by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
Dr. Richard Lohman, director of Ouroboros Security, had been at work over twenty-four hours straight when he got the televid from the Old Man. He showed no signs of fatigue, though he would welcome sleep once the opportunity arose. Until then, sheer force of will would keep him energized.
The two shared no small talk, exchanged no pleasantries, but immediately got to the matter at hand: find Nick Flemel and reclaim the data he had stolen. Lohman listened carefully, but other than downloading a few files, he made no notes, assigning every detail to memory. That was his preference. Write nothing, memorize everything. It was the only way of ensuring plausible deniability should he have to... improvise.
Once the vid snapped shut, he paused only a moment to admire his collection of oddities adorning the wall opposite his tidy desk: a miscellaneous assortment of tools, knives and axes of stone, ornaments once used in ritual human sacrifices. Then his eyes settled upon his prized possession, a genuine shrunken head obtained from one of his many excursions into the rainforests of Borneo.
It was a beautiful specimen, its eyes closed in solemn reverence of its transformation from living man to leather artifact. It seemed to bow to him, acknowledging his right of ownership, its face calm and serene, its ears perked and attentive, and, most important of all, its lips sewn together as if to forever prevent it from imparting the one secret that Lohman would share with no living soul: he had done much more in obtaining his artifact than simply buy a shrunken head at a tribal market. Oh, it had been much, much more than that. Lohman felt a rush of adrenaline as his mind replayed the hunt, the capture, the kill. He smiled.
He buzzed his secretary. “Hildy?” he said.
The image of Brunhilde Evans appeared dutifully before his desk. Fair-skinned, late twenties, in an elegant but efficient-looking day suit and, of course, drop-dead gorgeous. She was everything an Ouroboros executive expected in a secretary. Plus, there was a bonus: she never rejected Lohman’s advances when he wanted a quick fling, though he was more than twice her age.
“Yes, Dr. Lohman?” she said, smiling confidently.
“Call the vault,” he said. “I have an assignment, top priority, and I’ll need a pair of Grunts to do the heavy lifting.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
“Make that three.”
Hildy’s image vanished, and Lohman rose to retrieve his coat, a large, heavy bit of black drapery that covered him from shoulder to ankle, the Ouroboros corporate logo attached to the collar. He grabbed his hat, an elegant Fedora, charcoal gray, with a wide brim crimped at the front.
Reaching the vault, he commandeered the trio of Grunts — large, fierce automatons bearing military-grade armor and sporting an impressive variety of weapons and applications. Three Grunts were enough to destroy an entire city. If Flemel succeeded in selling the Shmeat process to an Ouroboros competitor, Lohman might have to just that.
After loading the Grunts into his private transport, Lohman began his investigation. An underground city, like any city, has its seedier side. In the post-IFF New York, that place, among others, was the Upper Bronx.
As Lohman’s transport made its vertical climb into the borough’s central level, he replayed in his mind his briefing with the Director. This Flemel character, despite his enterprise in exploiting a weakness with the Ouroboros data systems and the courage and resolve he displayed in cutting the profile chip from his arm, had overlooked one basic rule: no man can simply disappear, even a man who can thwart Centcom’s ability to track him. Everyone leaves footprints, however slight.
Worse for Flemel, removing one’s profile chip solves nothing. A man on the run needs to move quickly, which is impossible without a chip. Anyone in the NACC could readily attest that a man without a chip would be unable to buy a ticket, or a meal, or the cheapest room in the seediest hotel.
Obviously, then, if Flemel had discarded an identity chip, he would still need another to take its place. And one doesn’t simply buy a replacement chip at a corner market. No, there were few people capable of data forgery, fewer still who were any good at it.
He parked in front of a poorly-lit brownstone, its steps cracked and its windows either broken or boarded over. Ugly graffiti adorned its walls. He knew this place well.
He entered, the three Grunts following closely behind.
The lift, of course, was out of service, so Lohman took the stairs. Actually, he ordered one of the Grunts into hover mode and rode it up the stairs to the seventh floor. The other Grunts dutifully followed.
Most of the apartment doors were unnumbered, but no matter. In a nation where the authorities tracked every citizen, street names and block numbers were inconsequential.
Lohman, reaching a door with “STAY OUT” painted across its face, grabbed the knob and entered without knocking. He met the confused stare of a small, unseemly man seated at a cluttered work station. A heady whiff of sweat and body odor wafted into Lohman’s eyes. It was intense, but Lohman showed no sign of disgust.
“Solly!” Lohman said pleasantly. “Long time no see!”
The man, stoop-shouldered and balding, with a bad comb-over and sporting the thickest pair of eyeglasses in human history, managed to force an insincere smile. “Whuh... Well, Dicky! Bubele! Vos hert zikh bay dir? How are you, mentsh?”
“Quite well,” Lohman said. “Quite well, indeed. Thank you.”
Solomon Goldstein — “Solly” only to his dearest friends and to Lohman — tried his best to conceal his nervousness, but when the trio of Grunts came rolling in behind Lohman, his eyes betrayed him. Lohman strolling in uninvited was bad enough, but Grunts with him? This was trouble, he knew. This was real trouble.
“What swings you by, fraynd?” Solly said. “Social call?”
“Business, Solly, business!” Lohman said, smiling and casually inspecting the disheveled apartment. Packets of dehydrated food covered the floor, tins of imitation gefilte fish and plastic cartons of iced tea, even a few scraps from a loaf of real challah. How long had it been since he had tasted challah? Years, he realized, with eggs so scarce these days.
But what caught his eye was all the electronics. Equipment for data storage and reproduction, a variety of keyboards and touchscreens, and boxes and boxes of old relays, switches, diodes, transducers, and micrometers. Quite the toy chest, he mused.
“Offhand, Solly,” he said, “I’d say you’ve gone back to your old tricks. Then again, I really doubt you ever quit them. You really are incorrigible, aren’t you?”
Picking up the dry, pale peel of a hydroponic orange, he sniffed it and tossed it aside. “Whatever am I going to do with you, Solly?”
Solly simpered. “Dicky, bubele, why you gotta take that tone? I’ve always been good to you, haven’t I?”
“If you mean you’ve cooperated with my office with an investigation or two in order to save your skin, I’d have to agree,” Lohman said dryly.
“Hey, then what’s the problem, eh?”
“The problem, Solly, is that I suspect you’ve been an especially bad boy as of late. In fact, you may not even know just how bad you’ve been.”
“Alpha, show him the picture!”
One of the Grunts, its chest adorned with the Greek symbol Alpha, heeded its master’s command, crossing behind Lohman’s right. It rolled up to Solly’s workstation, pulling in close so that the table-top tilted back into Solly’s lap.
“Hey, Dicky—!” he began in protest.
“Now, Solly, no need for alarm,” Lohman said. “Alpha simply wants to show you a picture. Isn’t that so, Alpha?”
The Grunt made no reply, its graphite face coldly inscrutable. An image generator in its massive chest shot out a beam of light, which flickered into the form of Nick Flemel.
“Look closely, Solly,” Lohman said. “This morning, no less than the Ouroboros CEO himself asked me to find this man. The matter is most urgent, so if you’ve seen him, I need to know.”
Through his thick lenses, his eyes magnified some three times their actual size, Solly peered up at the ghostly image hovering at the Grunt’s chest. He began to shake.
The desktop pressing into his abdomen, Solly let out a low groan. He looked to Lohman imploringly.
“Dicky!” he said. “P-please. I—”
“Uncomfortable?” Lohman replied, not looking at him. “Alpha, Citizen Goldstein’s work station is blocking his view. Move it aside, will you?”
The Grunt lifted its heavy arms, its manipulators quickly shifting into pincers. Grasping the desktop at its center, in a seemingly effortless move, it snipped the entire work station into two halves, tossing them to either side.
“The picture, Solly,” Lowman growled. “Look at the picture. Do you recognize this man?”
“Now, Dicky, bubele...” Goldstein began.
His face stern, Lohman interposed himself between the Grunt and the simpering little man.
“No games this time!” he said. “I’m really in no mood for it any more. How many times, Solly, have I come to you, listened to you feign ignorance, only to extract a mea culpa from you once I offer you immunity for your cooperation? Not today, ‘fraynd,’ not now!”
He pointed to the hologram. “You’ve done business with this man, and recently. I’m sure of it. And I’m sure you must have had some inkling of the significance of his request. This wasn’t some teenager trying to amend his profile so he could buy a prostitute, or an outworlder looking to insert a phony work authorization into his green card.
“This man came to you, his left forearm dripping with blood, needing a new identity. So you falsified a profile chip for him. This time, someone will pay the price, so if you want to take the fall for him, I’ll oblige you. Or, rather, Alpha will.”
Without waiting for a command from its master, the Grunt reached for Solly, placing its razor-sharp pincers around his throat. The little man’s huge eyes bulged.
Lohman watched in great satisfaction at the panic rising in Goldstein’s face, his cheeks flushed and eyes wide in terror. Instinctively, Solly kicked his feet as if to drive himself backwards. The Grunt maintained its grip. “Gevald geshrig’n!” he cried. “Dicky, I swear to you — I swear, I swear — you got it all backwards!”
“Do tell! How?”
“P-please!” he sputtered, a trickle of blood now dancing merrily down the sides of his neck. “Just call off your bestye! I’ll tell you everything I know.”
“Alpha,” Lohman said gently.
The grunt released Goldstein, who quickly raised both hands to his throat, pressing them tenderly against his skin. His eyes teared. His heart pounded.
“So?” Lohman grunted.
Solly took a second to compose himself. “Y-yeah. Yeah, I’ve seen him before,” he said. “But it’s not like you think. I never gave him no profile chip. Sure, lots of times I take my chances with Centcom, but I’d have to be a real shlemihl to forge a profile chip!”
“So, how do you know him?”
“He came to see me about three, maybe four weeks ago. But it wasn’t to buy no chip. He just wanted a storage medium. Said he’d found an old-style CPU and wanted to see what was on it. He gave me the size and configuration, so I dug around in my supplies and found something suitable — one of those drives, for actual insertion, y’know? Emes gezogt, I knew he was up to something, but, hey, I figure the less involved I get, the less trouble comes my way.”
“Solly, dear boy,” Lohman said. “How long have we known each other? Do you really think that pack of lies will placate me?”
“But it’s the truth!” Solly protested. “I swear! He just wanted the device. He never asked for no profile chip. Sure, I’ve updated some personal data here and there over the years, but even I know better than to forge no chip. That sort of thing gets the higher-ups all farbisn. You know me, Dicky. I prefer to stay off their radar.”
Lohman took a moment to evaluate Solly’s confession. He found his smile again.
“You know, Solly,” he said. “I believe you.”
Solly managed to smile — sincerely, this time. “Thanks, Dicky!” he said. “That means a lot.”
“Actually, it means absolutely nothing,” Lohman replied. “I’m not the one needing to be convinced.”
Solly looked confused. “I don’t—”
Lohman crossed the room, digging under a stack of take-out boxes to reveal a well-worn couch. Shoving the boxes to the floor, he took a seat.
“Beta, Gamma,” he said calmly. “Pull Flemel’s blood data. Run a thorough scan of this room. Look for a match, however small.”
The two Grunts quickly rearranged themselves to stand back-to-back. A bright flicker of blue light shot from their chests and began to drift slowly across the room.
“Dicky,” Solly said. “What—?”
“Surely you were paying attention when I spoke of Flemel’s arm dripping with blood? So, if you were telling the truth, Beta and Gamma will be unable to detect any traces of Flemel’s blood. Simple.”
“Tut, tut, Solly! Let’s allow Beta and Gamma to run their scan. It won’t take but a few seconds.”
Solly could only watch helplessly as the Grunts made their sweep, their blue beams seeming to slice every corner of his dwelling into microscopic bits. They coincided at a point directly in front of his work station.
In less than a second, the Grunts announced their findings. “Results positive, sir,” they said in unison. “Traces of blood matching that of Citizen Flemel found in numerous places. Predominate traces at the head of Citizen Goldstein’s work station.” Their deep voices resonated intensely. The vibrations could be felt along the entire brownstone.
Lohman rubbed his eyes. “Solly, Solly,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m disappointed in you. Truly, I am. Even knowing that I’m in no mood for games, knowing full well that some very important people have sent me this way and that I’m here at their behest in my official capacity as director of Ouroboros Security, when it should be very clear to you that lying to me would be a very naughty thing to do, and that the people for whom I work are not as patient — or as forgiving — as I am, you still have the effrontery to lie to me like this. I’m afraid this is the end of our relationship. Such a pity.”
In a swift, split-second move, the Grunt reached out with its pincer and neatly snipped Goldstein’s head from his shoulders. The head, still sporting its insanely thick glasses, dropped to the floor, bouncing dully. His body flinched in shock, a crimson geyser erupting at his shoulders.
Lohman sighed. “Thank you, Alpha,” he said. “Now, open up Mr. Goldstein’s files and see if you can find any information about Flemel. Goldstein must have kept a record or made a note of some sort.”
The Grunt complied, bringing up holographic data screens in dense layers.
“Sir,” it said. “The files are encrypted.”
“Initiate standard override procedures and continue.”
Without responding, the Grunt complied with the command. It sifted through some million lines of code on dozens of display screens, when it suddenly lifted its head.
“Sir,” it said, “the files—”
Lohman raised an eyebrow in curiosity. In all his experience herding Grunts, this was the first time one ever seemed at a loss for words. After a moment, when the Grunt failed to finish its sentence, Lohman said, “Yes? Alpha, what is it?”
“Sir, the files—”
“Did you find them?”
“Sir, the files—”
“Alpha, what’s wrong?”
“Sir, the f — sir, the f-f-f-f-f-files. The files. The files, sir. The sir files. The files. The files. The files.”
It began to shake violently. A high-pitched squeal, starting low, quickly grew to ear-splitting intensity.
Lohman had never seen a Grunt go off like this, but he knew something had gone terribly wrong. Almost without thinking, he barked, “Beta! Gamma! Shield!”
The other Grunts instantly sprung to their master’s call, interposing themselves between Lohman and the erratic Grunt and morphing into a single piece — a blast shield six meters wide and half a meter thick. Lohman threw himself to the floor at their base.
As he did so, a fiery explosion erupted from the Alpha Grunt’s core. A blinding flash of light swelled all around him, and a concussive boom that permanently damaged his hearing erupted, rocking him insanely and leaving him dizzy and unable to see straight, his ears ringing painfully. A cloud of sulfurous smoke engulfed the room.
When the room grew still and his shock subsided, Lohman willed himself to his feet, bright streams of blood running from his ears and nose. Refusing even to steady himself by placing a hand against the makeshift wall formed by the Grunts, he stiffly but calmly made his way around to examine what was left of Alpha.
The damage was considerable, more than he thought possible. Chunks of armor plating lay in heavy piles at the Grunt’s feet. There were countless cracks and ruptures along its fuselage, and its core processors were completely incinerated, a fuzzy, spongy mane of wiring and connectors swelling from inside.
Lohman looked around the room for Goldstein’s head, but it was nowhere to be found. There were only traces of his body — what remained looked like bits of charcoal.
Lohman smiled. His eyes displayed delight. “Solly!” he said. “You utterly magnificent son of a bitch!” p>
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll