In hindsight, I really should’ve seen the gunman coming.
Passing through a Confederacy immigration control point in the Transponder line, even in full human form, is going to set off somebody’s private alarm somewhere. Sure, there’re metal detectors and stripsearches and ten kinds of security to keep weapons out of transit areas, but there are ways around those sorts of things, not limited to bribery and nepotism. Most authorities report catching high numbers of smugglers into and out of secured areas, but never as a percentage of the total number of people suspected of bringing contraband goods through a restricted-access point. The fact is, a person as high-profile as I am is going to get recognised by somebody almost anywhere he goes, whether it’s by sight, voice or ID code. Being partly responsible for the system that allows such easy recognition, it’s little wonder I had someone waiting to greet me with open arms and a double-barrel welcome mat. Not everybody appreciates becoming just another number in an international database.
I don’t even think I was tailed; my senses were jacked up high enough that the only good means of following me would’ve been using the ever-present security cameras that come as a natural function of life inside a technopolis. The best that a physical being could have hoped was to duplicate what the electronics already knew, and in so doing they’d almost certainly have set off my paranoia and whatever advantage they could’ve gained by knowing where I was would’ve been lost by my awareness that I was being traced.
My best reconstruction of the event goes something like this: I walked through the Transponder gate at the inbound immigration checkpoint. A complex series of interactions between the transceiver in the archway, the Universal Identity Transponder implanted at the base of my neck, and the nearest International Identification Registry system led to the conclusion that I was, in fact, listed in the IIR database. The computer back-ending the transceiver proudly displayed the results of its queries about my country of citizenship (Cascadia), legal adult status (yes), outstanding criminal warrants (none in any IIR member nation or Interpol database) and permission to travel within the Confederacy (seven-day transit pass, work permitted within Confederate borders). Nothing suggesting anything out of the ordinary came up, so the green light flashed and a small bell toned to pass me through the gate. At that same instant, a second signal, most likely from a trojan wired up by the gunman’s accomplice in the Monitor booth, caused the gunman’s beeper to buzz, alerting him that the target had just passed through immigration and would be clear of customs momentarily. Assuming he was stationed near the exit gate, this would’ve given him ample time to set up for the shot.
Travelling as a full human, with no visibly abnormal traits, I had carelessly assumed that I would go unrecognised by the vast majority. Purists strike me as being such luddites when it comes to certain aspects of technology that I forget how sophisticated they can really be when not dealing with areas of modern science that they think violate their religious beliefs. So, my guard was down. That gave the gunman all the opportunity he needed to fire off three connecting shots. One went straight through my abdomen, missing my spine but removing a large chunk of my liver. The second connected with my upper chest, probably rupturing both lungs and doing unpleasant things to my cardiac rhythm. The third took out my right shoulder and probably disconnected my arm from the rest of my body.
I didn’t even have time to scream before I went into shock. The part of my brain responsible for processing pain went into overdrive, then got deactivated two milliseconds later by an override circuit designed for just such an occasion; with the crosscurrent flooding out all the meaningful signals, I was literally incapable of feeling the aftereffects of the shots. Call me old-fashioned but drugs designed to prevent a patient from waking up scare the hell out of me, as does the idea of any chemical that stops me from being able to remember anything that happened under its influence. I’d rather rely on a few microamps cutting off access to the synapses and be wide awake when somebody tampers with my body than trust any surgeon, no matter how skilled, to do what I want without me being right there to point out corrections while zie works. It activates itself automatically when it detects an excessive rate of signal is coming through that area of the brain; this means I can still feel minor injuries, but anything more serious than a bad sunburn or a papercut and I’ll only notice a quick twinge and then numbness.
Falling back onto the tile in shock and confusion, I was dimly aware of difficulty breathing, more gunshots, screams and general confusion. One unfortunate side effect of the override circuit is that it tends to throw my other sensory perceptions out of whack. I saw sparkles in front of my eyes, the overhead lights started humming loudly in my ears and then hundreds of hands lifted me and started carrying me along the corridor. I felt a deep pressure in my left arm, one that I had long ago learned to identify as the prick of a needle while under the influence, and then everything faded to a uniform grey static and white noise in my ears.
When I came around, more recognizable by the fact that I knew when I blinked than anything else, I was flat on my back staring up at the ceiling. Fluorescent white strips overhead stared down at me. I saw tiny rainbows around the edges of the lights, telling me the pain inhibitor was still active.
A voice startled me out of complacent comptemplation. “Awake, I see.”
I tried to turn my head but found I had all the muscle-tone of a wet tea towel. My brain put together the commands to string together a sentence but rather than words coming out of my mouth, a synthesiser near the bed picked up on the signals approaching my vocal cords and intercepted them, translating them into speech, albeit much less emotional and flatter than my own: “Doc, is that you?”
Doctor Richard Sanford, the man who had overseen every one of my major Transitions and most of my minor ones, chuckled and leaned over into my field of vision. Light reflected off the top of his balding head and into my eyes. “Don’t bother trying to move anything below your lips; you’re on a motor-control inhibitor to stop you from pulling apart any of the innumerable stitches currently holding you together. That includes your vocal cords.”
A mechanical laugh echoed out of the speechbox. “Your mother would be proud; all those sewing lessons paid off.”
Sanford smiled, showing his almost-perfect even white teeth. “We had to grow you a liver, two lungs, several meters of small intestine, a stomach and several kilos of muscle, bone, nerve and skin to put you back the way you were when you left. You want to tell me how my handiwork got so badly damaged?”
After a moment of pondering and two false starts, I managed to get the synthesizer to say, “A man with a shotgun wanted more than a few words with me. Where am I?” The last was a question but, as usual, the confounded mechanical contraption delivered it all in a flat monologue. I might as well have been reading a grocery list.
The doctor clucked his tongue and then leaned back out of my field of vision. “Pity,” he said, ignoring my question. “I was so hoping that for once, you’d manage to not damage my artwork while showing it off to the world.”
I swore to myself that one day I was going to figure out how to tell from his voice when Sanford was being funny and when he was being serious. However, it wasn’t going to be today. “Couldn’t let that happen. Besides, human is boring.”
He laughed. “It’s familiar, though. I’ll stick to my form for now. I can embrace some areas of new technology and support others without practicing them all on myself. What were you doing in the Confederacy, anyway?”
I tried to sigh but it came out as a quiet hum on the speaker. “Private installation. Details classified.”
Sanford clucked his tongue again. “Well, I’ll leave you to recover, then. Try to stay comfortable; you’ll have plenty of time to mull over what to do from here.” I closed my eyes, reducing the world to blackness. I heard footsteps and then the quiet click of a doorlatch falling into place. Unable to do anything else, I lay back and listened to the sound of my own heartbeat and the silent hum of machines as they lulled me into oblivion.
I learned to hate the motor-block after two days of being flipped, rotated and shifted by the nursing staff. A tube running into my nose and down my throat pumped oxygen-rich air into my lungs while IVs hooked into my still-properly-attached left arm dripped nutrient solutions directly into my bloodstream. A catheter ensured that I wouldn’t have to get up for even that necessity. If it hadn’t been for the ever-present hum of the support machines and access to my music collection through the clinic’s stereo, I probably would’ve gone mad. I kept trying to tell myself that this waiting was no different from all the times I had Transitioned, that the endless monotony of being trapped inside my own head would pass and that I would soon have a brand new body, but the fact that for once I had had my old one taken away from me forcibly rather than simply choosing to trade it in or upgrade it kept intruding on that idea.
After a week of being turned this way and that by a rotating schedule of nurses who showed all the personal interest of a blind date, Doc Sanford came in, looked me over, pronounced me fit to move under my own power and removed the motor inhibitor. It took an hour for everyone to pull out the lengths of tubing that had kept me tied into the machines that acted as life-support. The first thing I did under my own manpower was walk to the toilet; it was probably my most rewarding physical experience to date. Solid food followed closely behind, if you can call warm oatmeal solid. I was still dazed and lightheaded from the override circuit being active constantly, but ignoring that, I felt as good as I did before the “incident.”
The incident. After attending to all my relevant bodily functions, I found a terminal and started scanning for news reports from the Confederacy. It wasn’t hard. The network returned several reports published over a span of hours, from two minutes after the first shot to morning-after, all accompanied by high-quality full-color-and-stereo security camera feeds of three solid impacts slamming into my chest, picking me up and flinging me gracefully in a close-to-parabolic arc, coming to rest splayed out on the tile floor, the shotgun-wielder standing over me for all of two seconds, savoring the moment.
Ignoring the bulk of the story for the moment, I focused my attention first on the video footage. Several full-speed passes through the graphic display of violence made the hair on the back of my neck rise; I felt as if I were attending my own funeral. I halted the flow of images and pulled a close-up of my assailant’s face. Smoke curling away from the barrels gave him a halo effect. He was bald but probably hadn’t shaved his head in a few days. His eyes were sunken, as were the rest of his features to some degree; he looked like someone had punched a bowl of bread dough, stuck the man’s face on the indented surface and then let it rise. He was overweight but not fat, or at least not disproportionately so. His lips were curled back in an animal’s snarl, but his eyes gleamed with sadistic pleasure. Studying him, I couldn’t help but think that he was getting some kind of twisted kick out of doing his deity’s dirty work. Zooming back out, I got a look at his clothes. His jacket and pants were an unbleached off-white and around his neck I caught the flash of polished metal, the golden stylized flame-and-world pendant showing membership in, or at least some affiliation with, the Purist movement.
I sighed and saved a few images extracted from the datastream for my personal files, then called up the associated texts. Thomas Elijah Westborough, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, was in custody eleven minutes and twenty-two seconds after shooting “Kolya Jensen, self-appointed architect of the Brave New World”. A few reports from more conservative news services went into wild speculation behind the reason for the co-inventor of the so-called Identity Chip to be in a place so opposed to his very existence, with claims ranging from conversion to several different One True Ways to secret meetings with subversives in government planning to make the Confederacy a puppet-signatory to the Reunified Northam talks. Those that chose not to guess why I was there did go so far as to wonder openly about it.
I had to laugh at the title bestowed upon me. It wasn’t my fault that religion couldn’t keep pace with technology; that particular race had been lost so many times on so many tracks over the years that it hardly seemed worth the effort to run it again. The right to die, the origin of life, the rising of the sun, and the shape of the earth—to pick a select few choice contests—had all come under attack as being against the whims or wishes of some Invisible Pink Unicorn or Magical Sky-Daddy over the years. All of them had eventually forced the devout and the devoted to come to grips with the fact that, a few glitches in quantum physics aside, the universe didn’t really care what they wanted to be true.
It also wasn’t my fault that Transponder technology had had become so ubiquitous. Transition technology had made almost every form of physical identification useless; given a month and enough money, you could become anyone or anything, within certain limits. Want to be an elephant for your kid’s jungle-themed birthday this fall? Two months and fifty-grand, give or take two weeks of physical therapy. Want to look like Chartreuse or Rocco Carboni? Twenty-thousand and two weeks. Sure, people have died in the tanks, but have died on surgical tables for as long as we’ve been lifting people out of the dirt to keep their incision sites clean, and I don’t hear a lot of clamoring for going back to the leeches-and-emetics theory of medicine. So, even if most people still operate under the very comforting delusion that they still look like their old Northam Identicards, the truth is that you couldn’t trust them to match, assuming they were still valid.
It wasn’t even my fault that Transponder technology existed. Officially, the Cascadia government owned all rights to the technology when it was developed, and they chose to release the technical specs into the field. I happened to be on the team that developed it, and yes I was the geek that put forward the technical design that became the framework for the UIT network, but I wasn’t any of the hundreds of people who recognized the need for identity confirmation that existed outside of physical constraints, allocated resources to solve the problem, hired my company as a research partner, and then pushed for results. I certainly wasn’t the millions of people who voted those politicians into office because of a facejacking operation that exposed three celebrities as criminals and put seven people in jail for conspiracy to commit murder. I was one person who happened to be at the right place at the right time to serve as a capstone on a much larger effort.
Getting in front of a camera at the Portland Techxpo and bragging about having made possible the Mark of the Beast… okay, yes, that was my fault. It certainly didn’t endear me to a bunch of religious psychotics like Brother William Washburn’s Purist Movement, but it was so hard to take them seriously. Their press releases read like half a dozen holy books and a double fistful of dollar bills with kook rants written on them passed through a Markov chain generator, and their policy statements showed they collectively had a creative—to be generous—understanding of both religious scripture and the scientific method. They had some two-dozen “official” factions, all split from the main group based on some minor nitpick involving just how many angels could dance on what sized pin, but on peeling back all the social niceties and hairsplitting, they were a bunch of people who’d decided that the best way to deal with the pace of technology was to ban anything that made them feel icky inside. They couldn’t get most of their members elected in either Tejas or the Confederacy because they were too conservative, and if that didn’t put them squarely beyond the realm of reason, nothing would.
I shut down the newsfeed and stared blankly at the terminal for about a minute, putting my thoughts in some semblance of order. Then I shook my head and punched in the callcode for my office. Three buzzes later, the speaker popped, heralding the audio pickup on the other side. “Identicorp Portland.”
I recognised the voice. Breathing a sigh of relief, I punched a request for video. “Trace, it’s Kolya.”
I counted off three seconds subvocally before Trace Morgan, my nominal vice-president and one of my closest friends, sent back a denial for my video request and a request for authentication. “Identify on secure channel, please.”
“Oh, for the love of…” I bit my tongue, then chuckled at my response. The override circuit must be affecting me, I thought. The terminal was an Astra 320, not exactly cutting-edge but still equipped with a UIT transceiver as part of its stardard peripheral list. I put my hand over the receiver and waited for the thing to beep at me and tell me it had read my transponder. When it did, I spoke back into the terminal. “Authentification on its way. And send your own while you’re at it.”
“Already in progress. Stand by.” I fidgeted in my chair while my terminal and his talked to each other, then the IIR database, finally transmitting a little message backing my claims to Trace. A request for video pickup came through on my end, which I quickly accepted. A few seconds later, a window on the terminal opened up, Trace’s muzzle staring out of it at me. He’d Transitioned shortly after I did, partially to help prove that the UIT could replace any conventional form of identification, partially to indulge himself. He looked like a labrat, a six-foot-two white rat, right down to the tip of his pink tail. His figure was still mostly human-proportioned, but the fur and skull
were unmistakabily rodentine.
His black eyes blinked at the screen. “Kolya?” His voice registered surprise.
I grimaced. “Hi.”
“You look…” He paused, not directly look into the pickup.
“The word is ‘bad’, Trace.”
“I’ll go with that,” he agreed quickly, trying to fill the previous gap. “I heard the news. Sanford putting you back together alright?”
I made a face at the screen. “I itch.”
Trace chuckled, a high-pitched chitter that sounded like it should be coming from a cartoon chipmunk. “Just don’t gouge yourself this time.” I rolled my eyes at his comment. I’d had the override circuit installed at the same time as my first major Transition: leopard, with a heavy emphasis on the animal traits. When I woke up, of course I didn’t feel any pain because of the neural block, but I did itch from all the fur. I wasn’t used to my body and I’d forgotten about my claws, so I managed to carve four good-sized slices in my chest before the slick feel of blood on my pawpads made me hit the panic button. It took nearly twice as long to recover as it should have. Needless to say, most of the office found this hilarious.
I rolled my shoulders in a shrug. “Have I missed anything important?”
Trace gave a non-committal shrug. “We’ve had Confederacy officials on the phone off and on for the past nine days alternatively demanding to know if we want to press charges and meekly asking if you’re alive and wanting to know if-slash-when someone will be coming back. There’ve also been roughly half a dozen messages left, all in different synthesised voices, taking credit for your death and proclaiming you to be the first to fall. There’ve been over two-dozen additional calls we presume from the same sources, but they’ve been hang-ups, possibly automated. Tracking the calls led to public phone booths in Cascadia, Tejas and the Confederacy. All calls were purchased with anonymous cashcards. Cascadia police and Interpol have both been notified.” He paused a moment, looked around the edge of the pickup. “That seems to be everything.”
I nodded. “Sounds like the shop’s under control, then. I should be out of here in a week and on my way back to Atlanta in ten days.”
Trace stared into the video pickup, tapping his front teeth with a claw; it was a nervous gesture me made when he was thinking. Then he leaned back and shook his head once. “This place can run for a month without you in a pinch and the Confederates can wait. I’d suggest Transitioning. Something new and different.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Maybe I missed something somewhere. I thought we were out to prove to them that Transponders could defeat any conventional disguise tactic. Perhaps I’m mistaken somewhere?”
The rat clicked his tongue and let out a high-pitched squeaking sigh. “The Confederacy has assured me that no report of your survival has yet hit their news wire, and also that they found their security leak and have patched it. Going back in the same body you took last time is just going to tell the Purists to try harder next time. Thus, I think it’s a dangerous idea, but going in another form should be safer, especially if you take along a bodyguard.” The like-I-told-you-to-do-last-time was implicit.
I thought, scratched my ear—carefully—and finally shrugged in mock defeat. “Alright, you win. I Transition before I go back.”
“And you take a bodyguard.” His pink eyes glittered with determination.
I sighed. “Alright, and I take a bodyguard. Call Dom and have her meet me here in a week; I should be coherent by then.”
Trace smirked, a feat I still found amazing giving his facial structure. “I already paged her; she should be there in the next half hour.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re a real piece of work.”
Trace’s muzzle split a little further. “That’s what Sanford said when he finished with me. Now get back in bed; Dom will be there soon and you’ll need your strength to deal with her.”
I waved a hand dismissively, even though my vision was getting blurry. “Fine, fine. See you in a month, give or take.”
Trace waved a paw at the video pickup and then the window shut itself down, the speaker crackling once to signify the end of the conversation. I hauled myself off the terminal and just about fell over my own feet getting back into bed. I sighed, realising I’d pushed myself too far for my first day under my own power. From the comfort of the mattress, I requested some classical music and lay back, eyes open but unfocused. I lost track of the time staring at the rainbows flickering around the fluorescent lights in time to Holst and Dvorak. I cut back into reality, though, when the music cut out and a voice came through the terminal speakers. “Kolya?”
It was Sanford’s receptionist, Terry Moreno, one of the only people on the staff with more skill at rebuilding computers than organics. I tilted my head and called out towards the terminal, “Yes?”
I had trouble telling if the distortions in Terry’s voice were the result of the transmission medium or just the override circuit messing with my senses again. “You’ve got a visitor.. Dom Herschell?”
I sighed and struggled to sit up in bed, regretting it as soon as I was semi-vertical. “I’m awake. Send her in.”
“On her way.” The music snapped back to life, picking up where it had been interrupted.
I canned the playback and waited. Around a minute later, the door opened and Dominique Herschell strolled into the room. She wore a tan fitted jumpsuit, far too crisp for it to have seen any real use. She was clearly between jobs; she’d obviously recently shaved her head, and the black tribal tribal tattoos on her head stood out sharply against her brown skin. She kicked the door shut with the heel of one foot, detoured by the terminal to grab the chair and dragged it over next to the bed. Rather than say anything, though, she just spun it around backward and sat facing me, her arms folded over the back.
I held her gaze for all of about thirty seconds before sighing. “What?”
Dom smirked. “I was just thinking of all the times you told me you didn’t like my line of work. Now Trace calls me and says you want to hire me. I’m just enjoying the moment.”
I snorted. “I still don’t like your line of work. Gun-for-hire never struck me as a career with good retirement options.”
Her smirk slipped into a playfully mocking sneer. “I’m a courier, not a mercenary. My combat training is for self-defense and the protection of valuables, which occasionally means people like you. And with that kind of crack, maybe I won’t take your job.”
It was my turn to grin. “Yes you will. You’ll have time to rub my nose in it all the way to the Confederacy and back.”
Dom gave me a look somewhere between incredulous and patronizing, then pulled a piece of gum out of one of her many pockets. “Confederacy?” She popped the stick in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
I sighed. “Yes, Confederacy. Okay, jokes aside, Dom. You’re the best person I know for this sort of business and one of the only ones I can probably trust to tag along. I got shot the last time I went and I have a vested interest in seeing that that doesn’t happen again. I’m a thinker, not a fighter. I had skywired senses and I still took three shotgun slugs from someone I should’ve seen five miles away.” I paused and shrugged, ignoring the discomfort from my right shoulderblade. “I need your help.”
I ran out of steam there and left the silence hanging while Dom blew bubbles. After a minute or so of consideration, she snapped her gum and nodded. “Alright. Two ground rules.”
Time to negotiate. “Number one?”
She held up a finger. “If the bullets start flying, I get hazard pay.”
I sighed but didn’t bother arguing that one. “Done. Number two?”
She grinned and raised a second. “If I say ‘duck’, you duck. When I say it, not after asking me why.”
I rolled my eyes. “Contrary to Trace’s claims, I am not the most inquisitive person on the planet and I do not have a problem with authority figures.”
She only snapped another bubble in response. When I said nothing further, she shrugged and stood, walking towards the door. “I’ll get the travel details from Trace. When do we leave?”
That reminded me. “Five weeks.”
Dom gave me that look again from the doorway. “Any reason for the delay?”
I nodded. “Trace wants me to Transition before I go. Bring a pocket scanner with you to the tube station.”
She grinned; I could just make out the wad of gum between her teeth. “What’re you going to be?”
I shrugged again, this time wincing at my shoulder. “I don’t know. I’ll have something figured out by the time Sanford starts cutting. Trace suggested ‘new and different’ so it’ll probably be anthropomorphic.”
Dom paused, one hand on the doorjamb. “Try female.”
I snickered. “That’d certainly be new and different.”
“It’ll also be something the Purists won’t consider,” she said pointedly, tapping a finger on the frame.
My eyes narrowed. “You read the news?”
Dom’s grin broadened. “I didn’t have to.”
I raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. “I don’t get it.”
A look of consternation passed over Dominique’s face, then she sighed. “Trace said he’d have my head if I told you, but he had me follow you from a discreet distance on your last trip. I couldn’t get to you in time to keep you from getting shot, but I did get you evacked back to Angeles. Trace covered the slingshot fare and I paid Medifast to keep your lungs attached to your neck while Sanford prepped an emergency suite for your arrival.” She grinned, leaning against the doorway. “Doc complained about their stitchwork.”
I sat, shocked, for what may very well have been the first time in my life. I honestly didn’t know whether to be angry or pleased that my ex-girlfriend and my best friend for the past twenty years had simultaneously conspired behind my back and saved my hide. I slumped against the head of the bed and looked back into Dom’s eyes. “Thanks.”
She brightened somewhat, a ghost of her smirk echoing on her face. “See you in five weeks. Try not to be late.” Then she exited the door while I slid back down into bed and let the Beethoven swell as I tried to decide on my next face.