Sound and light were starting to fade away. Perhaps the station was going to night mode, just six hours early. Of course, the night mode didn’t usually involve dark passageways, but that was all he could see, all around him, just darkness pressing in on a shrinking pool of light.
Simon shook himself, drove his fist into his leg and straightened up. That little movement sent new waves of pain and nausea through him, and he nearly vomited again, but there was nothing left to bring up. He was sitting in a pool of sticky blood mixed with stinking, chunky bile, the smells combining to an overwhelming cocktail of stench, like what he’d smelled in a dozen bars on a dozen worlds, far away from here.
“Shit,” he muttered. Still no Yakazuma. The link had died, or she’d cut it or something, because he couldn’t hear her breathing anymore. Had it been five minutes? His chrono was crusted with blood, impossible to read, and he couldn’t move his hand from the wound anyway, much good he was doing. Enough blood was leaking out anyway, out the bullet’s entry hole, that it didn’t much matter what he did to the exit wound. Yakazuma might have been a hundred klicks away when he called her. There was no way she’d make it. No one could.
“You’re not looking well,” said a voice from his right, a man’s voice, the speaker hidden behind the dumpster that he’d hit on his run to escape. “Have you called her?”
“Who wants to know?” Simon managed, his voice rough with pain. Blood dribbled down his chin and he coughed, bringing up some more frothy spit.
“Do yourself a favor and keep calm,” said the man as he stepped into Simon’s view. It was the tall man, the one who’d caught him at the café. Simon tried to back away, but he couldn’t manage more than a feeble shuffle of the feet. “I mean that in all honesty,” said the tall man. “You might die before we can get you somewhere safe.”
“I’m not coming with you,” growled Simon. He grinned. “Maybe I’ll just move my hand, hurry things along.” He didn’t, though. There was still a chance. If these assholes helped him live through the next ten minutes, Yakazuma might still reach him in time.
“We can always find her,” said the man, smiling slightly, “if we lose you.” He crouched next to Simon, reaching a hand into his jacket. “But I’d rather not go through that trouble. I imagine she’d be much more difficult to apprehend.”
The man pulled out some sort of small device and stuck it Simon’s chest with a sharp motion before he could react. Immediately, Simon felt some drug cocktail entering his system, probably mixed into a stew of nanites, rushing frantically to seal off the holes in his body and generate new blood to replace what had leaked out. The drugs made him drowsy, and he fought to keep his eyes open. He had to hold on, at least until Yakazuma made it here.
Wrenching his hand away from the wound, breaking the sticky bonds of congealed blood that had held it there, Simon made a grab for the Zemnox injector on his arm, but the tall man was too fast, again, casually ripping the injector out of Simon’s bicep. “Ah, ah, ah,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “This is dangerous stuff, mister. We wouldn’t want it to interfere with the drugs I just put in your system.”
“Fuck . . . you. . . .” It was getting very hard to concentrate now. Simon was dimly aware of another figure moving into view, then two more. All of them were dressed like the tall man, but there was something wrong with their faces. Wasn’t there? It was all blurry, like watching shadows through a lens, rushing back and forth so fast the optics couldn’t track them right and streaks started forming on the screen.
“Just relax,” said the tall man. “We’ll be gone from here very soon. All of us.”
He stood, and Simon did one last thing, the only thing he could think of to do. If he hadn’t been an addict, if his entire body and soul hadn’t craved the drug, he probably would have just sat back and passed into darkness. His hand reached down and his leg slid up, just the motions of a man about to topple over sideways into unconsciousness. Grabbing his ankle, he reached the small vial of Zemnox he had secreted there, just in case, knowing that someone might well confiscate the injector on his arm. He pressed the button on top with the last of his strength, and the drug seeped into his system, just a trickle compared to his usual dose.
The effect was slow; his heart was beating less than once a second, and the blood left inside him was sluggish, barely moving, like sludge through a sewer pipe. The darkness closed in around him, and the voices of the men, already speaking softly amongst themselves, faded away to a barely-noticeable buzz. Then, like gun ports on a warship, his eyes snapped open.
Sound crashed in on his ears, as though the men were speaking right into them, and he fought the urge to flinch. There was no telling what damage he was doing to his body, but it didn’t matter much anyway, as he was certainly going to die. First, though, he wanted to make sure that these men came with him. He wasn’t going to be able to do it himself, so that meant delaying them. Just long enough.
Simon reached out, grabbed the dumpster with his good hand, and heaved. His muscles, renewed by the sudden surge of the drug, tightened with nearly their usual speed, sending the big metal box skittering across the ground. It took one of the four men full in the chest and clipped another, sending both of them to the floor. Tall man spun, his weapon in his hand so fast it was as though it had always been there—he was an enhancement, had to be—and looked truly surprised when he saw Simon and no one else in the narrow alley.
“Stupid,” tall man said, his voice tight. “You’re worth a lot to me alive, mister, but I will have no qualms about killing you if you don’t sit the fuck down and stay quiet.” He stepped forward and jabbed the muzzle of his railpistol against Simon’s forehead. “Clear?”
“Are you that bad a shot?” croaked Simon. His throat was dry, as though he’d never tasted water. “Can’t shoot from two meters away?”
“Don’t shoot him,” warned one of the other men, sensing that his leader was about to do just that. “He won’t survive another bullet.”
“Then he won’t survive,” spat tall man, his eyes still locked on Simon. “Fuck him. There’s always the other one.”
“You think she’d pick up a tracer like this idiot?” said the other one. This guy had a quiet voice, almost unnaturally calm, and his round face was disturbing in a way that Simon couldn’t understand, not right now.
Tall man looked over at the other one, while the two Simon had knocked down cleaned themselves off and tried to look like they hadn’t been caught flat-footed. Simon reached up and grabbed the gun pressed to his forehead, simultaneously pressing the magazine release and the safety switch. Tall man’s head whipped back around and he squeezed the trigger hard, but nothing happened. The only sound was the magazine hitting the deck, bouncing once and sliding off to Simon’s right.
“Oops,” said Simon, a gurgling laugh escaping his throat. Tall man let out a shout of rage and slammed his pistol into the side of Simon’s head. Lights and noise exploded inside Simon’s skull, and he felt his brain slosh around in its fluids as his body toppled sideways and hit the deck as well. He clearly heard the sound of the magazine being returned to the gun, however, and he heard the guttural, animal noise that tall man made as he stepped forward to pump him full of hyper-velocity bullets. He pushed himself over so that he could at least see it coming.
Yakazuma appeared from behind the men, moving in utter silence, running at full speed before dropping to her knees, a gun extended in each hand. Her momentum carried her forward, spinning slightly, right into the little group, and the first one—tall man—was dead before they even registered her presence, a stream of bullets erupting from his chest and face in a spray of blood and bone. The other gun took out another man half a second later, ripping through his chest as he reached for his own weapon, but tall man was the only one who’d had a pistol in his hand, and Yakazuma was still sliding, still spinning on her knees, her hands tracking targets with a machine instinct that was far different from anything these men had ever seen.
The third one died with a rush of bullets severing his head, and finally she slid to a stop, the three millimeter railpistol in her left hand pointed at the quiet-voiced man who’d talked to tall man just a moment before. Her right hand brought the two millimeter to bear as well, and then she stood, slowly, neither weapon wavering even slightly.
“Who are you?” she asked the man. There was no hatred in her voice, not even anger, and that made the slaughter of the last few moments even worse. It was obvious to both Simon and his would-be captor that there was no arguing with this woman, no point in talk, no reason to negotiate.
“My name is Timbre, Alex Timbre,” said the man, and his voice was still calm, though his face looked ever so slightly more flushed than before. It was a better job, reflected Simon, than he could have done, had their positions been reversed.
“Who do you work for?” Yakazuma asked. “How did you know about us?”
“I work for Commodore Wright,” he answered, still calm, as though he’d not seen three of his fellows gunned down in the space of two brutal seconds. “She knew—knows—about you. She informed us, and sent us to get you. One of you.”
“Where is she?” pressed Yakazuma, and now there was an emotion in her voice: desire.
“I don’t know,” he said. “None of us did. We merely follow our orders.”
“Who else knows that we’re here?” she asked.
“I can’t tell you that,” replied the calm man. “You’ll have to kill me now; I’m done answering questions.”
“I’ll decide when I kill,” she said, a sneer of contempt curling her lip. “Simon, what did they do to you?”
“Some sort of medpack,” he croaked. “On my chest.” His breathing was coming in short gasps, now, and he felt his heart beating faster and faster. “Took more of . . . the Zemnox. Not sure what’ll happen.” It was about all he could manage.
“I’d get him to a doctor,” said the calm man. “I don’t think the meds in him are going to play nice with the Zemnox.” He shook his head. “Nasty habit.”
Yakazuma shot him, a single bullet through the head. He finally looked surprised as he tottered against the wall and slid down, dead.
“What. . . ?” gasped Simon.
“Don’t kid yourself,” she said as she stepped over to him and helped him up to a sitting position. “He wasn’t going to say anything more. What’s the lesson here?” She sounded as if she’d just squished a bug, not murdered a man in cold blood. “If someone’s pointing a gun at you, don’t volunteer unneeded information.”
Simon chuckled, spitting up a bit more blood. “That’s what I did. To buy time.”
“Shit, Simon,” she said, slipping the two guns into a hidden compartment under her vest. Her hands traced lightly over him, and he could tell that she didn’t know what to do. “We need to get you to a med center.”
“Can’t,” he shot back. “No way out again.”
“There’s always a way out,” she said. “I don’t even want to touch this medpack, but it might be killing you.” She frowned, then scratched her cheek, smearing a little blood there. She was very pretty, Simon thought, her skin like fine wood, just slightly more brown than his. “Simon? Simon? Listen to me, damn it!”
She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. His eyes came back into focus, but his chest was hurting now, and his heart was still pounding, pounding, like it was going to burst inside him any moment. “Hurry,” he said.
Leaning forward, Yakazuma ducked under Simon’s good arm, bunched her legs under her, and lifted him smoothly off the cold deck. He screamed in pain as his shoulder scraped against hers, tearing open the wound again. Bowed forward under his weight, she staggered slightly, then caught herself and started forwards, almost as though in a controlled fall. It seemed impossible that this tiny woman could lift him, but she kept moving. His face was buried in her dark hair; it smelled good, like rain on fresh soil.
He woke up staring into the hard face of a cop. It wasn’t hard to tell that the woman was a cop; she had it written all over her face, and also on her uniform. But Simon wouldn’t have needed that clue. She had that skeptical look that guilty men come to hate very quickly, that piercing stare that suggests that it might be a better idea just to spit it out and save everyone time, because whatever it was, the cop was going to find out about it eventually, and then things would be even worse. Simon was sure that cop schools throughout the universe spent years training their cadets just to give criminals that look, to give it to anyone who stood still long enough, really.
Luckily, Simon had been a criminal for a long time, and he knew pretty well how to stand up in the face of that look. “Can I help you, officer?” he asked her. Rather, he tried to ask. A sort of garbled croak was all that came out, though.
“You’ll get plenty of time talking later, Tamil-san,” the cop said, using the Japanese form of address that was protocol on the station. “I’m glad you’re awake. The doctor was not sure that you’d live through the night. He’s now assured me that you will recover fully, however, so I suppose you owe him a great debt.”
“Yak—” he began, cutting himself off in time. “Did someone. . . ?” Damn. If Yakazuma had dumped him at the doorstep and escaped for the moment, then he would be foolish to say anything about her to the cop, but he wanted to know if she was all right. If the cop was here, however, they probably knew about his implant. Using it would be disastrous.
“The woman who brought you in is in custody,” said the cop with a smile, satisfied that she had guessed his intent. “She refuses to tell us anything, Tamil-san, but we believe that she was involved in a shooting that took place yesterday. Four men are dead. You’ll be happy to know that you are now involved in the biggest multiple-homicide case this station has seen for ten years. I hope that will carry some weight when the time comes, Tamil-san. Your confession—and that of your friend—will bring this matter to a swift close. Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess how long you’ll be here.”
The cop smiled a bit wider and then gave him a curt nod of farewell. She turned and stalked out of the room, her perfectly-polished boots rapping out a steady rhythm on the floor.
Simon drifted into sleep again, despite his best efforts.
When next he awoke, there was a doctor in the room, a man with a narrow, severe face, obviously Japanese, obviously unhappy to treat a criminal but doing it anyway because it was expected of him. He noticed immediately that Simon was awake, but said nothing, nor did he acknowledge him.
“How long?” croaked Simon. His throat felt better, but was still dry and sore. “What time is it?”
The doctor didn’t look up, but pointed at the wall. There was a chrono there, the kind that showed date as well as time. Simon wondered briefly if it had just appeared there, because he sure as hell hadn’t seen it a moment ago. Two days. That was how long he’d been here, unconscious, lying around like a useless lump of flesh. Depending on how quickly they wanted him to recover, he could walk out of here in another forty-eight hours. The cop might decide to keep him off his feet for a bit longer than that, though. There were enough possible complications, nothing that would bring on an actual investigation, but would have him sitting in the medical center for at least a week.
Simon tried twice more to engage the doctor in any sort of conversation, without any luck. The man was as taciturn as a rock, and about as interesting. The only real difference was mobility and opposable thumbs, Simon decided, but he didn’t voice the thought out loud. Better not to anger the man who might still find a fresh complication to kill him with. Finally finished with whatever it was he’d been doing—making notes of some sort in a minicomp—the doctor stepped out of the room.
Simon took a moment to catalog his surroundings. Small and windowless, the room was made slightly less cramped by its white walls and bright white lights. A fake window showed a view across a rolling field of grass, dotted by occasional trees, a blue sky speckled with clouds, and a distant road, winding over the hills. Bucolic, if patently unreal. Nowhere outside of a virtual reality did such a scene exist. The illusion did not include sound or smell, and thus seemed more artificial still. It was an extravagant expense for a med center like this.
Despite his serious wounds, only two umbilicals were connected to Simon, one in his arm, presumably feeding him some nutrient solution, the other attached to his chest and probably performing monitoring tasks. Both were linked into the autodoc unit, a robot with many articulated limbs and various sensor clusters. Except for the robot, the bed and a small cabinet against the wall by the door, the room was empty. The fake window seemed to be the extent of the décor.
Resting his chin on his chest, Simon studied the monitoring umbilical, then yanked it out. There was a little pain, but not much. Immediately, the autodoc jerked to life, moving with unnatural speed and a certain machine grace. It retrieved the umbilical from Simon’s grasp, gently but firmly shoved him back down to the bed, and then reconnected the link, carefully damping the area’s nerve endings with a quick spray of some kind of pain killer. A final look at its handiwork, and the robot lapsed into silence.
“Shit,” muttered Simon. Presumably this was some sort of security model as well, and would make sure he didn’t wander off. Of course, there would be guards in the hallway too. That was to be expected. “You got any water in there?” he asked, turning to the autodoc.
It came to life again, opening a small hatch and proffering a plastic drinking tube that snaked in Simon’s direction. He leaned forward, snapped his teeth shut on the tube and sucked in a long draught of cool, clean water. It tasted better than anything he’d had in a long time. Almost immediately, he felt a pang of hunger in his belly. The autodoc seemed to understand that this would happen, because it produced a meal pack a moment later, without further prompting. It was standard packaged fare, freeze dried and reheated, a gruel of nutrients and such, but it tasted pretty good to a hungry man.
Finished, Simon leaned back. A moment later, the autodoc reached out and detached the nutrient umbilical, carefully spraying the entry wound. The spray was warm, and soothing, and it left behind no trace of the small incision the umbilical had made. This was obviously good equipment. “Any entertainment features in there?” Simon asked the robot.
“This unit does not offer entertainment options. Please contact med center personnel. Would you like this unit to pass on your request?” The robot spoke with a soothing, female voice, and Simon just shook his head, closing his eyes and imagining the perfect woman to go with those dulcet tones. Better than thinking about his situation. There wasn’t much he could do about it right now anyway.
His eyes snapped open again as the door was unlocked and someone came into the room. Simon looked up and saw a man, of medium build, just a bit taller than average; well dressed, handsome, in a way, but with strange eyes. It took a moment for Simon to realize that they were slightly purple. Racking his brain to think of a drug or other substance that caused an effect like that, Simon came up empty. An enhancement, perhaps?
Behind the man came a woman, the sort of woman that Simon had just been picturing to go with the robot’s voice. She had a smile on her face, not a mean one, but filled with real humor, and her eyes twinkled in the room’s bright lights. Her outfit was more conservative than the man’s, but in brighter colors, and it showed off her figure well enough. For the first time, Simon realized that he was naked under the thin blankets, and all thoughts of women and sex flickered in his mind and died in a brief flurry of embarrassment.
Then the cop came in the room and he knew he was in trouble. The door closed behind her, and her smile was a good bit less friendly than the other woman’s.
“A welcoming committee?” Simon asked. It was nerves, and he wished immediately that he’d stayed quiet, but that was impossible.
“Feeling better, I see,” said the cop. She stepped past the other two and came to the bedside, motioning for the autodoc to step back. Recognizing an authorized enforcer of the peace, the unit rolled quietly to the side. “You’re about to meet some very important people, Tamil-san. I suggest you think carefully before opening your mouth again.”
“Hiromi,” said the man, and though he spoke almost without inflection, the cop flinched ever so slightly. Then she turned, bowed to the man, and stepped away from the bed. Simon pushed himself up on his elbows. The man stepped forward.
“I am Henry Matsukata,” he said, extending a hand. Simon took it and shook. Matsukata then took a respectful step back from the bed. “I represent the Commodore,” he continued. “She asked me to come speak to you in person, to make sure that you are perfectly clear as to the situation in which you now find yourself.”
Simon just nodded. He’d opened his mouth in a hurry once already and wasn’t planning on repeating the mistake.
“You, Mister Tamil, are in possession of information that we would like very much for you to share with us,” said Matsukata, nodding slightly to acknowledge Simon’s silence. “This information is two-fold: first, technical details on Hornet, her weapons, her defensive systems, her current status, and details on her crew. Second, personal information concerning William Maccabee Derrick. It is for this second reason that we are bringing you in person to the Commodore.
“We are assuming,” he went on, turning and walking over the false window, where tiny dots of sheep were now grazing across a distant, verdant hillock, “that you will not cooperate with us. That is understandable, Mister Tamil, but unfortunate. We are lucky that we have both you and Miss Yakazuma in custody.” When he spoke Yakazuma’s name, emotion showed in his voice for the first time, a kind of distant disgust, like the feelings of a man viewing a parasitic worm. “She will be our persuasion to you, Mister Tamil,” Matsukata said, looking back over his shoulder at Simon. “You will cooperate with us, and soon, or she will suffer the consequences.”
In the silence that followed, the happy smile on the woman’s face seemed out of place. The cop’s expression could have been chiseled out of stone—she was bought by these people, but obviously not too happy about it. Not that she harbored any fuzzy feelings for Simon, but it galled her to be working with criminals. The owner of that skeptical stare didn’t like working with the other side. Why was that damn woman smiling like that?
“Let her go, and I’ll tell you what I know,” offered Simon, turning back to look at Matsukata. “You’ll be disappointed, I imagine, but I don’t owe those people anything anymore. I’ll tell you what you want to know. There’s no need to keep Yakazuma involved.”
“Oh please,” muttered the cop—Hiromi.
“A valiant effort, Mister Tamil,” said Matsukata, ignoring his subordinate’s gaffe. “Sadly, you will understand if I tell you that we do not believe that Hornet and her captain have abandoned you here. Your presence on Kuroishima is part of a larger plan, part of the operation against the Commodore and our organization.” He completed his circuit of the room by stepping back up to Simon’s bedside. He pursed his lips, then turned and nodded at the smiling woman. The smile widened, and then she turned and left the room, almost dancing with anticipation of . . . something.
“I have sent Yukiko to administer the first punishment to Miss Yakazuma,” Matsukata explained. “Let this be a lesson to you; I will not tolerate deception from you.”
Simon was on his feet and lunging for the man in a heartbeat, but Matsukata simply side-stepped his assault, and one of his hands pincered Simon’s left wrist. He wrenched the arm around behind Simon’s back, and produced a sharp, short scream from the injured man. Then the autodoc rolled back in, its many arms grabbing Simon. A probe jabbed him in the back of the neck, and almost immediately his body fell limp, held up only by the robot. It trundled backwards, turned around and deposited him back on the bed.
“Son of a bitch!” growled Simon. “I will kill you, you fucking whore-son!”
“Honesty, at last, Mister Tamil,” said Matuskata with a small smile. “No punishment need be meted out to Miss Yakazuma for that slip. But I do not appreciate your language.” As though on some cue, the autodoc hit Simon with another probe, and suddenly it felt as though all of his blood vessels were on fire from the inside out, as though his blood itself were burning up. He gritted his teeth against the pain.
“Fuck . . . you,” Simon gasped.
Another jab, and the pain suddenly doubled in intensity. Simon twisted in the bed with the effort of not screaming, but it was too much. His breath was coming in short, desperate gasps now, and his muscles were quivering, each one tensed and pushing against his skin as though they might burst their way free. His penis was somehow erect, and the pain there was worse than anywhere else, like someone was branding him with a red-hot piece of steel.
The scream that finally bubbled out of him seemed to go on forever, tearing at his throat, ripping out of his lungs with each shuddering breath. Eventually, he stopped even hearing it, and folded up into a ball, and became one with the pain, the awful, horrible pain, until there was nothing else, nothing at all. And then it stopped.
“Good night, Mister Tamil,” said Matsukata. “I suggest you think carefully about the future.”
Still panting, Simon managed to roll onto his back in time to watch the man leave, and to silently curse his receding back. The cop—Hiromi; he wanted to remember the name so he could come find her later—paused for a moment, as though she was going to offer him some words of her own. Then she shook her head and left.
The door swung shut on silent hinges, and the only sound was that of its lock engaging. Then there was nothing to be heard by Simon’s breathing, interrupted by an occasional whimper.