I was in that odd world of half‑sleep. Some part of you knows that you're not awake, but you keep responding to your dream as if it were real. In my dream, someone was calling my name. In the waking world I was used to people calling my name all the time. Whispers over the com during a hit, sudden shouts full of rage in the middle of fire-fights and sometimes Marce would cry it out during a bout of passion.
This voice was different. It was soft and distant with an edge like broken glass. Somehow loving and hostile at the same time. Dangerous. In the logic of dreams, some part of me recognized it and remembered being able to ignore it when awake. But here in the world of dreams and half‑memory I had to answer.
Gritting my teeth, I answered. There was silence for a second, then I was called again. This time there were either a lot of voices or a skittering sound, I wasn't sure which. That's the way it is with dreams sometimes. I realized at that point that the sound/voice wanted me to turn around. I didn't want to, but it insisted. Knowing there was no real choice, I turned.
I was surrounded by a dark gray blur, and as I finished turning I could make out a yellow tinge to it. Suddenly, I was looking into a bright blue‑white sun shining over yellow hills. There was a smell like burnt coffee. A sense of something important began to rise up in me when I heard a com-deck buzz.
I jumped and moaned in my sleep. The com buzzed again and I rolled towards it. I was rewarded with a flash of pain in my skull and a nearly overpowering urge to use the latrine. Hangover. Big one.
The com deck buzzed yet again, bringing another flash in my head. When I hit the answer button all the com gave me was a mess of static on the screen and an extremely irritating hiss on the speaker. I reached to shut the damned thing off.
Stupid data terminal, I thought. Must’ve told someone this was a mainframe.
Just before I punched the disconnect button, I paused. Something in my dark and confused memory was trying to get my attention. I prepared to take a deep breath and it hit me. There was a security override that Mhik had taught us all a long time ago. It disguised a com call as a bank transaction. I dredged my mind for the right code and punched it in. As the white lines faded and the static vanished, Ahni's worried face appeared on the screen.
“Alec, my friend,” She sighed. “You have gotten yourself into a world of shit.” She looked to her left. “We've got him.”
Mhik stepped into view. He looked tired but relieved. “You know, Alec, its a damned good thing that we got to you before they did.”
I made a sound. It was meant to be a word, but the ethanol poisoning had convinced my tongue that it was dead. I cleared my throat and spat on the rug. Shaking my head, I tried again. “Who?” I finally managed. “What time is it?”
Ahni bored into me with her bright green eyes. “You have been the subject of an involuntary contract revision.”
Fear and adrenaline shoved the hangover far enough back for me to ignore it. “What!?” I couldn't believe it. “They're terminating my contract? What the hell for?”
Mhik chuckled. “No, no. They're not terminating your contract, they're revising it. It seems that Security Division no longer deems you worthy of the position of Contract Specialist. You have officially been declared mentally unstable.” He grinned. “Like that's something everyone on our team didn't already know.” Mhik seemed a little too amused at the news he and Ahni were giving me. I however, was not amused at all. Free wheeling psychotics are hunted more desperately than Demos. Only instead of quick, clean deaths they were given lifetimes spent in the hell of the psych wards.
I knew exactly how very fucked I was.
“Shit! How long do I have?” I started gathering the few things I had brought with me. Unfortunately, I had passed out in my clothes. I was kicking my boots off when Mhik responded.
“I found out about an hour ago. I hacked the system to find out what was going on, and did some checking. They were gearing up right before we called you, so between getting there and setting up you've got about twenty minutes before they jump up your ass.”
I glanced at the clock and saw that I had only slept for three hours. Then I glared at the com screen. My ball of hate jumped about eighteen degrees and started hopping. “So why the hell are they doing this to me, Mhik? Is it 'cause of the Su‑Fin?” I had my pants off and balled up in one hand. I shoved them into the bag I’d grabbed just before leaving the con-apt and pulled out a pair of heavier black pants. I was shoving myself into them as I turned back to Mhik. “They decide to psyche me just ‘cause I pumped some rounds into a fuckin’ dead guy? What the hell is this?” My last question came out as little more than a snarl.
Mhik snorted and turned away from the screen. Ahni gave him a little glare and answered my question.
“No, Alec. According to the records it goes back a lot further that that. Mhik downloaded your files while he was checking on the sitch. Even the secure files. There's a lot of shit in here, Alec. Stuff that goes all the way back to when you were a kid.”
I was in my boots and shrugging into a zip-up jacket that matched the pants in color and weight when I looked up at the screen. “Like what?”
Ahni’s eyes bored into me. “Like the fact that at the age of 9 you burned through 10 milligrams of Glycon in less than two hours.”
“I what?” I froze for a second before reaching for my bag of toys. Glycon was a heavy-duty sedative. Operatives use it to tranq helpful neighbors who get in the way during a hit. Six milligrams of Glycon would normally put an adult to sleep for three hours.
“Yeah,” Mhik said, coming back on-screen. “It was while they were head-shrinking you after your mom’s death. The file says you got violent with a counselor. Jumped over his desk and started biting his face. When the nurses charged in they tranqued you. As they thought you were going under one of the nurses mentioned your mother.” He gave Ahni a grim look. “She lost her ear in the struggle.” Mhik looked back to me with the most serious expression I had ever seen him wear. “According to the files, you had several incidents like this, Alec. All of them disproportionately violent. When you were twelve, Security tried to have you committed.”
I froze in shock. “What?”
“A gentleman named Conrad Arthur intervened on your behalf. He had you assigned to Security Division instead.” At this point, Mhik started to look amused again. “Guess he figured you were a natural.”
I gave Mhik a glare of my own. “I don’t recognize the name and I sure as hell don’t remember going psycho on any nurses as a kid. Who’s this Conrad guy?” God, my head hurt.
Mhik and Ahni glanced at each other. Mhik shrugged his shoulders and Ahni spoke up. “We don’t know who he is Alec. We couldn’t find anything that pinned down his title or division. Just that he kept you out of the psych wards.”
“Alec!” Mhik’s “command voice” snapped me back and I continued to gear up. “The point of all this is that Mr. Arthur covered your ass at a critical time.” He paused. “And that he isn’t now.”
None of it made sense. Yeah, I’d gotten into trouble as a kid, but nothing serious. Nothing like what the files were telling Mhik and Ahni. And I’d never heard of any Arthur Conrad. “So what burned me?”
“This.” Mhik pulled out his mini-comp and pushed a button. The mini-comp played back several seconds of the tirade I had launched at the computer in the Sub-Tram terminal. “Security Division pulled your contract before anyone had a chance to find out.”
I finished getting my gear together and did a quick pre-combat inspection. While I made sure that I had everything and that everything was in its place, I struggled to sort things out. “Those files aren’t right. Somebody had to have rigged them. Mhik, I still don’t-”
“Look,” Ahni said, interrupting me, "this is all fascinating but you need to get the fuck out of there. Now.”
“Ahni, I can handle it. They’ll start off with a routine retrieval op. I can deal.”
Ahni’s eyes blazed. “Alec, you don’t seem to get it. You’ve been classified as a Case 9 Hazard. They’ve invoked the Sierra Protocol, sent Sashe’s and Bernerd’s teams after you. Do you really think you can take them all?”
I whistled through my teeth. There are only ten Hazard levels. Lethal force is authorized for anything over Case 7, and Sashe’s team was good. Almost as good as us. Shit. Maybe I wasn’t going to get the option of a rubber room after all.
“Thanks, guys.” Something clicked in my head and I felt a sudden surge of guilt. “Ahni, will you tell Marce that I had to go?” There was a sick moment of vertigo as I set my mind on the current problem. I stared into Ahni’s deep green eyes. “Will you tell her that I’m sorry?” She nodded.
“I’ll tell her.” She dropped her gaze to the floor. “Hey, Alec.” She looked back up and gave me a feral grin. “Kill one for me.”
My smile was hard. “I’ll kill ‘em all and we’ll have a party.” Then I broke the com connection and was alone in the dark.
Fortunately I knew a lot about how level 9 teams worked. Up until then I’d been a member of one. They’d hit balcony first, tossing a tranq or concussion grenade into the room. After that the shooter would come in and mop up. If this was a psych retrieval they’d use tranq gas. I cursed at the thought, regretting that I’d never had the chance to get my hands on a protective mask. Gas masks aren’t for sale to employees and hellishly expensive in the Diggs.
But in spite of what Ahni had told me, I suspected that Sashe and Bernerd were going to be tempted to skip the whole “capture” bit. They wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of using non-lethal ordinance with a Case 9 hazard. I sure as hell wouldn’t be.
At that moment my internal clock was off by a factor of seven and I desperately needed to not be in a small room. I glanced at my watch. Damn! When had Mhik and Ahni’s call come in? How long had we actually talked? I couldn’t remember. Suddenly my gut contracted and my icy rock was back. I was used to being the hunter, not the hunted. Then something inside of me screamed a warning and I dove for the latrine.
I had barely cleared the latrine doorway when I heard the window shatter. So much for Ahni’s twenty-minute deadline. Damnit all, why had I gotten a window room? Marce was right, I had been acting weird lately. I slammed the latrine door shut and bunched myself against the wall, covering my ears and clamping my eyes shut. Right on cue the grenade went off, knocking the latrine door off its hinges and onto the floor beside me. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t have time to pay attention to pain.
The concussion grenade confirmed my suspicions. Psych retrieval indeed.
I had two things going for me, both courtesy of the concussion grenade. First, the sleeping room was filled with a debris cloud. That would keep the sniper blind for a good minute. Second, the shooter on the balcony was going to be just as deaf as I was. That still had the numbers coming up short and I needed to cheat. Contract Termination teams were used to taking out Demos filled with passion and lacking in brains. As far as Sashe’s team was concerned the knowledge I had would be as good as loaded dice.
I barged out of the latrine and ran across the shattered sleeping room. I came on to the balcony trailing streamers of dust-cloud just as the shooter was climbing in. My momentum fueled the kick I planted in the shooter’s chest. His jumper absorbed most of the impact, but it was enough to spin him in a tight circle and back out over the sidewalk.
Dumbass, I thought as he tumbled through the initial arc of his descent, should’ve kept the grippers on and stayed put. Shot me from over the balcony edge.
Cursing, I drew Thumper and bolted away from the crack of bullets that were now gnawing their way across the balcony toward me. Sashe’s Delta was obviously on top of things, having already swapped from the sonic to the rifle it was attached to. They were taking my Case 9 status seriously.
Half blind and choking on plaster dust I stumbled through the sleeping room and out the suite’s door, grabbing my bag on the way out. It was time to see if Sashe’s Close Security was as good as her sniper.