If you arrived here by mistake and are looking for the start of this story, you can find it here.
I woke to someone tearing through the insipid green walls of my apartment with a pneumatic rock drill and groaned. It was only when I cupped my hands over my ears that I realized the noise was inside my head and groaned again on principal. I was pretty sure I hadn’t drunk enough the night before to produce that sort of hangover. Or maybe I had. My memories of the previous evening seemed to have smeared like a grease stain from melted cheese.
Trying to reconstruct the events of last night, I remembered I’d hit one of the lows that occurred all too frequently since my accident and visited a couple of bars, but was shaky as to which. I also had the vague memory of a beautiful woman, or maybe it was two.
“Your dreams are getting more improbable by the day, Ballen,” I muttered.
As I slid off the bed, my clothes twisted around me, and I struggled to sit up. Lines of pain plotted longitude and latitude on my head, and I stroked the raspy stubble bristling from my skull in an effort to reduce the pain. It didn’t help.
A stabbing sensation knifed through my good arm, and I pulled up my sleeve to reveal a bruise the size of Toronto running from the bottom of my bicep across the inside of my elbow to the lower arm. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have said I’d been shooting Neopenth, but the only drugs I used were of the prescription variety.
After staggering to the washbasin, I threw a couple of splashes of water on my face and squinted at the bleary-eyed derelict looking back at me. “What the hell?”
I shave my head—a legacy of my old career in space construction—but now I was doing a good impression of a kiwifruit, even though I’d shaved yesterday. Visible through the overgrown fuzz were traces of reddened spots on the skin, which seemed to correspond to the areas of pain inside my head. My Scroll was on the small table, next to a couple of empty coffee cups, and I grabbed it, sliding the screen out.
The day was wrong.
Date and time are synchronized on a Scroll, so I knew it wasn’t really wrong. But when I’d left to hit the bars “last night,” it had been Tuesday. Now it was Friday.
“Damn, you really tied one on.” I remembered the insurance cycle. I’d been at the end of it and out of dough, so I couldn’t have gone on a huge bender, even if I’d wanted to.
My stomach flip-flopped as hunger pangs hit me. They were so intense I retched, coughing and spluttering as my mouth flooded with an almost uncontrollable wave of saliva. I’d hit the booze pretty heavily at times before, but couldn’t ever remember feeling it this bad.
The only thing to eat in my apartment was a stale bag of chili peanuts, free with a bottle of tequila I’d picked up when I’d been going through the “Mexican phase” of my depression several weeks ago. Nevertheless, I wolfed them down, hoping they’d calm my stomach long enough to get something more substantial.
I had the local PizzaMatic on speed dial and ordered a basic Americano, only realizing after making the call that my Credit must have updated—confirming the idea that several days had passed. It would also explain my ravenous appetite.
“Get a grip, Ballen. You’ll be talking to yourself next.”
I’d been struggling since the accident, and not only from the physical aftereffects. While limb regen was a medical miracle, it was also a long, painful process. But that was nothing compared to the subsequent excruciating physio rehab. The worst of it, though, was in my head. The nerve bundles had reconnected, but not perfectly, resulting in transient stabs of agony that drugs could dampen but not control without leaving me a virtual cabbage.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, my job was gone. Space engineering needed a sharp mind, a good grasp of 3D spatial volumes, and a strong body to withstand the rigors of working in the toughest, harshest, and least forgiving environment humans had ever tried to live in.
The MedTechs told me I’d get better, eventually… maybe. The weakness I felt was a form of cognitive dissonance. If I could ever sort out my brain, I should be able to recover most of my strength. But who the hell would hire me on that basis? Even my ZeeGee permit was flagged. Any potential employer would have to submit detailed workload assessments to the authorities, who would then decide if I was capable of doing the job. They weren’t known for taking chances.
I frequently dreamed of being back in space: mostly nightmares, but sometimes more hopeful. But my chances of returning were virtually zero. My future was likely to consist of living on BUI—Basic Universal Income—along with almost forty percent of the USP. It was survival at the lowest level, and most people were glad they had that support. But the truth was, I’d rather be dead.
I switched on the 3V. It was already on the space news channel—the only thing I ever watched, even though it was like a slow form of torture.
“…will be the seventh launch from the burgeoning United Africa Space Development Agency. The mission will deliver a number of space engineers to the High-Rig to study the technology in detail. Meanwhile, plans for a new space Elevator at Mount Kenya have been placed on hold again.”
United Africa had been developing its own independent space access for decades, with only limited success. Partly down to the refusal of other spacefaring groups to share their technology, but also a stubborn determination to “do it themselves.” The engineering problems involved were so complex that working alone made a big challenge almost impossible. But considering their history of exploitation by outsiders, it was understandable.
“In other news, SecOps is still investigating the theft of over forty thousand FuzeCells from the High-Rig shipyards. The robbery, said to be the largest ever to have taken place in space, occurred Wednesday evening at around six-thirty Universal Time.
“Two unidentified individuals gained access to terminal twenty-three on the High-Rig space station. After threatening security and other personnel with weapons, they boarded a Huanshi Inc. shipping freighter, Null Vector, and departed without clearance. The freighter was carrying a supply of the cells, used extensively in the transport and appliance sectors, and scheduled to be transported to Surahman Industries’ Corporate orbital manufacturing plant—Rhibus Station.
“Insurance analysts estimate the value of the shipment at over one hundred million credits. Though disposal of the shipment may prove—”
Several loud beeps were followed by a muffled scraping from my apartment door. I looked around for something to use as a weapon, but other than a plastic liquor bottle there was nothing to hand. Seconds later the door slid to one side, and a man wearing a short, scruffy beard and a suit cheaper than a used AeroMobile salesman’s edged in.
“Either Love’N’Lust screwed up my date, or my insurance company is getting desperate,” I said.
He jumped at the sight of me, then pulled himself together. “Joe Ballen?”
I nodded, not at all surprised when he pulled out a Baltimore PD badge and a compact pistol.
“You’re under arrest on charges of hijacking, assault, firearms offenses, CommSec breaches, reckless endangerment, and multiple violations of the Space Precautionary Act.”
“Gee… and people always called me an underachiever.” The pasty green walls were designed to help residents remain calm. It wasn’t working, and the pounding in my brain intensified as I clenched my fists.
The cop clamped a set of MagCuffs to my wrists and tapped the commlink by his ear. “Dispatch, this is Detective Halmshaw at Cloverdale Towers. I got one of the suspects in the FuzeCell case. Bringing him in.
“Alright, wise-guy, let’s go.” Halmshaw shoved me toward the door, and my shoulder instantly burned.
“Easy, tiger. I don’t like it rough, especially on a first date.”
He smiled mirthlessly. “You’re gonna be a big hit in WAIF.”
WAIF—the Wilkins Adjustment and Indoctrination Facility—was Baltimore’s biggest incarceration center where people were sent to start attitudinal adjustment. Rumors suggested conditions there were seriously abusive. The theory seemed to be that as your brain was going to be wiped anyway, you wouldn’t remember anything bad that happened to you, so why not dish out a little punitive vengeance?
An unmarked police cruiser sat on one of the landing pads outside the building. It looked like any other MRT HyStream, apart from the concealed emergency lights and the enlarged thruster cowls covering the pursuit-rated turbines. After helping me into the back of the car, Halmshaw lifted us into the SkyWays headed downtown. Traffic was light, but that did nothing to ease my discomfort. I’ve never been a good passenger.
FuzeCells were the finest rechargeable power cells on the market, and the exclusive triple-patented property of Huanshi, inc. They ran most mobile high-power applications, including AeroMobiles like the one I was currently prisoner in. They combined high power levels, along with light weight and fast recharging. Without them, most industry and transportation on Earth would quickly fail, and the company controlled supply like a lioness protects her cubs.
It was hard to imagine anyone having the balls to attempt such a theft. Given the company’s defensive nature, it bordered on lunacy, and it was difficult to see how the thieves could hope to peddle such goods. Though there were probably some markets that wouldn’t ask too many questions.
The cruiser clunked into a docking cradle at the processing center in the main BPD building: a heavily built L20 tower constructed of concrete, steel, and glass that dominated the Bolton Hill area like a feudal castle glittering in the morning sun. We’d arrived on L10—high enough to seriously mess up your day if you made a break for it, and no doubt used for that very reason.
A mobile guide-bot met us when we exited the docking bay, a heavy cylindrical device with tracks and a prominent shackle at the top, and I shivered. It was a long time since I’d had any brushes with the law, and the BPD wasn’t renowned for its hospitality.
Halmshaw transferred my cuffs to the bot’s shackle point and slapped the instruction button. “Ballen, Joseph. Warrant 15336-A73. Process and Interrogation.”
“Thank you, Detective Halmshaw. Subject will be escorted to interview room seventeen. Twenty-four hour detention registered, legal assistance has been notified.”
“Escorted” turned out to be more akin to being dragged—the guide-bot weighed far more than I did—and with my arm still fresh from regen therapy, I couldn’t have resisted even if I was of a mind to.
I was taken to a small, private processing room where the bot directed me to provide urine and blood samples, along with some hair from my head. All routine tests, and to be honest I was glad of the three-day stubble or I might have lost some scalp.
Less than fifteen minutes later, my MagCuffs were attached to a sturdy metal table with chairs bolted down on both sides. When I sat, a 3V screen slid down from the ceiling on my right. The display flickered briefly, then solidified, displaying a message that read “USP Legal Services—your representative will be with you shortly.”
The display flickered again, and a haggard face appeared, his jowly chin blue from a shave that was hours old. “You…” He squinted at a DataPad. “Bollan?”
“Ballen.” I spelled it out for him.
“I don’t suppose you want to make my day easier by pleading guilty?”
“Is that how you greet all your new clients?”
“Only the ones with hopeless cases.” He yawned. “I’m Todd Koenig, your system-appointed defender. I was supposed to be at my husband’s oboe recital forty minutes ago. So, if you’ve got a story to tell me, make it quick.”
“What piece is he playing?”
“‘Solace Within Seclusion’ by DuFord. Know it?”
“Not in the slightest. The title doesn’t fill me with confidence, though.”
He frowned. “Let’s get on with it, shall we?”
The table was cold against my skin, but prickles of sweat formed on my head. “Do you find this inconvenient?”
“You should try jail.”
I related what had happened, or at least what I remembered. It didn’t take long. From my perspective, I’d gone to sleep and woken up.
“And you don’t know anything about the disappearance of a ship full of FuzeCells?”
“Only what I saw on the news after I woke.”
Koenig shook his head and tutted. “I knew I should have switched off my damn Scroll.”
“I’ve lost three days of my life. I’d like them back.”
“I’m an attorney, not a magician.” Koenig glanced off-screen. “So what’s your explanation?”
“Someone hit me with a zom shot.” Zom was the slang name for a drug cocktail that knocked out the recipient for anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the strength.
“Right…” Koenig took off his glasses and rubbed his nose between finger and thumb. “And I suppose while you were out, they stole your ID—complete with biometric and genetic data—then your identical twin took the Elevator to the High-Rig and stole a space transport loaded with a multi-million credit cargo?”
“Sounds impossible, but I didn’t do it.” I idly wondered why he wore the glasses. Most vision issues were taken care of through Geneering, and it was rare to see them, except as a fashion item.
“You have witnesses, presumably?”
I hesitated. When I first woke up, I couldn’t remember anything, but now a few blurry memories were starting to surface. The only people I’d spoken to after heading out on my mini-bender were the woman who I thought had been called Tawnee and the guy at the bar, whose name escaped me.
“I met a woman while I was out. She came back to my apartment.”
His left eyebrow rose. “Name?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t catch it.”
“Did you get anything else from her? Scroll combination, perhaps?”
“Hard to say—I haven’t been to a clinic yet.”
“You’re in a lot of trouble, Bannen. Don’t play it cute.”
“I’m telling you what happened, and it’s Ballen. I met her at a place called Hagar’s on the corner of Cathedral and Preston. What about the Argus recordings? What do they show?”
“The police haven’t made them available yet.”
“There was also a cab driver who took us back to my place.”
“Name of the cab company?”
I shrugged again. “Sorry. You should be able to get the name from my insurance—they paid for it.”
He made a note. “Well, that’s all I can do until the police make the Argus data available. I’ll say this, though—it doesn’t look good for you. If you remember anything else, ask for RegalLegal.”
With his surname he probably thought that was funny, but given the circumstances I wasn’t laughing. “Anything else?”
“Sure, don’t say anything incriminating.”
The display screen blanked and lifted out of the way. Great advice—I’d never have thought of it myself.
A shrill buzz echoed around the steel-gray painted walls, and the door to the interrogation room opened. Halmshaw dropped into the seat opposite me, pulled out a DataPad, and slapped his True-Or-False on the table, pointing the business end at me. The aroma from his cup of coffee made me salivate, even though it carried the acidic tang of instant, and my stomach gurgled, reminding me I still hadn’t eaten.
“For the record, this interview is being recorded by internal Argus surveillance.” He pointed at the optical pickup in the corner of the room near the ceiling, then tapped his DataPad. “You’re facing serious charges, Ballen. Grand larceny, security violations, reckless endangerment, and if that security officer dies—murder.”
My stomach rumbled like a drain unblocking, momentarily covering the distant murmur of conversation coming through the walls. “Do you think you could find me something to eat? I know you won’t believe me, but I haven’t had anything in three days.”
“You think we should feed you?”
Another growl came from my gut. Halmshaw shook his head and thumbed a control on the DataPad. “Have a sandwich and coffee sent to interrogation room seventeen.” He looked at me. “Good enough?”
I nodded, willing my stomach to be silent. “What’s this about a security guard?”
“Like you don’t know?” He tapped on the DataPad once more, and the display lowered from the roof again. “This was sent by High-Rig security.”
The image was flat, not the usual 3V display, but clear enough. Two people marched up to a security gate I recognized as one of the entrances to the commercial docks on the High-Rig. Overlaid at the bottom of the image, the location information identified it as Gate Twenty-Three Red—one of the high security areas and not far from the berth holding the Ananta where I’d been injured.
The larger of the two characters on screen made use of the security pad, and the gate slid open. The view switched to inside the bay. A security guard appeared, and the smaller of the pair raised their hand. Something flashed, and the guard collapsed, clutching his chest.
“Bonegun,” Halmshaw said. “Very sophisticated. Very expensive.”
A Bonegun was a weapon built from a person’s own DNA and almost undetectable by security scanners.
“You think I can afford the Geneering for something like that on BUI?”
“Someone would have fronted you the cash for a heist with this kind of payout.”
The larger figure hurried forward and for a moment was caught in full detail by the camera, then continued past to the inner airlock, which slid open. Both characters hastened through the airlock, and the door closed behind them.
Seeing yourself unexpectedly in a photo or video is always a little surreal, but this was a whole new level of bizarre. The person who’d passed by the camera was me. From the shaved head down to the ugly pores on my chin. But it couldn’t be. It was impossible. There was no way I could have done that and not remembered. Then again, I was missing several days, so who could say what had happened?
The view switched to an internal camera inside the airlock, again giving a clear image of my face, though the smaller person’s features were hidden behind a mask of the long-dead classic actor Raul Hayveld, complete with his over-large nose.
“Who’s your accomplice and where do we find him?” Halmshaw froze the playback with both people clearly pictured.
“That’s not me.”
“Let me guess—you have a twin brother.”
“I know what it looks like, but I didn’t do those things.”
“So he looks just like you, and the access codes they used were yours, but you were actually having a nap in your cozy flea trap for three days?”
My thoughts whirled. My access codes? That was impossible—no one knew those but me. “I haven’t been on the High-Rig for six months. Check my file, you’ll see why. My codes have been canceled anyway.”
Halmshaw consulted his DataPad. “Seems like someone overrode the automatic purge on your account. Now why would that be?”
I groaned inwardly. There was only one person who’d have done that—my old friend Logan Twofeathers, probably from the misguided idea that I’d recover enough to work in space again, but after losing three limbs and having them regen’d, there was no way that was going to happen. Even thinking about it sent sparks of fire through my Geneered limbs where the new limbs had been fused together with the stubs of the old ones.
“I guess someone forgot to follow the proper protocols.” I wasn’t going to mention Logan’s name—he’d been the one who dragged me back to the High-Rig after the accident. “It happens, but it had nothing to do with me.”
“Well, what about this?” He tapped on the ‘Pad again, and a DNA profile appeared on the screen. “That got nothing to do with you either?”
I’m not enough of a narcissist to identify a DNA trace on sight, but it didn’t take much to guess what was coming, and I felt the prickle of sweat form on my scalp despite the chill from the air-conditioning. “Is that the secret of the Colonel’s special sauce?”
“Let me help. I’ll overlay the one from your medical file.”
The two images danced on screen as each piece lined up like a multicolored abstract jigsaw puzzle. After a few seconds, the word match flashed up.
“Here’s what I think.” Halmshaw leaned back in his chair. “You got hurt, decided you needed some revenge on the people you blamed for your accident, and cooked up this heist by way of compensation. So where’s your partner? You might still be able to cut some kind of deal—unless we find them first.”
“Let me get this straight.” I spoke steadily, fighting the urge to clamp my jaw shut. “You think I went up to the High-Rig, made my way through security, boarded a ship loaded with a cargo worth millions, hijacked it, leaving an abundance of physical evidence, then came back and waited in my registered address for you guys to show up?”
“You forgot aiding and abetting a serious assault, or possibly murder.” He grinned, but there was no humor in the expression. “And you had means, motive, and opportunity.”
“Why did only one of them wear a mask?”
“According to the tape, the one who looked like me was clearly visible, but the other person—the one who shot the guard—was masked. Why?”
“Maybe you think you’re pretty, or maybe you’re just stupid.” He dropped the DataPad with a clatter. “Who cares? We’ve got you dead to rights and you’re going down. Unless…”
“What about the woman? Tawnee? Did you find her?”
Halmshaw scoffed and pretended to read from his DataPad. “Let’s see. A woman: approximately one hundred and sixty centimeters, blue or sapphire eyes, blond hair, approximately sixty-five kilos. Age—approximately thirty-five. No distinguishing features. May answer to the name Tawnee. Do you have any idea how many women that description fits? Especially with modern nano-cosmetics. Hell, that could be my wife.”
“She go out alone much late at night?”
His lips curled in a good impression of a rabid bulldog. “Don’t push your luck, Ballen. Otherwise I might be forced to arrange a special greeting for you inside.”
“After I have my trial.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He grinned. “The steps leading to the staging pens can get pretty slippery, you know?”
I looked at the Argus pickup. “The evidence from those things works both ways. You know?”
His point wasn’t lost on me. No matter how much surveillance there was, sometimes things happened and all that was left was to pick up the pieces. “Oh, I’ll be very careful. After all, a cell will be luxury after my apartment.”
That wasn’t entirely stretching a point. A typical police cell wasn’t much smaller than my room, and the Charter guaranteed a minimum level of comfort. Not to mention I’d get three solid meals a day at the taxpayers’ expense.
After thirty minutes more of questioning where I told Halmshaw the same story repeatedly, he directed a guide-bot to take me to a cell. The door shut with a loud clang as though it was ringing in the end of days.
—– To be continued —–