His Stainless-Steel Heart
by Jeffery Reynolds
It was at the rest stop in Tali that Viktor ran into trouble. His fault, really. He’d been driving along all swoon, meditating in an isolationist haze that provided him a good feeling, kept his thoughts clear. Didn’t even have to get high, it was a natural vibe for a motoring king. The ancient Buick purred like an avalanche of love, eating the miles. Better outcome than a warmonger could hope for. The rest were all perished. Peacetime no peace for warriors.
Into the stop he pulled, needing a stretch and a piss, maybe a hit of Somnup or a sip of caffeine. There were only a couple of vehicles there, so he thought sweet, no one to bust in on my mood. Two drone trucks; a couple three sedans, all electric and shiny new; a lone RV — first one he’d seen in about six years to be fair, so that made it coolness, and it clearly guzzled rich diez. Getting so he didn’t see gassers any more, which was opaque for the lungs, but always a bit low on the sadness scale. Made that RV something special, sitting there all proud on its rubber soles.
He walked through the swinging glass doors, into the cool of interior dusk, with the hum of an old AC unit buzzing like a hive through the ducts overhead. And there she came, out of the facilities, a Valkyrie with bleached blonde mohawk and electric green irises from the finest graft shop, her right arm one big circuit board, bio-gened and soldered with immaculate chromium threads. Perfect teeth when she smiled. Preggers as all heck, like she carried twinsies. She had that thing preggers get. He remembered that glow they had.
“Hi there,” she said. She could have stopped right there and it wouldn’t have flattened the bubble. He’d have gone in and done his thing and been off like a moon shot again, top down and mufflers drowning out the wide, whistling world. But she kept right on with the langs. “Splendid day, hope you’re even. Get the right, true enough.”
“Sure,” he says, ready to ease on into the rest room. But he noticed a hitch in his step where before he’d been striding smooth as stalking tiger.
“Be bright,” she said as he walked past. Smiling. Real smile, too. Not on pharms, no sir, ‘cause he scanned her up and down. He had to make sure she weren’t no cop with their peach fuzz faces. But it dampened him, it surely did.
He followed her trail back to the lav. She’d left an aroma of cinnamon in the air, warm toast with butter and sugar, or maybe fresh cookies. He could hear the click of heels going out the door into the fresh. But she’d undermined his speed, dragged him retrograde. He felt a dark spiral now, crushed under vagaries of knowledge. It wasn’t nothing to be cut open, pulled apart, reassembled. The machine in the soul. That was righteousness for a warmonger or a Valkyrie. It was all the knowing that done him dark and dreary. He took out his last dose of Twinkle and dropped it before he went in, opting for the two-minute high it’d provide. The Twinkle time lag hit him hard and fast.
He opened the door two secs after he opened the door.
A man washed his digits in a sink rimmed with rust. He was all natural, glowing pink like summer sunset. No e’s on him, no slots, no subdermals, or the scans would have registered him hostile. Humie all, through and through; no artificial, no adulteration. Wearing dark blue with silver oak leaf in his collar, his uniform crisp and creased. He was blood-filled, like a huge tick, pulsing with vitality.
Oak leaf gave him a look with chocolate eyes, and one polite nod. “Day,” he said, like that was all there was. Day. Never twilight, never night, never dawn’s early light. Nothing but the light of a star burning a hole in the planet. Then he went into one of the stalls.
Viktor waited until he heard the man’s piss hit the bowl, then he went into the other stall. Pulled down his pants and sat. Dropped low now, his mental looping. She’d upset his flow with her lang. Might need more than Somnup; might be he could get some low Tranquil from the vends. He pulled up a mag from data storage, an old issue of Life, and flipped through the pics in his oculars to distract. Hummed a tune.
From the halls of Montezuma
Probably had been the wrong song sitting next to the aero forcer. His stall door banged open. Oak leaf stared down at him with squinty eyes. “Fucking monger,” he said. It might have been different if the woman with the green eyes hadn’t brought him low. If that encounter hadn’t made him dose with Twinkle, reaction times now pushed two seconds into his future. Viktor might have had time to do something. The man jabbed a needle into Viktor’s neck before he could get a scan, and liquid love swam through his veins. It ran down his arms, his chest, into his stainless-steel heart.
Hearts are tough muscles. Hearts can be battered, torn, cut, and keep pumping your life along as though they never minded. Hearts can be pulled out when they hit the chop shop. Hearts could be replaced, but they had a job to do, whether bio or syntho.
His did its job well, pushing all his warm vitals right on through, carrying with it the new juice. Ice ripped through him, and his artificials went spiky. Scan down, legs locked, heart tom-tomming in his cavity. Made him pee, too, but he was stalling it, so that weren’t a misery.
When Viktor came back, he’d been strapped to a chair. Comfy like, though; lots of padding. They were mobile, rolling along the pave, burning the miles. He smelt the good petrol, and figured it for the RV. Made sense, really. A rolling prison with extra niceties like a lav, fridge, bed. All the comfies, and you take your prisoner with you.
The uniformed man swayed before him, standing, one hand holding a ceiling strap. “He’s waking.”
“Keep him polished. He’s got a bright day beyond.”
Another needle for Viktor. Scans were jammed, but when the tip pricked his skin, he felt the glow of a hard dose of Tranquil. That turned his frown upside right, it sure did.
“Who are you snoots?” Viktor asked. Big old grin to go with the langs.
“Shut up,” the man said. “Mongers don’t talk here.”
“Be swoon, love,” the other person said. She drove, little Miss Mohawk keeping them betwixt the lanes while the zero pollutants flashed by tooting horns at the slower petrol burner. “We need him shiny for us.”
“I’m not a monger,” Viktor said.
The man struck him. Humie hand, but hurt all the like. “You’re lying filth.”
The RV slowed, turned hard, leaning away from the curve. They bounced down a rough road, dirt and narrow between thick pine trees. Out of sight ‘cept for the rising cloud of dust that took its sweetness to disperse.
She cut the engine and turned her seat. “We need him, Stavros.”
“I can do the job. You don’t need a warmonger.”
“You need life,” she said. She stood, big belly putting her off balance for a moment, and wrapped her two arms around him. One human, one artificial. “You got a pup to ween, love. You’ll be his da. The monger can keep you tip-top while you get it for us.”
Viktor laughed. Slow at first, but rising with the Tranquil like a clear dawn. “Humie got a stiff one for a Valkyrie. That’s your chit germinating in her tum, isn’t it?”
Stavros punched him again. And again. And kept on until she pulled him away. Her metal stronger than his flesh. “Leave off,” she told him, pushing him away. She came around on Viktor, touching his chin with her digits. Fingers cool against the new cuts and bruises. Pliable metal and circuitry. Not a cheap chop. “You’ll heal.”
“Heal for what?” Viktor asked. No illusions now, but still smiling the Tranquil. “Why you want a monger, girl? Death worship? You seek the Valley? I can take you there. You just need cut the dampers.”
She kissed him on the cheek, tip of her tongue flicking his blood. “You’re a sweet one, Viktor. But you taste like low grade retro-fill.”
“No cash for the sweet fillers,” Viktor said, nodding at her arm. “Where you get the work?”
He knew the place. “You’re one of Red’s.”
“He did the base,” she said. “But Madam Shadow put me to rights.”
“She would,” Viktor said. “She got a soft for you Valkyries. The child?”
“You shouldn’t tell him so much, Elena,” Stavros said. “He isn’t human anymore; he won’t care.”
“Some say I’m not human, either,” Elena said, sharply. She covered her swollen stomach with her arms, looked down at it. “All mine. Stavros and I. Madam Shadow kept my uterus inceptive. She said it wouldn’t gleam to waste potential.”
“Why a happy couple with a chit need a man like me?” Viktor’s cheeks hurt from all the smiles, and the punches. “I was swoon. Had the rubber and the miles, was leaving everyone isolated.”
She rubbed her tummy like a talisman, making wishes on her little one. Took Viktor a few minutes to understand because of the Tranquil, but he could see it then. Didn’t take a hack to pull that dat, you just need be able to read a person. He’d always been good at reading people, which is why he tried to avoid them.
“You don’t got a chit, do you,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“And you want me to get it for you,” Viktor said.
“Yes,” she said. “I don’t have the chop I need to run a facility.”
“You’ll get it for us,” Stavros said. “Or you’ll be perished. The gods help you when you reach the Valley.”
“Didn’t guess the aero force had the religion,” Viktor said. Grinning. He wished he could stop grinning. His cheeks hurt from grinning so much.
Stavros moved, but she put herself between them. “You drive. I’ve got to get things polished.”
Stavros wanted to kill Viktor. But Stavros let Elena call the shot, and took the driver seat. Off they went, rattling down a dirt lane to someplace. The RV wound through draws and up winding turns deeper into the mountains. A couple four times Viktor had views, clear blue skies over deep green valleys. Would be a pretty place to root. All alone like he wanted. No one to perish. Isolated. But the miles would call him. The road, beckoning, leading him to place after place where no roots could hold. The longer he stayed, the more the memory of the past would catch up to him.
She sat in the padded chair next to his, blue jeans fading into the blue checked fabric. She pulled a drawer on the cabinet beside her, and sweet as you pleased came a lovely array of needles and pinchers and scalpels. Each of them shiny new, lined up in tidy rows to be ready for their next use. She was an artist who cared for her tools.
“Be bright,” she said, taking up one of the scalpels. “Won’t be a misery.”
“Not for you,” he said.
Stavros pulled to a stop. She lay Viktor bare at the back of his skull. Weren’t too bad; most of his nerves were dead back there anyway. Too much chop done before. She reached into the drawer again and pulled out a tube of silver chips. She pinched a chip between two fingernails painted silver-blue and showed it to him.
“You know what this is?” she asked.
He knew. “Kill switch.”
“Got a two-hour dead stick,” she said. “Kill him, kill me, it goes off. Don’t return, it goes off. I got the crypt key for it in a locked mem file. I couldn’t give it to you if I wanted. What I need unlocks the file so I can turn off the switch.”
She slipped it pretty slick under his skin. Her fingers were practiced and she wired it in as easy as slipping on a pair of shoes, flashing it tight with a micro-laser from her kit, burning him closed. Real deft the Valkyrie was.
“Fair,” Viktor said. “You set things tidy.”
“You got nannies?” she asked.
“Couldn’t afford one,” Victor said.
“Cheap work,” she said. “You shouldn’t run around without healing.”
“Army took away anything easily hacked out. Not enough grift for me to afford Red or Madam Shadow, so I had to pick and choose from the cheap chops.” The Tranquil high slipped, and his smile faded. He stretched his jaw to smooth his cheeks.
Stavros gave him a look. “How many you’d kill before you got out?”
“You want me to count them up?” Viktor said. “I could, you know. Real easy. But why should I enlighten? I was a bullet in the gun. Some other snoot aimed me.”
Stavros had a knife, and Viktor wondered if he’d run the gut and leave him for dead. He cut Viktor loose, then waved the shiny point in his face. “Shut up. You take your orders from me, understood?”
“Bright as silver,” Viktor said. “But you do the stab, and you get nothing. No chit, an illegal pup. Gov don’t like illegals.”
Stavros opened the door and motioned Viktor to get out. Then he hugged Elena, pressing his lips into her neck. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she replied. “Come back.”
“I will,” he said. “I promise.”
He stepped out and took Viktor’s elbow, leading him into the woods. Viktor’s scan came up when they left the RV behind. If not for that, he’d been lost after a few turnings. Stavros pushed him from behind, guiding him this and that way.
They came out on a high point, overlooking a valley. Down below, the beckoning line of the pavement, winding snaky through the trees. Road calling Viktor, passing by a big brown building and large auto lot, a bit right of them. No windows. Lots of men.
“What see,” Stavros said.
“Pretty place,” Viktor said. No more langs until Stavros poked him with the tip of his edged. A little pay attention. “All right. I see a data complex. Locked and stocked. Palisade that’ll perish you, cams, infrared. Off grid, probably a heat sink buried down in the warmth to make juice. The building is only the top, the whole thing burrowed deep like a bear hibernating.”
“You get me in, I steal the chit, and we’re clean. You walk.”
Viktor shook his head. Old servos in the neck whined. Cheap chop. “We go in, there’s good odds we don’t come back.”
“We don’t go in, you’re dead anyway. So, you figure it out, monger.”
“Name’s Viktor, not monger.”
“I don’t care.”
Viktor would have liked to have a couple of sun ups, maybe a week to plan the job. He had ninety ticks left. That put a pressure on the ears, made his brain pulse, dancing the bad jellyfish in his skull. “You got doses?”
Stavros snorted. “If you mongers aren’t chopped enough, you’re drugged to the gills. Disgusting freaks.”
Viktor took him by the throat. The unreplaced parts, the high-test military ones, worked swoon, thank you very much. Stavros didn’t even have a blink to react. The knife gone over the cliff; the man lifted off the ground by a single hand. Hand of a god really, when it came right down to it. Hand of life and death.
“You’re a sack of shit,” Viktor said. He enjoyed the way Stavros’ face turned blue; the way his pink sausage fingers clutched at the artificial skin over a metal skeleton that squeezed the life out of him. “I was swoon. Put it all in my rears, had the miles ahead. Then you and your Valkyrie come along and put me to work for you. Want me to get you a chit so you can safe the pup someplace. Want me to perish for you.”
All Stavros managed was a wheeze. Green eyes beneath curly red hair, pupils wide, staring, her arms holding a swollen belly, her breath wheezing. He tossed Stavros aside instead of crushing his throat.
“I didn’t ask for any of it,” Viktor said. He squatted, picked up a handful of dirt. Examined it. “They made me every bit like you made that babe with Elena.”
“Poor,” Stavros said, his voice rough. Coughed. “Poor you.”
Viktor laughed. Tossed the dirt over the cliff. “True enough. Poor me. I’m a killer. I pathed that choice. Men, women, even children I hear tell. Now, think brightly, Colonel. You got jacked clears with that rank, you spooked me before tracking me down. Do you think a thing like me cares about the self? Do you think perishing is motivation?”
Stavros didn’t answer. Not right away. He coughed for a bit, rubbed his throat. He scooted back against a tree and stared out over the valley. When he did find his langs, he said, “Madam Shadow gave her your locale, said you could get it. You’re it. We’ve got nothing else.”
“Maybe that’s the right of it,” Viktor said. “Maybe I got nothing else, too.” Except a memory file stuck in a slot inside his heart, set to play when it wasn’t held back by drugs and will and those long miles of road.
He offered a hand to Stavros, grinned when the man flinched. “Get up. I make no promises we won’t perish, but we’ll try. Not like you gave me time to suss it down to the particulars.”
Stavros looked at the hand for too long. But he took it and let Viktor pull him up. Brushed off his natty uni, all prissy like. “I don’t trust you.”
“Don’t sugar it up all pretty, Colonel. You hate me. Every breath I draw violates your sense of order. But I’m all you got. You do as I say, and maybe we make it through.”
“Why help a man who doesn’t care if you die?”
Her green eyes widen. Her red hair tickles the skin on the back of his hand as he lifts her.
“That’s mine to know,” Viktor says. “‘Sides,” and he found a grin again, “I ain’t doing it for you. I’m doing it for your Valkyrie back in that RV.”
Stavros’ face went dark again. Fists clenched. “She isn’t like you.”
Viktor shrugged. “You’ll either find the figuring of it, or she’ll perish you one day. Not my problem.” He took a step and jumped. Long drop, but weren’t nothing he hadn’t done before, and the legs and arms still belonged to the military, if technically they were attached to him. The twenty-meter drop did no harm.
Took Stavros a while to pick his way down. That gave Viktor the ticks to cogitate. He scanned the grounds and then the internals. He found the hidden datacenter a hundred feet below. He followed the piping and tunnels that plunged into the crust. Down below the Moho, where few decent folks go, the thermoelectric plant forty-eight kilometers below the surface. No way down there but through the facility. Shallow aquifers tapped for water. Self-sustaining.
Took another ten ticks for Stavros to catch up, huffing and sweaty. Ten ticks to make his plan. “Good of you to join.”
“You stay with me from now on,” Stavros said. No knife this time, he had a gun out and pointed at Viktor. “So fucking help me, I’ll perish you myself and take my chances.”
Viktor looked at the gun. “Khadzhiev P37. Good model.”
“You get us in there so I can hack a chit,” Stavros said, waving the gun in the direction of the building.
“I’ll get you in, friend,” Viktor said. He took off at a run, leaving Stavros to keep up or fall behind.
Seventy-three ticks to go.
He reached the fence. He could have hopped it easy as stepping. They didn’t have damper fields over the facility, didn’t expect something like him to come along. All the warmongers were dead; this was what the gov said. No one knew they’d lost some of them. But Stavros couldn’t do the same.
Viktor sank the spikes in his feet into the soil and grabbed two of the metal poles. When the current came, he channeled it down into rock and earth, letting some of it recharge the batts. Not as good as a Somnup high, but it put a smile on his face. When he felt good and flush, he shorted the fence with a pulse from his generator.
That set off the alarms. Humies running, yelling. Not sure where the breach was, so Viktor had time.
Seventy ticks to get back.
He bent the bars wide enough to pass through. Stavros crashed through brush, coming up on his rear. The noise of the alarms covered his approach, so that made it polish as far as that went.
“Follow,” Viktor said. He moved fast, not caring if Stavros could keep pace. He pathed an infiltrate, executed, his oculars flashing notices to his brain faster than he could see them, the QPU doing all the work and crunching the numbers. He was the shadow of a cloud passing over the open space between fence and building, skin mimicking the color of the ground. His LMP flashed the cams he located, blinding them and melting their internals.
First guard, downed by a single blow to the nose, shards of cartilage and skull rocketing through their brain. Second a chop to the neck that broke the larynx and spine. Two more near the building, breath knocked out by fists to guts, faces crushed under heels.
Viktor ignored their weapons, basic slug throwers. All used DNA readers. He could model a fingerprint with his own, the ridges recreated in his artificial skin with electrical currents, but couldn’t recreate the combos of c, g, a, and t.
He reached the door before anyone fired. When they did, it seemed random. Not aimed at him or Stavros, who hunkered low as he ran across the grass.
“What’s our way in?” Stavros said.
“Same way they came out.” He led the aero man to the corner of the building, scanned the guards flanking the door. “Two outside, one in.”
“Can you take them?”
“Not easy. The gov took my weapons. You unlock your gun and give it to me?”
“No fucking way.”
Viktor shrugged. “Then you’re the rabbit.” He pointed at a red car, a low slung sportster near the building. “You get behind. They target you, and I take them. Simple.”
“Why don’t you rabbit for me?” Stavros said. Angry again, his face red.
Viktor laughed. “You’d be dead. You want that chit? You do this my way or no way.”
Stavros didn’t like the plan. But he was a good aero forcer and knew how to take an order. He turned and ran hard and fast over the open grass, and those three at the door, they pulled the old security guard act. Unloaded on him, emptying mags. Third one stepped over the threshold to get a better shot and not pop their friendlies from the back end. Lead singed the green grass and peppered the auto as the big man dove behind it.
Viktor was on them in a tick. Plowed the first into the wall, breaking hip and wrist. Grabbed the second and swing them into the third with their skull. Their helmets cracked under the impact and they were down. Concussed or dead, didn’t matter.
Stavros ran back, uni dirty, torn on one leg. He followed Viktor inside, past the guard station with its detectors and sweepers. He waited while Viktor toothed into the system, extending a spike from his pinkie into the port. They had easy encryption, and he took down the whole security network.
“What now?” Stavros said.
“Data center, ten floors down,” Viktor said “All the candy is there, iso’d from the rest of this place.” He swept another scan. “Been easy so far, but the thing’s not done. You sure you’re ready for this, Colonel?”
Stavros waved towards the hall before them. Viktor led, moving as smooth as the moon across a wintry sky. Skipped the elevators and jacked the pad at the stairwell. Weren’t nothing, really. This weren’t no military facil; it was a hardened storage unit with data streams as wide as the Amazon, something you’d guzzle, not sip. They had guns and guards, but their security was undoped.
Fifty-two ticks left.
Had it been military, they’d have been dead already. Every system isolated, hypoplased guards with plasma rifles and juiced to the gills in their subdermals and armor plate, best combat progs hyping their swoon. Hopped up on Dopadese and Epistims, moving fast enough that Viktor would seem like a statue. They’d have hacked Viktor and taken him apart piece by piece. Burned out his brain with the acid fire of a cybervirus. There weren’t any old monger’s in the world because better soldiers had been built, ageless, sexless, witless. Some of them built with the remnant parts of people he’d served with, the mongers who couldn’t adjust to the really real world. Couldn’t find their way back from all the perishing.
But low security data dumps had their own tricks, and the autoguns kicked hard, dumping a metric ton of lead in a few ticks. Viktor, he got out of the way. Tried pushing the aero forcer down and away, but the humie tried to hop the wrong way. He took two in the leg and one in the hip which near enough took the leg off that it might as well have.
When the auto emptied, Viktor jumped to it and ripped it from the wall. But Stavros lay where he fell, and all that lovely blood ran out of him and down the stairs. Alive, yes, but not the longer for his wounds.
Stavros lifted the gun. Hand shaking. “Bastard.”
“She told you right,” Viktor said. He didn’t move. Didn’t care if the man pulled the trigger. Would have been nice to go out on a high though, and not done low by the Valkyrie and her tic. “She told you that you couldn’t do this alone. You’d never have gotten this far.”
The aero forcer held the gun with both hands. Tapped it with his thumb thrice, then tossed it at Viktor, who caught it smooth. “Get her a chit. Get her and my baby safe.”
Viktor knelt beside him as the man died. Listened to the rattle in his breathing. When Stavros was near enough, Viktor took his hand and squeezed good. Not enough to break bones, but enough to get his attention. Hold him on the brink of that wide valley.
“Five hundred and thirty-seven confirmed kills on file,” he said. “That’s how many they got registered for me. You already knew. With your clearance, I know you read the file. But you needed to hear it from me. Five hundred and thirty-seven on my record.”
Stavros shook his head. “Don’t care. Doesn’t matter.”
“Five hundred and thirty-nine total. Two more than they’ve got in the file. The other ones I kept for myself, hid them away. I keep them so I remember them here,” and he thumped his head hard, over and over. “Keep them tight so I can see her. Her and her unborn. They took them from me. That’s how you kept us going. They cleaned and wiped it from our heads, son, when the mission ends. Helped keep us on that high we needed to do what we had to do. Only Madam Shadow has seen them besides me. That’s why she sent you my way.”
Those damned green eyes. The lady of the chop knew what it would do to Viktor. Knew it would bring him low and soften him.
Stavros closed his eyes. His chest stopped moving. Viktor held on to the limp hand for a few more ticks.
“I kept those two for me. To remember.”
Thirty-nine ticks remaining.
He had to take out two more autos before he reached the storage center. No autos in here, no guards to bother him, nothing but a wide, long room with a low ceiling. All their lives, their data, the electronic record of their existence. If you weren’t here, you didn’t exist in the really real world. The only security was a scan damper. That was to keep the guards from poking around in other people’s lives more than it was a defensive measure.
He found the console that controlled the room. He could short out the air system. Let the temperature rise until the heat melted the processors and the wiring, turning the entire system into a slag heap. It would burn for days, maybe weeks. Maybe it would smolder for years like a coal fire underground, slowly eating away at the data seam, creeping along the line of servers like a red-tongued monster. But there were other data centers. Burning one wouldn’t stop the rest, and that wasn’t the point of this exercise.
He jacked the node and examined the encryption. High-end, but old. He’d had the key for this one for years, it weren’t a misery to break it. The worry would be masking his trail and keeping the data sniffers from backlashing him until his brain was stirred into a slurry for them to suck up. Keep them from the knowing of a last monger running around the bright world and eating up the miles while they slumbered, safe in their warm blanket of peaceful times.
He chopped a few files. A few personal reqs, a couple of jobbies, some certs of authority, a bunch of porn. Like an amateur who didn’t know better when they got their hands in the cookie jar. Then he went for the high-clears and brokered a couple of new idents, more subtly this time. Creating a cover beneath the cover. It’d be hard to find them, but a few breadcrumbs should lead a trace to the right data sectors.
Then the hard work. Flowing with the bytes, teasing the stream. Finding where the chits were stored without looking for them. Had to search humie records now, and find ones that had been given chits, moved on to the safe cities, their personal files updated with the info. Back trace their histories to the point of designation, and reassign the chit to open status. Cover that with changed time logs and encrypted keys to keep the admins from digging into those sections.
He pulled the electronic chit into his mem. He thought he might need to clear some space, so he dumped a bunch of magazines he’d been saving for a rainy day. Some old National Geos mostly, nothing he couldn’t live without. But when he pulled the chit to his transfer space, it swapped itself right to the kill switch. He regretted the loss of good reading materials.
He jacked out. A moment later, a bullet took him in the leg and he spun around, fell. The guard with the broken wrist. Viktor had been careless to leave them alive, not pay attention to the entry door while his scans were down. Stupid.
The guard’s next shot missed, the slug burying itself in a nearby rack of computer banks. Viktor’s shot didn’t miss. “Five hundred and forty.”
Twenty-eight ticks left.
Viktor limped to the stairs. Servos in the right leg ground against the bullet, which had struck the internal frame of the limb and tumbled until it lodged in his knee. He couldn’t straighten that leg, so he skipped along.
Nineteen ticks remaining when he reached the entrance.
It took Viktor ten ticks to climb the near cliff. Not smooth at all, the right leg a dead weight, but he slicked his way up the grassy swell and jogged off into the trees. Had to cut back to passive sats to keep off the grid, but that weren’t no bother. It was enough to find a path back.
Seven ticks left.
His scan went dark when he got back to that sweet ass RV. He’d already seen her in it before the crush of her damper beat down his circuitry. She waited in the front, behind the wheel of the big petrol burner. Seat far back to make room for her swelling belly beneath the steering wheel. She’d left the door open for him.
“Stavros,” she said when he climbed inside.
He didn’t have to tell her. She had the knowing of it, he could see that by the way she spilled tears. Her kill switch fed her his live feed, played out through oculars and auditories. Didn’t have any words of comfort, neither. He could read her emotions, but mongers weren’t given the skill to create better ones.
“The kill switch,” he said.
“Already dead,” Elena said. She wiped her eyes, and that was done for her. She’d cried all she would about the man who would have been her husband. Maybe. They would have had a chit together for the child she carried, so they might have been allowed that. She was too hard wired to grieve more than a few ticks. Valkyries were tough bitches, that’s the honest truth.
She came over and pulled his head forward. Took her one practiced slash with a razor to get the switch out, and it weren’t much of a misery the second time, either. She pressed the chip to a tiny slot on her arm, and it slid in like a glass slipper on the foot it was meant for. She covered the hole in his leg with a syntho-patch. Nothing they could do for the knee, not without a chop shop.
“I can drop you back at your auto,” she said.
Viktor had to think a few ticks about that, as she climbed back into the cab. Maybe he could get swoon again, put those miles under his rubber. The Buick sure was a sweet ride for it. He’d find another high. Find a way to blend again. Maybe even pick up some fresh Somnup or Tranquil. But those damned green eyes rode his mem space, eating at the flow. When the doses ran out, he’d be stuck with those eyes forever, permanently etched on the inside of his metal heart, the one mem space he couldn’t excise. Right where he’d sealed her.
“Which city you heading for?” Viktor asked. He settled into the passenger seat.
“Seattle,” she said. “Best chance of getting north is from there. Madam Shadow gave me a few names.”
“This rig got a tow hitch? I’d like bring along the Buick. It’s a classic. Hate to lose it.”
“You don’t need to come,” she said. She put the big rig in motion, executed a perfect three point turn somehow, despite the narrow road and the tree branches that scraped along the metal sides. Started driving back along the dirt road. “I can keep polished for myself.”
“You can, but I got nothing better to do,” Viktor said. “Surely would be a sadness to miss riding in a cherry diez burner like this one.” He had words for Madam Shadow as well, and it would be a shame not to deliver them in person.
He watched for the views he’d seen on the way in, gaps through the trees that would open to reveal sweeping vistas of the mountains. Watched for those green valleys, full of trees and streams, rich with life, empty of people. Green, green, always green.
Watched the tranquil pass him by.
by S.B. Divya
Jeff has this to say about the story: “I woke up one morning with the phrase “I was hyping along all swoon, meditating in an isolationist haze” floating in my head. I didn’t have a clue why I’d thought of it, but it had such a nice verbal rhythm I felt I needed to use it. I started thinking of Easy Rider, and Clockwork Orange, and Murderbot, and Neuromancer, and, well… this is where that mash of ideas wound up.
I have to commend Jeff – he certainly pulled off that mash up with aplomb. This story starts off with attitude and doesn’t relent. In the best cyberpunk tradition, we are plunged into this world with little preparation, but by the end, we’re swoon with it.
What really won me over, though, is the heart at the center. That stainless-steel heart that’s softer than many a squishy human one. I love the exploration of what it means to be a human when you’re mostly machine, and I also appreciated the allegory to current times – to how we treat our veterans, and how hard re-entry into society can be.
This story solidly checks off the fun requirement, but it goes deeper, much deeper depending on how much philosophy you want to consider. It explores ethics, morality, empathy, and the social cost of modern warfare, just like the books and movies that inspired it.
Come back next week for “How Did It Feel To Be Eaten?,” another story that explores philosophical ideas, but with far less violence.
About the Author
Jeff is a writer from Maryland who works for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, home of New Horizons and Parker Solar Probe. He’s only a software licensing analyst, though, and doesn’t do any of the really cool stuff like building space probes or meeting Brian May. His work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Andromeda Spaceways Magazine.