JANUARY 1, 1995 A.D.
Falling. Consciousness returned, and Gwen was falling, under gravity. Reflex snapped her hands out and they closed on rough metal, stopping her with ajar that clicked her teeth together. Something fell past her. She froze, eyes wide with shock. She keyed her transducer, but there was nothing, not even the location-signal from the navsats. She was out of contact with the Web; it felt like having two limbs amputated, or part of her brain.
Smells. The air was heavy with them, rank. Rusty iron. Burnt hydrocarbons, enough to gag you. A stew of chemicals, half of which she couldn’t identify. Scorched metal; there was a thin hole burnt through the beam she held, as if by an energy weapon. The smell of old concrete. And—
Many humans, and close. Their rank feral smell clogged her nostrils, thrumming along her nerves with remembered terror.
It was impossible, and it cleared her head. Don’t try to understand. React.
She was hanging by her hands from an iron walkway in a large dimly lit room, nearly ten meters up. Grimy skylights overhead let in a diffuse light. Enough for her eyes to see clearly, and there were IR sources down there, too. She could hear voices. The language had a tantalizing almost-familiar sound. Gwen focused on it, filtering out the rumble of background noise.
“Who dat?” More incomprehensible shouting.
It was English, but very far from her dialect. Samothrace? I’m in the Alpha Centauri system? her mind gibbered. No time for that. Not the right mix, anyhow.
Figures below her; the scent grew stronger. Enough for her to distinguish between individuals, and that they were not only Homo sapiens sapiens but the African subspecies, and all males. Twenty-two of them. It had been four hundred years since she winded that particular scent, but perfect memory was her heritage. Heads turned up, and a bright electric light. More gabble. The light speared her, a moment of pain in her dark-adapted eyes. A shout from below, as her eyes glittered in the beam, shining cold green like a cats—the designers had used feline genes for the nightsight system.
A weapon extended at her. Some sort of slug-gun. Another gabble of voices, and one raised in command.
Gwen took a long slow breath. No time to think, only to react. She watched the muzzle train on her, hung one-handed, then drew and fired.
The crash of a plasma discharge filled the empty building with actinic blue-white light for a second, thunder echoing back from the walls. She released her grip and fell, slapping the plasma gun back into its holster as she did. Anything can pick up a plasma discharge. Wherever she was, she didn’t want detectors tracking her. There were about twenty of the humans, all of them with those archaic slug-guns. But it would be pitch-dark to them . . .
Instead she drew the layer knife, a blade as long as her forearm and made of a sandwich of thin-film diamond between fillers of density-enhanced steel. The impossible strangers blundered about in their darkness, voices shrill with panic. Muzzle-flashes split the black, still directed upwards to where she had been. Jacketed metal pinged about, and there was a scream of pain as it struck someone.
Gwen landed, letting her weight drive her down into a crouch, then came erect. Poised. Began the movements of a dance taught her long ago, when she was first trained for war.
The Human-Killing Dance.
# # #
“What have we here?”
Detective Lieutenant Henry Carmaggio had seen a great deal in his two and half decades with the NYPD. This was a first, even since the posses moved into town back in the eighties.
“Christ,” he said quietly.
The warehouse had been abandoned. That made it the perfect place for a big buy, in the opinion of the two groups who’d met here.
Bad mistake, he thought, holding his handkerchief over his nose. He’d helped with bloaters—bodies found in apartments and whatever, some several weeks ripe—back in his uniform days. This was different, and worse, even though the . . . slaughter . . . couldn’t have been more than six hours ago. It smelled like his uncle’s butcher shop on East Houston back when he was a kid, only worse; his uncle would never have allowed brains to spill on the floor, or the heavy shit-stink that underlay the blood. He could identify cordite as well.
There were at least twenty bodies under plastic sheets, the basics of photography and sketching already completed—this looked like one of the times you weren’t certain how many exactly until you put all the parts back together. Spent brass sparkled under the temporary lights. Everyone was here, but for once nobody who shouldn’t be was walking around the crime site. Not quite everyone: the media ghouls and the brass weren’t out in force quite yet. They would be soon, of course. Even in New York, this sort of multiple homicide didn’t happen every day.
“Henry, we’ve got something very fucking odd here,” the corpse-robber said. Excuse me. Medical Examiner. The Insidious Dr. Chen herself. This crime scene was getting the full bells-and-whistles treatment.
He turned to her with a grunt; Mary Chen was a small woman, Chinese. Didn’t usually use the f-word much. There had been a time, when he was new to Homicide, when he’d felt a prickle of interest at an unusual case. Now he just felt a sort of anticipatory tiredness. The ordinary ones were bad enough, and far too numerous.
“Take a look at this.”
She pulled a plastic sheet back. Carmaggio squatted, shifting his Styrofoam coffee cup to his left hand, and gave a soundless whistle. He put the handkerchief back to his face.
“What happened to him?” Whatever it was, it’d opened up his skull and left nothing much above the eyebrows. There was a heavy cooked smell, and the inside of the empty brainpan was boiled-looking. “Some sort of exploding bullet?” Damn, the punks always got the latest.
“Whatever it was, it splattered his brain and bits of his skull for twenty feet around,” she said. “Charred or parboiled. In fact, it cauterized the veins. Notice how there’s not much blood around him? But this is the easy one. He was definitely shot with something; there’s an entry hole just over his eyebrows.”
She walked to the next, her feet making little tack sounds as the congealing blood on the bottoms of her shoes stuck to the concrete. That reminded Carmaggio, and he pulled on a pair of thin-film gloves. No sense taking chances. Christ, he remembered when only the live ones could kill you.
“Plenty of blood with this,” he said.
“Tell me. Glad I didn’t have breakfast.”
It took something to make Chen admit that. Something had sliced neatly through this one’s throat all the way to the spine, and halfway through that. The head lay at an acute angle to the body, and the body in an immense pool of brown-red, still liquid under the crust.
“Look. The edges are awfully neat.”
“Machete,” Henry said. “Good sharp machete, strong swing.”
“Maybe. Look at this one.”
Another body. This time one arm was off, sliced at the shoulder.
“Awfully sharp machete, wouldn’t you say?” She led him to another. “There are four or five similar to this one.”
The dead man’s head looked distorted, as if the side of the skull above the ear had been dished in.
“Sledgehammer?” Henry said.
The examiner shook her head, touching the area with a metal probe. It gave with a mushy softness. “Area of impact’s too big,” she said. “About palm-size. Whatever it was, it was traveling fast enough to turn the bone there to gravel, like slapping them up alongside the head with a board, really hard.
“And here’s our prize,” she went on.
“Marley Man,” Carmaggio said. Well, there’s one case we’ll never have to close.
“Surprised you recognize him.” The tall, thin black man’s face was a pulped mass, like a red-brown flower surrounded by dreadlock petals.
“It’s the gold beads on the ends of his dreads,” he replied. “What got him?”
“All right, a fist-sized metal forging on the end of a pneumatic piston,” she said. “Look at it.” She indicated points with the stylus. “Knuckles. Same on a couple of the others.”
He noticed one of the specialists examining the body’s hand. “Got something?”
“Skin and hair under the nails,” the man replied.
“Good.” Very good, these days. As good as a fingerprint, sometimes.
He looked around at the carnage, outside at the blinking lights and uniforms putting up yellow tape. “These folks definitely lost the War on Drugs. Okay, how many gunshot fatalities?” His voice sounded a little hollow in the huge dim echoing space of the warehouse.
He nodded at the spent brass and the weapons being photoed and bagged up. The usual mix—cheap stuff, those cheesy Tech-9’s, some Glocks, a MAC-10, two Calicos, one expensive H&K 9mm which had better stay in the evidence room.
“Some bullet wounds, but none of them fatal. Ricochets. These guys were shooting, but not at each other. And not for long.”
“Well, I guess that proves the NRA’s right; it really isn’t guns that kill people,” Henry said. “Maniacs with machetes and baseball bats kill people. Even when the people are killer posse Jamaicans armed to their gold-capped teeth.”
He turned to his assistant, Jesus Rodriguez, and indicated the guns and packaged drugs being dusted for prints and carefully packed away.
“What’s wrong with this picture?”
“Sí. No money. But I didn’t think the perps would leave it.”
“Yeah, but why leave the stuff, man? It’s all here, samples, bags, vials, you name it. They had a goddamned supermarket going, even some Ecstasy like they expected passing Euroweenies, but nothing’s missing. Just the money.”
Mary Chen smiled. Henry didn’t like the expression—and he suspected she didn’t like him. The feeling was mutual, but she could do her job.
“Couple of the bodies show heel marks, usually to the back of the head. Coup de grâce. And I saved the best for last.” She turned her head to one of her own team: “Tag, bag and ship. Let’s get the meat back to the shop and get some details.”
They walked over to a table. “Here it is,” she said, and uncovered it with a gesture a little like a maître d’hotel whipping the cover off a dish.
Henry stared, fumbling in his jacket for his cigarettes and then remembering he’d quit. It was an arm, detached at the shoulder. Naked, except for reddish . . . fur, fur with darker spots. Thick, dense fur running all the way down to die knuckles. The palm was black and heavily callused. The arm was about the same size as Henry Carmaggio’s leg, and he was six feet and weighed two hundred pounds. The detective prodded cautiously at the limb with a gloved finger, then manipulated the joints. Unmistakably meat, the real thing. Fresh, too.
“Chen,” he said, after a minute’s silence, “I’m going to assume you didn’t go down to the zoo and kill a gorilla to play a practical joke on me.”
“It’s not a gorilla,” she said. “Look—the thumb structure’s human. Fully opposable.” She took the giant hand in both of her tiny ones and touched the thumb to each fingertip. He sensed tightly-controlled fear in the forensics expert. Just like him.
“So it’s a baboon. One of those sinsemilla growers out on the West Coast had a Bengal tiger as a watchdog. The Animal Rights woo-woos sued the DEA cowboys who shot it when they raided his place—read about it in the Post.”
“It’s not a baboon either,” Chen said. “Wrong shape, too big, and they don’t have spots. Did a giant, spotted, one-armed baboon go running out of here between one and four this morning?”
“Who’d notice, in this neighborhood?” Rodriguez said.
Clinton’s not actually that bad an area, Carmaggio thought. Even if it had been known as Hell’s Kitchen once. Most of it positively yuppified, except for the odd pocket of squalor like the warehouse. A couple of years and this would probably be boutiques.
“They took long enough to call us about this firefight,” he replied. A glance down at his notepad: “Nothing, then a very loud noise—sounded like thunder, or an explosion—another loud noise like thunder but not as loud, a flash of light—hey, maybe a concussion grenade—then lots of gunfire.”
Henry Carmaggio had seen a great deal in his forty-five years. In a way, it was reassuring that things could still surprise him.
“Chen,” he said heavily, “I’m not going to go to the Captain with a report that Marley Man’s posse was wasted by giant spotted baboons.” He remembered the first body. “Giant spotted baboons with ray guns. And for Christ’s sake, keep this goddamned arm under cover until we have something to say—you can imagine what the media would do with it, and not just theEnquirer.”
“All right. I’ll have to talk to your lab people: we’ll need serious help, maybe consult someone at the university.”
“As long as it’s quiet. I want to retire, but not next week to someplace with compulsory medication.”
“That,” Chen said, “is your problem. You’re the one who has to write up the site report.” Then in a dead-flat tone: “I’m going to do my best on this, Henry. I really am.”
# # #
Gwen finished vomiting into the stained toilet and staggered erect, taking a deep breath. Control clamped down again. Letting fear-nausea overwhelm her had been stupid, a waste of calories she might not be able to replace at once. She flushed, after a moment’s puzzling out the control, then climbed into the shower. Her blacks washed free easily, memory-molecule fabric snapping back to freshness. Then she stripped and began the more difficult task of getting skin and hair and nails free of the blood. The gouges along her neck where the last one had grabbed at her were already healing. Alternating cold and hot water helped bring her back to alertness; it wasn’t really possible for her to go into shock, but she’d come as close as her biology allowed. Besides that, she had the slightly flushed sensation that meant her immune system and panspecifics were eliminating a number of unfamiliar bacteria and viruses.
Only one shot had hit her, in the thigh muscle. The molecular-web armor under her skin had caught most of the impact, leaving the slug a lump between the subcutaneous fat and the muscle. She probed carefully with a pair of nail scissors from the medicine cabinet, gritting her teeth against the sting. She could will the pain away, of course, but it was unwise to do that except in an emergency.
Pain was a valuable teacher; the universe whispered to you in pleasure, talked to you in reason, but with pain, it shouted.
The twisted lump came free and she pressed the lips of the small wound back together long enough for the clotting to seal it, testing the leg. Full function. Then she brought the spent bullet up and looked, tasted.
Jacketed lead alloy, she decided. Quaint. That type had gone out of use about the time she was born, in the 1970s, replaced with prefragmented synthetic crystal. The slug was coated with some sort of long-chain polymer and tipped with tungsten; that and the pointblank range were why it had got through her blacks.
She tossed it aside and walked back into the living room, picked up the body of the shabby apartment’s owner and dropped it behind the couch. The stink was one more minor annoyance in the foul air of the place. She gathered up the . . . newspapers, that was the word . . . and went into the kitchen cubicle. Most of the food in the cooling unit was repulsive, but she’d eaten worse in her time, and Homo drakensis’ digestive system could handle anything organic. Methodically, she stoked herself, starting with the two liters of milk and loaf-and-a-half of bread. She read.
New York City. 1995. She felt her skin roughening, and forced blood into the capillaries. Four years before the start of the Final War; according to that date, she ought to be on board a cruiser orbiting Titan. And less than twenty years old. Her eyes scanned in a flicker, taking a long ten to twenty seconds per page. The written language was much closer to her own than what she’d heard of the spoken form, but still a struggle.
I was right. This isn’t my 1995.
Which was almost a relief; her New York City had been destroyed by multiple fusion-bomb hits in the opening minutes of the War. The newspapers showed her a world so alien, so full of assumptions she didn’t know, that they were mostly incomprehensible. The “Many Worlds” hypothesis must be literally true; every collapsing of a quantum wave front produced all possible outcomes. This was a world whose history followed a different track.
There are hundreds of separate nations here.
In her history, there had been only two by the last decade of the twentieth century. The Domination . . . the Domination doesn’t exist at all. The people who’d given birth to the New Race had never been. Her mother had never been, her human mother, nor the womb-mother brooder who’d borne the egg. Her own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would never be born. Her whole species didn’t exist.
Her stomach knotted again. No. Reverse peristalsis wasn’t going to do her any good at all.
Nothing is going to do any good. She was exiled as no one in all history had ever been exiled. She was the only one of her kind in the entire universe.
“No,” she said aloud. “The world’s still there; the Dominations still there. It’s just not here.”
And any transfer process had to be reversible, at least in theory. If the local humans didn’t kill her, she was going to live a long, long time—with the last retrofit, definitely, the geneticists said. There was no hurry. The thought calmed her.
The plastic box on the counter rang. Gwen reached out and pulled the cord from the wall. It was early in the morning, long before dawn, but that ring meant she couldn’t stay here even a few hours. Somebody might come and look if there was no answer, and she couldn’t stop and fight battles with the ferals.
Damn. It would be several days before she had to sleep, but she was tired already. She finished off the bowl of noodles and started in on a boxed cake, revoltingly sweet but useful calories. Her fingers cracked open the plastic sheeting and exposed the insides of the telephone. She peeled back the insulation on the cord with a thumbnail.
Braided copper wire. They might or might not use opticals here, then. Magnetic coil bell inside the phone. Some sort of integrated control circuit. Relays for the control buttons. Primitive, and not a technology that had ever been used in the history she learned. She disassembled the hand unit with the microphone and speaker. More magnetic resonance. That gave her an idea. Gwen bent, stuck a hand beneath the cooling unit and lifted it around. S-curves of tubing ran up the back; an electrically powered compressor unit beneath them. She snapped one of the coils, and sniffed. Freon. A compression-expansion heat pump system, second-century b.f.s. stuff—nineteenth century, using the old system. Not very efficient insulation, either. Her eyes narrowed, moving around the apartment.
It was small, very shabby, and she could hear the scuttle of cockroaches around the baseboards. Her hand snapped out and caught one between thumb and forefinger. Exactly the same as ours. Not surprising; cockroaches were a very stable species. So; this was how this society’s, this United States’, poor lived. It must be a fully industrialized economy; there was a video entertainment unit, plenty of food in the cooler, running water. The living standard was comparable to what most of the Domination’s subject-races had had at this date in her history. Less hygienic than her ancestors would have tolerated, and the food would be violently unhealthy from what she remembered of Homo sapiens’s nutritional needs, too much fat and sodium, but there were more durable goods than you’d expect. Thoughtfully, she pulled the video unit’s cable out of the wall and skinned it.
Ah, optical fiber. Quite new, too, much more recent than the building. She pulled the back panel out. Cathode ray tube. Another machine produced audio from hand-sized disks. She disassembled it. Optical storage but in digital form. Another technology not used in her world’s past in precisely that way. And they have coherent-light emitters. Her history had developed those as weapons first. She traced its controls and put a disk on for an instant, then shut it off with a wince; that was noise, not music.
A continuous rumble of traffic noise came from the streets outside the five-story brick building. She walked to the windows, feeling the numbness fading a little from her mind as she went from flight to investigation. Much taller buildings showed in the middle distance, glittering through the darkness, casting pillars of wavy-looking heat into the night. The stink of burnt petroleum was heavy; these people used internal-combustion engines for surface vehicles. Very odd. Lights went by overhead; she leaned out and filtered sound to catch the engines.
Turbines. Combustion engines again, but that type was part of her past. She looked up. None of the habitats, satellites, innumerable artificial lights that would have shown; just stars, through light-haze heavy enough to hide most of them from human eyes. The new moon showed only darkness on its shadowed side, none of the jewel-lights of domed crater-cities.
Strange, Gwen thought. They have optical fibers and coherent-light, but not enough space activity to notice.
The apartment yielded little more of use; the owner’s wallet confirmed that identity documents were many and evidently essential to everyday life. She had several sets from the warehouse, but they’d be useless—whatever passed for a Security organization here would be watching for them. Some clothes that might be handy. A little more of the currency, but she already had a large bag stuffed with that. Thoughtfully she transferred it to a zippered carryall she found in a closet; the original was rather heavily bloodstained. So was the top layer of . . . 100 dollar bills; she discarded those, too.
“I will need a base. I’ve got to learn my way around here, and not be conspicuous while I do it. I’ll need help.”
A quick inventory of her assets. The currency. Her plasma gun, layer knife, and belt unit, tucked in with the money. Too conspicuous here; evidently the locals didn’t carry weapons on the street. One set of walking blacks, one set of underwear, one pair of boots. The transducer in the mastoid bone behind her ear; useless for connection to a nonexistent Web, but it also held the basic memory-store and comp functions linked to her brain. Without that, she would be crippled. Luckily it was quasi-organic, powered from her bloodstream and self-repairing.
And herself. One four-hundred-sixty-year old Draka female, capable of passing for human if nobody did a scan on her body, capable of a good deal else these humans would have trouble imagining.
Myself most of all. She went to the window she’d used to gain entrance half an hour ago and bared her teeth at the world.
Time to go hunting.
# # #
“It’s Puerto Rican beer,” Jesus Rodriguez explained. “That Anglo stuff, it loses something on its way through the horse’s kidneys, patron.”
Henry grunted and lifted his own Coors. There wasn’t all that much noise in the cop bar at this late hour—some, since they were mostly shift workers, after all. A fair haze of cigarette smoke, which made him itch for one himself. He took another swallow of the beer and a handful of salted peanuts. The percentage of smokers in the force was a lot higher than in the general population, just like the share of messy divorces and alkies. It came with spending your life staring up society’s anus.
I really should go home. There ought to be half a pizza in the refrigerator, if it hadn’t gotten moldy. His stomach turned slightly. The death stats on divorced men were probably caused by stuff like that; men just had too high a squalor tolerance to live well on their own. What was it Angela had said about him, back in his bachelor days?
“Men don’t live like human beings. You live like bears with furniture.”
“Something my ex-wife said,” Henry replied, and repeated it. It was only six months since the papers had come through, but he could joke about it now.
Jesus shook his head, grinning; but then, he was a newlywed with a kid on the way. Thank God Angela never wanted kids, he thought. Carmaggio had, but he’d never pressed it—something for which he was now profoundly grateful.
“You should find a good woman,” Jesus said.
“The only women I meet are cops, suspects, relatives of the deceased, or in body bags. Or waiting tables.” The waitress came by and collected their empties. “Hey, Myrtle—Jesus says I should meet a good woman. What about it?”
Myrtle looked at him and started laughing; the chuckles faded across the room as she walked away. They redoubled when she got behind the bar and told her friends . . .
Thanks, partner, Carmaggio thought sourly.
“Could be worse. Think of the ones you’d be meeting on the beat, or in Vice.” Jesus prodded at the heap of newspapers on the table, covered with dark rings from bottles. “How does it feel to be famous?” he said, admiring one shot of himself.
“If I catch you on Good Morning America, your ass is grass,” Carmaggio said. “Plus those vultures will eat your liver. And watch what happens when we don’t catch the perp. Even the ordinary civilians will decide we’re not heroes anymore.”
“Don’t be negative, patrón. I still think two of Marley Man’s boys got away. If we catch them . . .”
“. . . we’ll have two ganja-soaked goons who shot each other in the dark and ran like hell,” Carmaggio said, belching. He picked up a newspaper. “Vigilante Killer Strikes? Christ, where do these people get their ideas, the Sci-Fi Channel?”
The other detective shrugged and moved his chin toward the TV set over the bar. The words were inaudible, but they both knew what the carefully-tousled reporter was saying. Mostly that nobody knew anything about the Warehouse Massacre.
“And by now those two punks have probably decided that Martians are moving in on the crack trade.”
Jesus shrugged. They also both knew that there was nothing more unreliable than the eyewitness testimony of the untrained. Particularly if the witness had any time to think about what had happened; people could do things to their memories that Hollywood FX masters and film-editors could only dream about.
“They might know something,” Jesus pointed out gently.
Henry smiled back. Getting old. Getting pessimistic. Had he ever been that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Not since I landed in Saigon, he decided. Mind you, that had its advantages. Even police work in New York couldn’t be worse than the Cambodian border.
“Well, this case sure as shit isn’t going to go away. No matter how much the Captain burns our ass. Not that he’ll stop trying; too much pressure from on high.”
The policemen nodded somberly in unison and finished their beers. No doubt about that.
“Maybe I should have kept that promise to God and become a priest,” Carmaggio said.
He’d gone out the door of the chopper fifty feet up, when the burst went ptank-ptank down the length of the tail boom and blew three holes through the man next to him. Out without knowing it happened, until he hit mud that was deep and clinging. He landed on his back, so he didn’t drown like a lot of the grunts pinned down that day, but it ran into the corners of his mouth. Stunned like an ox in the slaughterhouse by the fall, spitting out a taste of oily rot, bleeding from a pressure-cut on his scalp where the helmet had struck. The reeds closed above him, the friendly reeds, four feet tall in the marsh. Hiding him from the gook snipers in the trees.
The helicopter augered in a hundred yards away, men hanging from the skids. He could feel the heat of the explosion as the fuel went up, like sun on his face. When the .51-caliber machine-guns opened up from the treeline, the slugs went by six inches from his face, and each cut reed had a perfect semicircle of glowing red at the severed end—just like touching a lighted cigarette to a piece of Kleenex.
Intelligence thought there was one VC company in the woods. Fucked up, as usual. Two fucking battalions of NVA.
Four hours until the fast-movers came in and laid snake and nape, two hours before the next wave coptered in. Victor Charlie moving through the reeds, singsong gook talk, shots and screams as they finished off the American wounded. Lying waiting for a coolie hat and a Kalashnikov to show over the reeds, waiting and praying and promising God . . .
“De nada,” he said. “Let’s get you back to your new wife.”
There were some things you just couldn’t talk about to anyone who hadn’t been there.