your computer has been disabled. Your medical nanobots remain fully functional, but manual control over them is now limited. Counseling, if required, will be provided for a period of ninety days at any hospital licensed to treat mental health disorders of Class Three or higher. Any diagnosed condition below that will remain your responsibility, as will any condition lasting more than ninety days.” He paused for a moment. “I guess that’s it. Well, Mr. Coyne, the best of luck to you.” He reached out, and I shook his hand numbly. “It’s been a pleasure serving with you.”

And that was it. Too many questions, too many objections, and too much trouble led me to this point. Maybe I should have just shut up and pulled the trigger on the Senator, I don’t know. Maybe I should have been a little bit colder and a little bit crueler all those other times, too. But I wasn’t. I guess I couldn’t – not and be able to look myself in the mirror every morning. I was in shock, and more than a little denial. It wasn’t my fault. Not my fault. I didn’t cause this. I wasn’t responsible. It took me a while to recover from that, but when I did it was with a fierce anger in my gut, and a new goal on my mind.

I didn’t agree with the Colonel’s whole just-shut-up-and-do-your-job attitude. I wanted to know who and what was behind the Senator’s assassination. Like a dog with an old shoe, I wasn’t about to let go of it. I was determined to learn what was going on, and if the whole thing was just another grab for power, bring those responsible to justice.

Or deal that justice out myself if no one else would.

But that shot in the back of my neck had changed me. Where once I was a dangerous shark, I was now a helpless minnow. I had yet to learn just how helpless I really was, and that lesson would be long and hard. In the meantime, my new mission would help me avoid making my first big choice: where to go. Fort Seville had served as my home ever since I was sixteen, and now that the Army had kicked me out, I had nowhere to go. My father had died a few years ago, and my mother shortly before I enlisted. I had no other family, and therefore no home.

So I concentrated on my self-proclaimed mission: find out who killed Davis. During my Virtual incarceration, I’d given it a lot of thought. I took the first Tubeway capsule to Washington, D.C.. On route, I dredged an old name from my Contacts list and made a phone call.

“Senator Ashford’s office,” a woman’s voice answered. I was surprised, having expected a mechanical simulation of some sort, the ultimate high-tech answering machine. But I lucked out in reaching a real live human being.

“This is Joe Coyne,” I said. “I’m an old acquaintance of Bill’s. It’s very important I speak to him.”

“I’m sorry, but the Senator is booked solid for the next two weeks. Let me put you through to his message service …”

“No,” I said, a little too forcefully. “Look, I’m sorry,” I said in a friendlier tone of voice. “I only need five minutes of his time, and it’s really important. Tell him it’s about his son. I have information he needs to know about.”

“Yes, sir. I understand. Perhaps if you leave a message, he’ll get back to you.”

“I’m sorry, miss. I’m not trying to be a hard case here, but it’s very important and very personal. I’m sure he’ll want to see me. I’ll only be in town tomorrow, but all I need is five minutes. Honest. If it wasn’t important, I wouldn’t push like this. Please.”

A couple of years ago, I was working up in Canada mucking around with one of the local elections when I came across a young man trying to smuggle drugs across the border – the legal kind, mind you, but available in Canada at a tenth the price as the United States. Customs takes a dim view of that sort of activity, and I knew the impact the boy’s arrest would have on both international politics and the boy’s father. So I stepped in and got the kid out of trouble before all Hell could break loose. It was one of those occasions Bertrum was referring to when he was reaming me out. I might well have gotten canned right then and there had Ashford not intervened. I eventually got a commendation for my actions, but a lot of people in the chain of command had their noses bent out of shape.

I knew Ashford was a good friend of Davis, even though they were on opposite sides of the aisle, as it were. If anyone could give me a clue to the assassination, he could.

I eventually got my five minutes for the following morning, but it wasn’t easy. The Senator’s secretary was a hard sell, and when I finally hung up the phone I felt like I’d fought a war – the real, live, shooting kind!

Washington, D.C.

March 21.407, 2177 (Eastern Americas Time)

I’m not a complete idiot, you know. Almost, but not quite. So, rather than rush right into things, I decided to spend the rest of the day getting reacquainted with being human. The differences were discomforting, to say the least, not to mention distracting. In the blink of an eye, I’d lost a huge part of myself, and found that difficult to deal with. I spent the afternoon wandering through the streets of the nation’s capital, exploring some of the tourist traps and taking the guided tours, all while coming to terms with my new reality. It hurt like hell – not physically, but on a psychic level. I felt worthless and rejected, a bit of broken and worn-out machinery good for nothing but the scrap heap. I might as well have remained in that cramped Virtual jail cell, for all I saw of the culture and history around me.

I spent the night in a cheap one-bit hotel in the poorer part of town amid the rats, roaches and bedbugs. My funds were limited, and without a job I had no idea where I’d get more. So I went cheap. I might have opted for a park bench for all the comfort I got, but Spring weather was dicey enough at the best of times, and I didn’t want to risk it. It was a good thing I didn’t, because the next day dawned cold, wet, and miserable.

Walking the run-down streets of Washington D.C. was a new experience for me. Reflex had me start-up my Threat Assessment software and tie it into the sensors. I wanted to keep an eye on my surroundings. The pouring rain played merry hell with both vision and hearing, and I was afraid someone would sneak up on me.

Unfortunately, the computer gave me a “command ‘ThrAss’ not found” error and the sensors an “Insufficient Permission to access hardware” error, I cursed heatedly at the city, the military, and my own stupidity until I hardly noticed the people (if any) watching me from the sidelines. Paranoia is a handy gift, but it’s no substitute for working mods.

Senate Office Building

It was still early in the morning, and the building was largely empty. The Senator passed me through the reception desk in the lobby, and I took the elevator down into the bowels of the earth.

“Lieutenant Coyne,” Bill Ashford welcomed me with a broad smile and an open hand. We shook. “I want to thank you again for what you did to help my son. I can’t imagine what would have happened to him if you hadn’t stepped in like you did.”

“Just doing my job, Senator, that’s all. Glad I could help.”

“Now don’t give me that ‘just doing my job’ nonsense. We both know you almost got canned for that incident. I don’t mind telling you that it’s people like yourself that make me a lot more comfortable with the military.”

“Thank you, sir. I really appreciate that.” He waved me to his guest chair and waited until I was settled in.

“Listen, I’m really pressed for time. What’s this about my son? Is he in trouble again?”

“No, sir, nothing like that. I … ah … I’m afraid I mislead you. This isn’t about your son. I didn’t want to talk about it over the phone.”

“That what is it about?” the Senator frowned, about half a centimeter from tossing me out of the place on my ear. Still, I hesitated to continue.

“It’s about an old fishing buddy of yours.” I took a chance and made an issue of tugging on my right earlobe. Now when I was in grade school (yeah, back in the stone ages), that was a common enough indication that a teacher, parent, or some other adult was probably listening and everyone would be punished if everyone wasn’t careful. As far as I knew, it fell out of common use sometime after that, but the Senator and I were close to the same age.

He got the reference, and he nodded for me to continue. “He ran into a spot of trouble and I was wondering if you’d heard anything.” This was the tricky part, talking about Davis without violating any oaths or secrecy protocols. If Ashford’s office was being monitored, the culprits were no doubt using automation that listened for certain pre-programmed words or phrases. If the Senator and I both avoided using those words and phrases, we’d escape detection. That might only be a temporary escape, but perhaps it would be long enough for me to nail the persons who’d “put the hit”, as it were, on Davis.

“When was this?” he asked, warily.

“Six months ago. I would’ve come sooner but I was … otherwise engaged.”

“I see.” The man said, giving the matter some deep thought before continuing. “Are you telling me that foul play was involved?”

“I’m afraid so, sir. It’s too late for me to do anything to help him, of course, but I thought if I could stop it from happening to someone else, it’d be worth the time and effort.”

“Are you serious? It could happen again, to someone else?”

“Yes, sir. I think we have to assume it is.”

The Senator sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “That’s rather difficult to believe, you know.”

“Yes, sir. But until I know who is responsible and why, I can’t rule anything out.”

“Do you suspect me? That I might be behind it?”

“If I did I wouldn’t be here. No, Senator. I believe your fishing buddy ran into someone with an axe to grind. Maybe it’s work related, and then again, maybe it’s financial.”

“Or both.”

“Yes, sir, or both. That’s the trouble with fishing: you never know when there’s a bigger fish after your catch.” God, I hated dancing around the issue like this. It made me feel silly and childish, but without my mods, not only couldn’t I detect any electronic bugs in the room, I couldn’t glitch them either. As exposed as I felt out on the street, it was worse inside this little office with God knows who listening in.

“I’m sorry,” Ashford was saying. The last few minutes had been filled with an awkward silence, as the Senator gave my words, and their implied warning, careful thought. As he spoke, he pulled a small pad of scrap paper towards him and began writing.

Real paper, and a real ink pen!

Mind you, it wasn’t some silly affectation. In this electronic age, paper and ink can be far more secure than any of the digital alternatives.

When he’d finished scribbling, he tore off the top sheet and held it up for me to see. It was visible for only a moment before he crumpled it up and dropped it into the incinerator slot in the corner of the desktop. The flash and tiny puff of smoke that resulted made me wonder what sort of meetings took place in this office.

“I can’t help you.” Several emotions flickered over his features for a moment. The only one I recognized was fear. “I never suspected ….” I shook my head “negative” to remind him of the danger. All it would take was a single careless word, and our whole conversation would be red-flagged, and the jig would definitely be up.

Provided, that is, the Senator’s office was being bugged. Was I being senselessly paranoid, or not paranoid enough? I felt like we were walking a tightrope without a net.

“I guess I came all this way for nothing,” I said, mouthing the words “thank you” silently. He nodded in acknowledgment.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, Lieutenant. I really am pressed for time. I wish I could have been more help.”

And that was it, far shorter than I’d hoped, but more fruitful than I’d expected. Riding the elevator back to the surface, I replayed the image I’d recorded of the little piece of paper he’d showed me: a woman’s name and an address in upstate New York.

And above it all, the word “Mistress”.

Who would have known it: Senator Davis cheated on his wife. And, thanks to the speed and convenience of the Tubeway system, he could be there and back before anyone even suspected he was gone. But the real question was: how much did Davis tell the woman? Men often told their mistress things they’d never tell their wife, but did this particular man say anything I could use to track down his assassins? If not, where did that leave me?

Canton, New York

I didn’t get to see much of Canton. The address I was looking for was a short walk from the taxi station so, like much of the modern world, it was merely another stop on the world-spanning transit network. But it’s a pity that walk wasn’t longer. Because if it had been, I might have seen how damned stupid I was acting.

Follow me on this.

Ashford had written the woman’s name and address without hesitation. So he had it ready before I arrived in his office. That meant he’d done his research on me after we spoke on the phone. So he knew I’d been discharged, and no doubt knew why, even though that particular tidbit of information was classified. He’d known all along I wasn’t there about his son. He was playing his cards close to the chest, as indeed he should, being a United States Senator. So while my whole song-and-dance about avoiding the mention of certain words had made me feel real clever, in the end it was completely worthless, an embarrassment. Any red-flags to be triggered had already been raised by Ashford’s investigation after that phone call. So what happened next was entirely my fault!

“Jennifer Marsters?” I asked the woman who answered the door. She was a beautiful woman with big brown eyes and long curly brown hair that tumbled recklessly around her shoulders. She had the build of a habitual runner, and I found my eyes repeatedly drawn to the althletic legs revealed by skin-tight slacks.

The Senator had excellent taste in women!

“Yes?” she replied nervously. The neighborhood was clearly middle-class, nicely kept up, the apartment building equally neat and clean. I was still dressed in my best civilian garb after my meeting with Ashford, so I didn’t think she was afraid of me.

So what was wrong?

“My name is Joseph Coyne,” I said. “I work for the government. I don’t mean to intrude. I’m investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Senator Davis.” She pulled back a little from the door, her eyes wide in surprise. I was hoping she wouldn’t question the six month delay in starting that investigation.

“You’re a soldier, aren’t you?” she asked, looking me up and down. That’s when I realized I was standing there at Parade Rest.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, feeling sheepish. “Does that make a difference to you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” she frowned a little as she looked me in the eye. Sizing me up, perhaps. Finally, she opened the door wide and stepped side. “Come in.”

The apartment was one of those single-occupant cookie-cutter affairs you find everywhere, all of them alike and nobody in them seeming to care. It was just one of those things people took for granted these days, I guess. I took a handful of steps inside, and turned as she shut the door.

She placed her right hand on the locking plate on the wall beside the door, and I frowned. The lady was taking no chances. But when she turned to face me, it was clear that she didn’t feel safe, even with the front door locked and alarmed.

Without a word, she passed me and approached the small love seat that dominated the compact living room. She motioned me to sit beside her, which I did warily. I knew better than to make any sudden moves with someone so clearly high-strung.

“What’s wrong?” I asked gently.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re terrified. Why? Is it me? I’ll leave if you want. I’m not here to hurt you.”

“Why are you here? She asked.

“I’m trying to find out who might have wanted the Senator dead.”

“Why ask me? How should I know?”

“Pardon me for being so tactless, Ms. Marsters, but you were his mistress, correct? Surely you have some idea what was going on. From pillow-talk if nothing else. Look, I’m being insensitive and I’m sorry. But if you want to see justice done, help me, please.”

“What’s this to you? Just another mission, right? Why should you care?”

“Because they told me to pull the trigger,” she gasped at that. “I refused, and now my military career is over. It doesn’t come close to your loss, of course, but trust me when I say I want these bastards to pay just as much as you do.”

“No,” she said, looking down at her folded hands. “I don’t want them to pay. I don’t want anything, except to be left alone. You have no idea who you’re dealing with. No idea at all.”

“Someone powerful and well-connected,” I replied.

“You mean like the Cartel?” she replied. I sucked in a surprised breath. NorAPharMan (or North American Pharmaceutical Manufacturer’s Association) was one of the most powerful organizations on the planet. Founded by William Birsch, the Martian pharmaceutical magnate, the “Cartel”, as people called it, controlled the legal drug trade with an iron fist. In fact … I frowned. Ashford’s son had been working for them when I stepped in. That was how the group operated: conscript innocent kids to work as mules smuggling desirable but unapproved new medicines, then blackmail their rich and/or powerful relatives into helping in other ways. Not all companies worked like that, of course. Most, like that company I’d visited six months ago, were completely above-board in their dealings. But when it came to money, the Cartel played a dirty game. And while governments did all they could to keep the group in line, there’s only so much they could do with powerful executives operating off-world. Smuggling was a tiny part of their overall operation, of course, but a useful starting point.

A whole rat’s nest of possibilities came to mind as I ran through the implications of their being behind the assassination!

The woman had a right to be scared. And, to be perfectly honest, without my abilities, I was scared spitless myself. Not that I could tell her that, of course. Reaching out, I placed my right hand over hers. In response, she took hold of it in a death grip.

“Stay with me,” she said in a shaky voice. “Please don’t leave me alone.”

“Have there been any incidents?”

“Sometimes when I go out, I think I’m being followed.”

“You sure?”

“Yes … no … I don’t know. Maybe I’m just going crazy. Look, you’re a soldier, right? Can you protect me?”

“But it’s been six months,” I pointed out, reasonably. “Why would they wait until now to come after you?”

“So it’ll look unrelated. I know how I sound: crazy and hysterical. But I can’t help it. None of our old friends will talk to me anymore. Even my old friends have been avoiding me. I don’t know where to go or who to turn to. I even thought of phoning Charlie’s wife, but could never actually bring myself to do it. I didn’t want … I didn’t know …”

“Shhh,” I said gently, adding my left to the pile of hands on her lap. “I’ll stay if you want.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I’m sorry to have to ask you, but all I can think about is Charlie, and how he ignored the warnings.”

“Somebody threatened him?”

“Not that I know of, no. But some of his friends in the Senate tried to tell him not to go through with that Asian meeting.”

“Did they say why?”

“Not really, just that he was ruffling someone’s feathers.”

“Did he say who?”

“Not really. He mentioned NorAPharMan once, and I had to look it up. Never heard of it, you see. I’ve heard people talk about the Cartel, of course, but never knew its real name. He told me he wasn’t in any danger, that the trip would be perfectly safe. And I believed him. Then he …. Ever since I saw his body on the news feed I kept expecting to be next.”

“Why would they come after you? He never told you anything classified or dangerous, did he?”

“No. But ‘They’ wouldn’t know that, would they? I don’t want to die, Mr. Coyne. Ever since Charlie was killed I’ve stayed inside this apartment, never going out, using the ’Net to keep my recipe cards valid so I’d have something to eat.”

“You mean you haven’t been outside for six months? That’s no way to live. Surely there’s someone you can go to. Hell, you were … not to put too fine a point on it, but you were the mistress of a U.S. Senator, for crissakes!”

“I know, and that’s why no one wants to have anything to do with me. Charlie’s a hero now, you see. He’s a martyr for The American Cause. And if it comes out he cheated on his wife, it’ll spoil his good name, and ruin his reputation. That’s the way Washington works, you see. Everyone just wants me to go away. I’m scared, Mr. Coyne.”

“Why talk to me, if you’re so scared? You don’t know me from Adam. Why take the chance?”

“I …” she looked at me for a long moment, biting her lip. Then she looked down at her folded hands. “I guess I can’t take it anymore. I need to talk to someone – anyone.” Her head came up and she looked me in the eye. “And if you’re here to kill me, then so be it. At least that way, it’ll all be over.”

“I’m not here to kill you,” I said, gently squeezing her folded hands.

Suddenly, she leaned towards me. Pulling her hands free of mine, she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me passionately, desperately. Surprisingly, I found myself responding with the same passion and desperation. Maybe I was being a cad, or a sexual predator. In my own defense, without my abilities I felt like half a man, a virtual eunuch. Now maybe it was wrong of me to take advantage of the poor woman like that, but I wanted her as much as she wanted me. We were like two starving animals, and I can only imagine how far we would have gone if fate had been kinder.

Timing was never my forte. We were rudely interrupted by the door exploding inward with the sound of splintering wood and torn metal. There was the faint odor of explosives.

Reflexes kicked in and I Accelerated.

Or tried to. Like everything else important in my life, it had vanished without a trace. I managed to stand in the time it took the three men to cross from the doorway to my side. All three were big men, with broad shoulders and arms as thick as some men’s thighs. They wielded aluminum baseball bats that gave off a sound like ball bearings as they moved. My keen eyesight spotted the plug in the handle where the filling had been done, but my hearing told me all I needed to know: this was gonna hurt. Big time!

I wasn’t wrong.

I tried to give a good account of myself, but without access to my speed and strength, I was no match for the three bruisers as they pounded me over and over with the heavy bats. Although I knew it was useless, still I tried to activate some of my modifications. But even my ability to turn off the pain was denied me. Somewhere in the background, I could hear the woman screaming. At least I could until a dull “thud” quieted her. By now, I was on the floor, curled up in a fetal position while the three did their very best to break my unbreakable skull. Just before my lights went out, I looked over at the woman. Blood was pouring from a cut in her scalp as she stared at me, pleading silently with her eyes.

But there was nothing I could do to help her. For the first time since I was a child, I was helpless to defend myself. I lost consciousness, certain I was a dead man.

Fort Seville Military Base, Colorado

March 23.738, 2177 (Eastern Americas Time)

I came back to life in another of those white coffins, but instead of an aging stasis chamber, this was a state-of-the-art Automated Medical Treatment Unit, or AutoDoc. Surprised to still be alive, I waited patiently while the machine finished its release cycle. Finally, it opened up just like that other device and I found myself looking up at the same two fellows who had been there when I emerged from Virtual.

“Small world,” I told them as I swung my legs over the side of the machine. Instead of responding, one of the brutes tossed a folded pile of clothing in my lap – I’d been stripped naked for the AutoDoc, of course – and they waited in silence while I got dressed.

Then, still refusing to say a word, they lead me down familiar corridors to an office I thought I’d never see again. I wondered what I was doing here.

The two guards took up their station on either side of the door, while I stood in front of Colonel Bertrum’s desk, trying desperately not to come to attention, as every instinct insisted I do. The Colonel watched me enter with more patience than I’ve ever seen in the man.

“You’re in a lot of trouble, Coyne, you know that?” he said at last.

Not ‘Lieutenant’, or ‘Soldier’, or any other title. Just my name, as if to underline my newfound status as a civilian.

Why am I in trouble?” I demanded, letting my anger fuel a brazen attitude. “I was the one who got the shit kicked out of me, remember?”

“That woman is dead because of you,” he replied. My heart sank. Jennifer? Dead?

“No …!” I whispered, staring at my former superior in horror.

“They knew about her, of course, knew Davis had a mistress, but they didn’t know where to find her.”

“You mean … I lead them right to her?”

“Like I said,” the Colonel replied. Now a touch of anger colored the man’s face. I flinched inside. “What the hell were you thinking, Coyne? Did you honestly think you were the only one who saw something fishy about Davis’ death?”

“I thought you didn’t believe me.”

“As the saying goes, you’re not paid to think! You single-handedly ruined a six-month operation. All we needed was five minutes with one of those thugs. Five minutes and a Truth Patch, that’s all it would have taken to break this whole thing wide open.”

“She didn’t tell me she was co-operating …”

“She didn’t know about us! We kept her under surveillance, monitored her communications, her Worldnet access, even what she ate for breakfast every morning. We already knew everything she did about what happened, so all that was left was keeping her safe while we waited for an opportunity to grab a couple of bad guys.”

“She told me she was being followed. I thought she was just being paranoid.”

“Those were plainclothes policemen following her.”

“If she was being watched, then how the hell did I get to her?”

“Coyne, the local police saw you enter the apartment building and immediately identified you as an Active-Duty Soldier. Unfortunately, word of your discharge hadn’t reached the civilian databases yet. The cops pulled back to avoid any interference with your mission. It’s illegal for a soldier to operate on American soil, but occasionally the cops are willing to work with us and look the other way. They had no way to know you were practically helpless; an ordinary, if dimwitted and slightly deluded human being. Their withdrawal cleared the way for those three thugs.”

I thought about that for a moment, feeling embarrassed.

“Sh … She claimed she knew who was behind Davis’ murder,” I stammered nervously.

“Oh, really?” the Colonel said sarcastically. “Let me guess … NorAPharMan, right? The Cartel?”

“H … how did you …”

“Dammit, Coyne!” he said, slamming his fist down on the desk top explosively. “How the hell stupid do you think we are? Of course we know they were behind it. We also know your three attackers were working for them.”

“Well, good, then you’ll be able to track them down.”

“Already have,” he told me, settling down a bit. “They were found this morning in a ditch about twelve kilometers from the apartment.”

“Dead? But why? Who?”

“Coyne, even an ex-soldier’s capable of storing photographs in his computer memory. Those three didn’t know that, but their boss did. The moment those men attacked you they became a liability and had to be eliminated.”

I shook my head. “Look,” I insisted, “this doesn’t make sense. I know old man Birsch is pretty vicious, but he’d never stoop to murder. He’s being set up by someone else. If we can figure out who that is …”

“Willie Birsch is in a coma. He’s been that way for the last twelve months, and isn’t expected to recover. The Birsch family’s been keeping it under wraps.”

“Then who’s running the Cartel?”

“His daughter, Catherine, and let me tell you, she’s worse than Willie ever was. At least he had an ounce of decency. She doesn’t.”

“Colonel, listen to me. I know I have no right to ask, but this has gotten pretty personal. When you go after Catherine Birsch, I want in. Just let me be there when they take her down, that’s all I ask.”

The Colonel laughed. It wasn’t the request that was funny, so much as me.

“And what do you propose we do, eh? Put together an invasion fleet? Attack Mars and start an interplanetary war? And for what? Even if we managed to do all that, even if we managed to arrest her, do know how miniscule our chances are of getting a conviction? She’ll either buy off the court, or threaten to have them all killed.”

“You’re telling me there’s nothing we can do?”

“Let’s leave aside the lack of evidence, shall we? It’d be easier arresting the Sino-Japanese Emperor or the African Prime Minister. The answer is ‘no, there’s nothing we can do’.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” I said, eyes wide and heart pounding fiercely.

“I’ve known of the Birsch involvement for months. Like you, I thought if I could gather some hard evidence, there’d be some way to bring the bitch to justice. But now, thanks to what’s happened …”

“No!” I whispered, the word a moan of agony torn from my lips.

“Perhaps your stumbling around’s done me a favor, Coyne. It’s taught me the futility of this whole investigation. There are indications that people in my own chain of command may be compromised. I can’t fight a war on two fronts.”

“You can’t give up so easily.”

“Easily? You’re not listening to me. That woman holds all the cards. I have no firm evidence that she’s behind it all, and without that I don’t dare transmit my suspicions to my superiors. Justice be damned, my career isn’t worth it. Take my advice, mister, and give up yourself.” He paused then, mulling over whether to continue. “You don’t want to attract the Cartel’s attention. Maybe it’s too late for that, maybe not. Find yourself a nice deep hole in the ground and stay out of their way. Stay out of her way. This whole situation is way out of your league. You keep at this, and the next men who break in your door won’t stop with a beating. Besides, you’re not part of my team any longer. Just accept that fact and move on.” He stared at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher. “You should be dead yourself, you know,” he said, his voice subdued.

“They really worked me over,” was all I could say.

“That they did. Frankly, I’m surprised at you. You were never that careless before.”

“I had my powers, before,” I replied, illogically.

“Maybe so, but you don’t have them now! You were brought in with massive internal injuries, and those whacks on the head nearly turned your sad excuse for a brain into jelly. We got you into the AutoDoc just in time. Another hour or so, and you’d have died.”

“Why?” I asked, frowning. “Don’t get me wrong, Sir, but why save me at all? Why bring me all the way back here?”

“Not a clue,” the Colonel replied. “It wasn’t my idea, I can tell you that much! Orders came direct from General Rayburn himself, if you can believe that.”

“But what interest would a four-star general have in me? I’m a nobody. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“No it doesn’t, which is why I suspect the Chain of Command may be compromised. I was told precisely where and when to find you and what your condition would be. Everything was very detailed and quite specific.”

Wheels within wheels. Was Birsch behind those orders, planning even then to use me a third time, or was there another player hiding in the shadows? I felt a chill deep in my bones as I remembered that earlier conversation about being stepped on by giants.

“Colonel, what’s going on? What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

“You should have asked that question before you started poking your nose into things that don’t concern you. Go home, Coyne. Find that hole and go to ground before someone really does kill you!”

Not a very auspicious start to my budding career as a private detective. But what I didn’t know at the time was that I had indeed landed on Catherine Birsch’s personal radar.

Thus, my current predicament.

Continue the adventure in The Version Sequence, a six-volume science fiction series by Thomas F. Brown, now available from Amazon in the US, UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany for the Kindle family of eBook readers.

Click here to purchase Sub-Version from Amazon for the Kindle

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