Achilles Desjardins woke to the sound of a scream.
It had died by the time he was fully awake. He lay in the darkness and wondered for a moment if he had dreamt it; there had been a time, not so long ago, when his sleep had been filled with screams. He wondered if perhaps the scream had been his, if he had awakened himself—but again, that hadn't happened in years. Not since he'd become a new man.
Or rather, not since Alice had let the old one out of the cellar.
Awake, alert, he knew the truth. The scream had not risen from his mind or his throat; it had risen from machinery. An alarm, raised in one instant and cut off the next.
He brought up his inlays. Outside his skull, the darkness persisted; inside, a half-dozen bright windows opened in his occipital cortex. He scrolled through the major feeds, then the minor ones; he sought threats from the other side of the world, from orbit, from any foolhardy civilian who might have blundered against the fence that guarded his perimeter. He checked the impoverished cluster of rooms and hallways that his skeletal day staff had access to, although it was barely 0400 and none of them would be in so early. Nothing in the lobby, the Welcome Center, the kennels. Loading bays and the physical plant were nominal. No incoming missiles. Not so much as a plugged sewer line.
He had heard something, though. He was sure of that. And he was sure of something else, too: he had never heard this particular alarm before. After all these years, the machines that surrounded him had become more than tools; they were friends, protectors, advisers and trusted servants. He knew their voices intimately: the soft beeping of his inlays, the reassuring hum of Building Security, the subtle, multi-octave harmonics of the threat stack. This alarm hadn't come from any of them.
Desjardins threw back the sheet and rose from his pallet. Stonehenge loomed a few meters away, a rough horseshoe of workstations and tactical boards glowing dimly in the darkness. Desjardins had a more official workspace, many floors above; he had official live-in quarters too, not luxurious but far more comfortable than the mattress he'd dragged down here. He still used those accommodations now and then, for official business or other occasions when appearances mattered. But this was the place he preferred: secret, safe, an improvised nerve center rising from a gnarled convergence of fiber optic roots growing in from the walls. This was his throne room and his keep and his bunker. He knew how absurd that was, given the scope of his powers, the strength of his fortifications—but it was here, in the windowless subterranean dark, where he felt safest.
Scratching himself, he plunked down onto the chair in the center of Stonehenge and began scanning the hardline intel. The world was full of yellow and red icons, as always, but nothing acute. Certainly nothing to warrant an audible alert. Desjardins dumped everything into a single events list and sorted on time; whatever had happened, had just happened. He scrolled down the list: CAESAR meltdown in Louisville, static-field failure in Boulder, minor progress re-establishing his surveillance links down along the Panhandle. More chatter about mutant bugs and weeds spreading up from the Panama line…
Something touched him, lightly, on the leg. He looked down.
Mandelbrot stared up at him with one eye. The other was gone, a dark sticky hole in a face torn half away. Her flank was slick and black in the gloomy half-light. Viscera glistened through matted fur.
The cat swayed drunkenly, her forepaw still upraised. She opened her mouth. With a silent miaow, she toppled.
Oh God no. Oh please God no.
He made the call even before bringing up the lights. Mandelbrot lay bleeding into a puddle of her own insides.
Oh Jesus, please. She's dying. Don't let her die.
"Hi," the tac board chirped. "This is Trev Sawyer."
The fuck it was. It was an interactive, and Desjardins didn't have time to waste dicking around with dialog trees. He killed the call and accessed the local directory. "My vet. Home number. Kill any overrides."
Somewhere in Sudbury, Sawyer's watch started ringing.
You got into the kennel, again, didn't you? Mandelbrot lay on her side, chest heaving. Stupid cat, you never could resist taunting those monsters. You just figured—oh God, it's amazing you even made it back.
Don't die. Please don't die.
Sawyer wasn't answering. Answer your watch, you stumpfucking idiot! This is an emergency! Where the fuck can you be at four a.m.?
Mandelbrot's paws twitched and flexed as if dreaming, as if electrified. Desjardins wanted to reach out, to staunch the flow or straighten the spine or just pet her for Chrissakes, offer whatever pitiful comfort he could. But he was terrified that any inexpert touch might just make things worse.
It's my fault. It's my fault. I should have scaled back your clearance, you're just a catafter all, you don't know any better. And I never even bothered to learn what your alarm sounded like, it just never occurred to me that I wouldn't—
Not a dream. Not a Worldwatch alert. Just a veterinary implant talking to his wristwatch: a brief scream as Mandelbrot's vitals lurched into the red, then silence as teeth or claws or sheer shocking inertia reduced signal to noise.
"Hello?" muttered a sleepy voice in mid-air.
Desjardins's head snapped up. "This is Achilles Desjardins. My cat's been mauled by—"
"What?" Sawyer said thickly. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"I'm sorry, I know, but this is an emergency. My cat's—oh God, she's torn apart, she's barely alive, you've got to—"
"Your cat," Sawyer repeated. "And why are you telling me?"
"I—you're Mandelbrot's vet, you—"
The voice was icy: "I haven't been anyone's veterinarian in over three years."
Desjardins remembered: N'Am's vets had all been conscripted into human service when ssehemoth—and the thousand opportunistic bugs riding its coattails—had overwhelmed the health-care system. "But you're still, I mean, you still know what to—"
"Mr. Desjardins, forget the hour. Do you even know what year it is?"
Desjardins shook his head. "What are you talking about? My cat's lying on the floor with her—"
"It's five years after the dawn of the Firewitch Era," Sawyer continued in a cold voice. "People are dying, Mr. Desjardins. By the millions. Every day. To even waste food on a mere animal, under these circumstances, is scandalous. To expect me to spend time and resources saving an injured cat is nothing short of obscene."
Desjardins eyes stung. His vision blurred. "Please—I can help you. I can. I'll get your cycler ration doubled. I can get you unlimited water. I can get you into fucking geosynch if that's what you want, you and your family. Anything. Just name it."
"Very well: stop wasting my time."
"Do you even know who I am?" Desjardins cried.
"I certainly do. And I'm astonished that any 'lawbreaker—let alone one of your evident stature—would have such completely misplaced priorities. Aren't you supposed to be immune to this sort of thing?"
"Good night, Mr. Desjardins."
Disconnect, added a little icon in a corner of one screen.
Blood bubbled at the corner of Mandelbrot's mouth. Her inner lid slid halfway across that one bloodied eyeball and retracted.
"Please," Desjardins whimpered. "I don't know what to…"
Yes you do.
He bent over her, reached out a hand, pushed tentatively at a bulging loop of intestine. A spasm shuddered through Mandelbrot like a passing spirit. She meowed faintly.
"I'm sorry…I'm sorry…"
You know what to do.
He remembered Mandelbrot latching on and bitinghis father's ankle when the old man had come by to visit back in 48. He remembered Ken Lubin, standing in Desjardins's bathroom in his underpants, scrubbing his trousers in the sink: "Your cat pissed on me," he'd said, a hint of grudging respect in his voice. He remembered a thousand nights pinned on his bed, bladder full to bursting but unwilling to disturb the furry sleeping lump on his chest.
He remembered Alice showing up at work, her lacerated hands struggling to hang on to a scrawny, hissing kitten that wasn't taking any shit from anybody: "Hey Killjoy, want a watch-cat? Chaos made flesh, she is. Reversible ears, needs no batteries, guaranteed not to let anyone past your front door with all their body parts…"
You know. Mandelbrot convulsed again.
There was nothing nearby he could use—no injectables, no gas, no projectiles. All of that stuff was loaded into the booby traps and would take far too long to extract. The room was a stripped-down shell of bone-gray walls and fiberop vines. The neuroinduction field would…hurt…
Just a fucking brick, he thought, swallowing against the grief in his throat. Just a rock, they're all over the place outside…
No time. Mandelbrot wasn't even living any more, she hadn't been living since she'd started back from the kennels. All she was doing was suffering. And all Desjardins could do was end that.
He raised his foot over her head. "You and me, Brotwurst," he whispered. "We had higher clearance than anyone inside a thousand klicks…"
Mandelbrot purred once. Something sagged in her as she left. Whatever remained lolled bonelessly on the floor.
Desjardins kept his foot raised a moment, just in case. Finally he brought it back to the concrete floor. Mandelbrot had never been one to yield the initiative.
"Thank you," whispered Achilles Desjardins, and wept at her side.
Dr. Trevor Sawyer woke for the second time in as many hours. A dark shape hung over his head like a great fist. It hissed softly, a hovering reptile.
He tried to rise. He couldn't; his arms and legs wobbled like unresponsive rubber. His face tingled, his jaw hung slack as cooked pasta. Even his tongue felt swollen and flaccid, sagging loose and immovable in his mouth.
He stared up at the ovoid shape above the bed. It was a great dark Easter egg hanging in the air, half as long as he was, and wider. Its belly was disfigured by ports and blisters, barely-discernible, reflecting slivers of gray half-light from the hallway.
The hissing subsided. Sawyer felt a trickle of drool worm onto his cheek from the corner of his mouth. He tried to swallow, and failed.
He was still breathing. That was something.
The Easter egg clicked softly. A faint, almost subsonic hum emanated from somewhere nearby—either a ground-effect field, or the static of nerves misfiring in his own cochleae.
It couldn't be neuroinduction. A botfly would never even get off the ground carrying coils that heavy. Neuromuscular block of some kind, he realized.It gassed me.
It gassed us…
He willed his head to turn. It lay like a ten-kilogram rock on the pillow, defying him. He couldn't move his eyes. He couldn't even blink.
He could hear Sandra beside him, though, breathing fast and shallow. She too was awake.
"Went right back to sleep, I see," the botfly remarked in a familiar voice. "Didn't lose a wink over it, did you?"
"It's okay, though," the machine went on. "Turns out you were right. Here, let me give you a hand…"
The botfly tilted nose-down and descended until it was literally nuzzling Sawyer's cheek. It nosed him gently, like a hungry pet pestering its master for food. Sawyer's head lolled sideways on the pillow, stared past the edge of the bed to the crib against the far wall, barely visible in the gloom.
Oh God, what—
This couldn't be happening. Achilles Desjardins was a 'lawbreaker, and 'lawbreakers—they simply didn't do this sort of thing. They couldn't. Nobody had ever admitted it officially, of course, but Sawyer was connected, he knew the scoop. There were—restraints, right down at the biochemical level. To keep 'lawbreakers from misusing their power, to keep them from doing exactly what—
The robot floated across the bedroom. It came to rest about a meter over the crib. The thin crescent of a rotating lens glinted on its belly, focusing.
"Kayla, isn't it?" the botfly murmured. "Seven months, three days, fourteen hours. I say, Dr. Sawyer. Your genes must be very special, to justify bringing a child into such a shitty world. I bet it pissed off the neighbors something awful. How'd you get around the pop-control statutes?"
Please, Sawyer thought. Don't hurt her. I'm sorry. I—
"You know, I bet you cheated," the machine mused. "I bet this pissy little larva shouldn't even be here. Ah well. Like I said before, you were right. About real people. They really do die all the time."
Please. Oh dear God give me strength, let me move, at least give me strength enough to beg—
Bright as the sun, a fiery proboscis licked down through the darkness and set Kayla alight.
The botfly turned and regarded Trevor Sawyer through a dark cyclopean eye, while his child screamed and blackened.
"Why, there goes one now," it remarked.
"For Mandelbrot," Desjardins whispered. "In memory."
He freed the botfly to return to its appointed rounds. It would not be able to answer any of the inevitable questions resulting from this night, even in the unlikely event that anyone could trace it back to the honeycombed residential warren at 1423-15 °Cushing Skywalk. Even now it could only remember a routine patrol along its prescribed transect; that was all it would remember, until a navigational malfunction sent it on a suicidal corkscrew into the no-go zone around Sudbury's main static-field generator. There wouldn't be enough left afterwards to reconstruct so much as a lens cluster, let alone an event log.
As for the bodies themselves, even the most superficial investigation would reveal telling indications of Trevor Sawyer's resentment over his forcible conscription into the Health Corps, and previously-unsuspected family ties to the M&M regime recently risen to power in Ghana. Nobody would waste time asking questions after that; those associated with the Madonna's New Order were notorious for their efforts in bringing down the old one. With Sawyer's hospital clearance and medical expertise, the damage he could have done to the law-abiding members of the community was incalculable. Sudbury was better off without him, whether he'd been killed by his own or whether some vigilant 'lawbreaker, near or far, had tracked him to his lair and terminated his terrorist activities with extreme prejudice.
It wasn't as though these kind of surgical strikes didn't happen all the time. And if some 'lawbreaker was behind it, it was—by definition—all for the best.
One more item checked off the to-do list. Desjardins wrapped Mandelbrot in his t-shirt and headed outside, cradling the bloody bundle against his bare chest. He was drowning in a vortex of emotion; he was empty inside. He tried to resolve the paradox as he ascended to ground level.
Grief, of course, for the loss of a friend he'd had for almost ten years. Satisfaction for the price exacted in return. And yet—he had hoped for more than this grim sense of a debt restored. He had hoped for something more fulfilling. Joy, perhaps, at the sight of Trevor Sawyer watching his wife and child burn alive. Joy at the sight of Sawyer's own immolation, flesh crisping from the bones, eyeballs bursting like great gelatinous grubs boiled in their sockets, knowing even there at the end, feeling it all, he'd never even found the strength to whimper.
Joy eluded Desjardins. Granted he'd never felt it any of the other times he'd balanced the books, but he had hoped for more this time. Certainly, the cause had been more heartfelt. But still: only grief, and satisfaction, and—and something else, something he couldn't quite put his finger on…
He stepped outside. Pale morning light rose on all sides. Mandelbrot was growing cold and stiff in his arms.
He took a few steps and turned to look up at his castle. It loomed huge and dark and ominous against the brightening sky. Before Rio, a small city's worth of would-be saviors had labored there. Now it was all his.
Gratitude, he realized, astonished. That's what he felt. Gratitude for his own grief. He still loved. He could still feel, with all his heart. Until this night and this loss, he had never been completely sure.
Alice had been right all along. Sociopath was far too small a word to contain whatever it was he had become.
Perhaps he'd go and tell her, once he'd laid beloved Mandelbrot to rest.