Sai hated necrocytes. People in the Freezone believed the alien species knew the moment each human would die, arriving at the perfect time to work the corpse. Scientists said the necrocytes simply had a hypersensitivity to the odor of death, but Sai still found it creepy.
She leaned against the wall as three of the insect-like creatures worked in the dark alley, deftly separating tissues—muscle from tendon, tendon from bone. They started with the skin, flaying the corpse centimeter by centimeter from top to bottom with precision and mechanical indifference. Their claws served as scalpels as they disposed of the dead. Like intelligent dung beetles, they cleaned up the detritus of humanity.
Sai forced herself to watch as they processed Daniel Moonsinghe, who had been an info runner, a data thief, and her friend. Each moment of the gruesome procedure angering her a bit more. The necrocytes processed all corpses not on file for body retrieval. They reduced Daniel to an organized series of packages ready for biomedical recycling within fifteen minutes. All that remained were the component parts, As the necrocytes packed them away for transport, she realized she’d likely end up the same way one night. She closed her eyes for a moment. Death was common on the streets of Raken, but she would miss Daniel.
Sai reined in her emotions and straightened. A necrocyte approached her bearing the small silver unit recovered from deep in Daniel’s brain. She accepted the metallic shard from the chitinous mandible and bowed slightly. The necrocytes exited the alley, and nothing remained of her friend.
Sai examined the unit. It was a neural recorder, Daniel’s favorite toy. She wanted to immediately access it, but a man darted around the corner nearly colliding with the withdrawing necrocytes. Sai pocketed the unit and checked her ubiquitous comm link. It was after midnight.
The man argued with the necrocyte elder, but she couldn’t make out the words. He glanced toward Sai for the first time, and when the light hit his face, she recognized him. Jack Chen. He was Daniel’s client. He recognized her at the same time and turned to run away. Sai had questions for him and he didn’t look to be in the answering mood.
She grabbed the whisperblade at her waist, activated it with a flip of her thumb, and threw it. A blue plasma blade grew from the cylinder, and steering jets hissed to adjust the course. Sai controlled the whisperblade with her thoughts. She was a cyber-psi, able to mentally connect to any circuit within her limited range.
She willed the blade to fly past the man and then whip back to hover in front of his face. He skidded to a stop in the gutter-muck and did a stutter step to the right. The blade followed him, maintaining its distance.
She walked toward him slowly.
Chen’s eyes widened as he leaned right, then left and the whisperblade followed his every movement, easing closer until it floated a centimeter from his nose.
“I suggest you keep still,” Sai said. “Unless you want to lose an eye.”
Chen nodded and the whisperblade bobbed along with him.
Sai stepped up and took hold of the whisperblade, but kept it activated and ready for action.
“What were you doing in that alley?” Sai asked.
“I don’t want any trouble.”
“Let’s cut the bullshit, Chen. You hired Daniel.”
“No, I didn’t even know him, that freelance oracle assigned him to my case.”
“Same difference. You paid Dirion, but Daniel was working for you, and now he’s dead and you just happen to show up right after the necrocytes? I don’t believe in coincidences.”
“I don’t care what you believe,” Chen said.
Sai shook her head. “I suggest you start. Daniel was my friend, and you showing up here tells me you were involved in his murder. I wouldn’t mind carving you up as grief-therapy.”
“I had nothing to do with it.” Chen tugged at his collar. “Okay, look. I heard he was killed, but I only came here because he had something for me.”
Sai touched the neural recorder in her pocket. Daniel used it to store his results and document his jobs day by day. Sai knew it recorded all he’d seen and heard up until his death.
“He commed and said he was going to send it, but something happened.”
Still keeping a close eye on Chen, Sai used her talent to access the device.
As her mind interfaced with the unit, images flowed like memories. A short walk down the alley. The sound of footsteps. Feeling the turn, and then the clear image of a red-haired man, his face contorted by rage as he whipped a gleaming steel baton into Daniel’s skull. Everything went blank, but the image of the killer remained in Sai’s mind. It wasn’t Chen.
“You might not have bloodied your hands, but you could have hired the killer.”
“Why would I? I wanted a simple job done. Some embarrassing data retrieved. I didn’t want complications.”
“Maybe you wanted to kill Daniel to erase all the tracks.”
“Where would I stop? Dirion knew about it. I just wanted the data taken from my wife before the divorce. If I were a killer, I would have just killed her and I wouldn’t have hired you people.”
Sai nodded. “Fine,” she said and deactivated her whisperblade. “You can go. If it turns out you’re lying, I know who you are, and where you live. The necrocytes will be putting you into packages next.”
She shoved him away. The red-haired man couldn't be far.
Dirion was the best freelance Oracle on Raken. He was a powerful man on the Grid, but due to his physical vulnerability, he walled himself off in a fortress. He lived on the top floor of a shabby apartment tower, while the rest of the building sat vacant. Back in the booming days of early exploration, the place had housed the best brothel in the sector. People had paid exorbitant sums for all manner of sexual diversions. Now, behind the peeling wallpaper and crumbling façade of the derelict structure, lay enough sensors and automatic weaponry to outfit a battle cruiser, so these days, if someone walked in uninvited, they could get fucked for free.
Sai entered the dimly lit inner sanctum. Dirion rested in an interface cradle that permanently connected his mind to the Grid. A ring of neural probes encircled his bald head and his pale flesh draped over his bones like an afterthought. His limbs were vestigial organs, unfeeling and unused for years.
“Did you see to Daniel?” Dirion’s voice sounded from hidden speakers. His lips were still; his mind spoke for him.
“Yes, and I retrieved the neural recorder.” Sai crossed the room to a small console. “Here’s the upload.”
“I assume you already accessed it?”
Sai nodded. “Just the last few moments. I needed to decide whether or not to kill Jack Chen.”
“I trust he’s still breathing?”
“For now. He showed up hoping to get the recorder from the necrocytes, but he’s not a murderer. I marked the image of the killer in the recorder. Angry ginger jerk. Can you get a name?”
“I’ll run a search—crosscheck Confed data with the local corporate employment rosters.”
Sai approached Dirion’s interface cradle, automatically examined the levels on the nutrient tanks. She was the only person Dirion trusted to replace his supply. She remembered his voice calling to her from the Grid when she was an orphaned child. He was the first to recognize her cyber-psi gift. He’d saved her from the deprivation of the streets, and her abilities allowed him to perform the impossible for his clients.
Although Daniel hadn’t shard her psychic gifts, he’d had a knack for conventional data-running. She’d hoped to help Daniel, but life on the street crushed hope with implacable indifference.
“I have a match on our mystery man, Konner Petrovic. Formerly of Nebulaco Corporation.”
“Yes, he was terminated for corruption.”
“Isn’t corruption a corporate virtue?”
“Only if the corruption doesn’t extend to embezzlement. You steal from those outside the corporation. It’s a simple rule. Do unto others. Period.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s been missing for three months. Nebulaco has been looking for him. It seems they can’t account for a significant inventory shortage in his absence.”
“Why would he want to harm Daniel?”
“Because Daniel is the reason he got caught. We did a job for the corporation a while back and Daniel pulled some data for me. Simple enough. I merely sent it to their internal security director, William Casey. Petrovic’s career was a casualty. He’s evidently one to hold grudges.”
“We need to find that son of a bitch. Where’s he hiding?”
“Let me run a search for local optical surveillance records in the area where Daniel was killed.”
Sai waited as Dirion filtered through the results.
“Nothing in the alley itself. I’ll widen the perimeter.” A few moments passed. “Ah, got it. He exited a taxi at the corner of Exeter and Yates and waited for Daniel. How would he know to go there?”
Sai frowned. “Brittano’s. It’s a nightclub.” She shook her head. How many times had she told him not to go anywhere enough to be considered a regular? Bad habits get you killed. “Where did the taxi pick him up?” Sai asked.
Dirion hesitated. “Sai, if I find him, I’ll inform Nebulaco Security.”
“No, I want to handle it. I have a personal stake.”
“Exactly. Nebulaco is all business. They’ll pay a substantial reward and be brutally efficient in the matter.”
“He killed Daniel.”
“Yes, and he’ll be punished.”
“But we’re responsible. Daniel would be alive today if we hadn’t sent him out there to work.”
“Perhaps. Or, if you hadn’t given Daniel the job reference he might have starved to death or had his throat cut in the street. The responsibility for Daniel’s death belongs exclusively to Konner Petrovic.”
“Then let me handle him,” Sai said. “People will know they can’t cross us. Our reputation will be strengthened and I’ll have my satisfaction.”
“My dear Sai. Everyone already knows not to cross us. Nebulaco will destroy Petrovic and everyone will know that we’re the cause. I’ve lost one agent today. I won’t needlessly risk another.”
Sai nodded, but even as she did so she slipped along the pathways of cybernetic information into the Grid. She shadowed Dirion as his search progressed, then shot ahead of him, using skills that even Dirion couldn’t match. He sorted massive amounts of information, but when the path narrowed, she darted through with precision and speed.
“Do what you want. I’m sick of this,” she said, leaving Dirion to his investigation. She had what she needed.
Sai climbed the fire escape at the back of Petrovic’s building. She reached out with her senses—and felt an active security system, but with a mental nod, she switched it off. She flipped on her whisperblade and sliced through the lock, then pushed the door open and entered the dark unit. Dim light glowed from a room down the hall. The cramped living quarters were filled with empty food containers and crates from the store below. Petrovic had been holed up there for a while.
She moved silently toward the bedroom. A suitcase lay open on the bed, but she couldn’t see Petrovic. She slipped closer to the doorway, hoping to get a better look. She eased through the door, but Petrovic blindsided her. Before she spotted him hiding against the side wall, he slammed a metal baton down on her right hand, sending the whisperblade crashing to the floor. He followed up with a solid smack under the chin. Sai hit the floor hard, stunned.
“Nice try,” Petrovic said as he raised a gun and tucked the baton into his belt. “Get up.”
She did as he said and raised her hands. Sai glanced at the whisperblade on the floor next to him.
Petrovic smirked. “I saw the security system go offline. Who are you?”
Sai blinked, trying to regain her senses. She reached out to the whisperblade, but it didn’t respond. A quick diagnostic revealed damaged steering jets.
“You killed Daniel,” she said.
“So? It was on my to-do list before leaving town. What’s he to you?”
“Wait a minute,” Petrovic said, “I know you. You’re Dirion’s bitch.” He smiled. “Fantastic, this is a two-for-one night. I knew I couldn’t get to the oracle, so I was going to be satisfied just getting to Daniel, but now I can kill you too. That’s like cutting off Dirion’s arms and legs. Bonus!”
“It won’t be that easy. Dirion knows where you are. If I don’t get you, Nebulaco Security will.”
Petrovic shrugged. “That’s a given. I’m not worried about them. In fact, I was surprised to see you. I figured they’d be coming through the door. I hate living on the run. I just needed to lay low long enough to liquidate my inventory so I’d have a bargaining chip.”
“You have nothing,”
“You are nothing.”
The words struck her. All Petrovic had to do was squeeze that trigger and she’d be as dead as Daniel. Petrovic’s smile disgusted her. Arrogant, smug, and completely in control. She hated that the asshole was the last thing she’d see in this world.
There was a polite knock at the door.
He smiled. “Right on schedule,” he said and raised his hands. “Come in, it’s not locked!”
Four security officers burst through the door with pulse rifles leveled. “Put the gun down,” the commander said.
“Way ahead of you,” Petrovic said, leaning over to place the gun on the floor. He kicked it to the side. One of the men retrieved it.
Two officers swept through the rooms and returned. They nodded to the commander. “All clear.”
The commander turned toward the door. “Secure, sir. Just these two.”
William Casey, head of Nebulaco Security entered the room.
Petrovic’s smirk returned. “Director Casey, I’m honored you’re handing this personally. It simplifies things.”
“Petrovic, nice to see you again,” Casey said. “And who’s this lovely lady?”
“One of Dirion’s hounds. She came to kill me.”
Casey frowned at Sai. “Oh, my dear, we can’t have that. Mr. Petrovic is far too valuable.”
“He needs to be punished,” she said.
Petrovic laughed. “Punishment is for petty criminals. You underestimate the scale of my endeavor.”
“Unfortunately, he’s correct,” Casey said with a shrug. He glanced at Petrovic. “What are your terms?”
“My freedom, a hefty finder’s fee, and you have to let me kill this bitch because, if not for Dirion, I wouldn’t have suffered for three months in this shit-hole.”
“Interesting,” Casey said.
Sai couldn’t believe it. “You can’t be considering this!”
“Alas, my hands are tied. This is the Freezone. Local planetary law has no sway, and the corporation can’t become involved in private matters. That’s for the Confed, and they’re not here.”
It was sinking in. They really didn’t care. Not one bit. There wasn’t a thing she could do. “So you’re going to just stand there and let him kill me?”
“Unless you can provide us his account number and personal password, I’m afraid he holds all the cards.”
She could work with that.
Sai smiled, turned to Petrovic and looked at the standard comm unit on his wrist. She released tendrils of thought to the device, absorbing its recent history, communications log, and temporary memory. Sai turned and looked back at Casey. “Are you ready to take this down?” she asked.
Casey looked at her curiously then nodded at one of his men. “Record it.”
Sai spouted a twelve digit number followed by a ten digit pass code.
“No,” Petrovic said. “That’s not possible. She’s trying to deceive you.”
Casey nodded to his man. “Try it.”
The man punched in the numbers on his unit, waited a moment, and then nodded. “We’re in. Balance shows 221,638,415 credits.”
“Satisfied?” Sai asked.
“Completely,” said Casey.
Sai pursed her lips. “So, since this is the Freezone, if I were to kill him...”
“There’s absolutely nothing I could do about it.”
“Wait a minute,” Petrovic said.
Sai dived to the floor, grabbing the whisperblade. She rolled to her feet, activated the plasma blade and threw it directly into the center of Petrovic’s chest.
Patrovic looked down at the humming blade and watched as Gravity took over and the whisperblade sliced cleanly down through his body, eviscerating him as if he were made of warm gelatin.
Don’t need steering jets at point-blank range, Sai thought.
The security team stepped back as Petrovic’s entrails spilled on the floor. His look of surprise fell away as he collapsed. Sai retrieved her weapon from the mess with two fingers, then deactivated it. Before she slipped the weapon into her jacket, she heard the chitinous scratch of necrocytes at the door. A chill ran through her. They always knew.
Casey directed one of his men to open the door for the necrocytes. He studied Sai intently for a moment then pulled a calling card from his pocket and held it out. “Although I’m not certain how you accomplished all that, I have my suspicions. In any event, Nebulaco could use someone with your skill set on the payroll should you ever be interested.”
“I’m not sure I’m a ‘do unto others’ type woman.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“But he deserved it,” she said.
Casey leaned forward. “Lots of them do.”