Tim’s implant sang a single low note. Time to go to work. Squinting at the clock through a haze of day-old Dancing Juice, he made out the glowing numbers. Quarter past noon. It was days like this, he wished he were one of the 67 percent, instead of a working man.
He swung his legs off the side of the bed and flinched as a plastic vial crunched beneath the pad of his right foot. He definitely had to lay off the stuff. His job required him to work only a few minutes twice a week or so, but he had to be on call 9 AM to 9 PM Monday through Thursday, and he never knew when the call would come. One of these days, they’d beep him when he was fried on DJ and he’d blow up half of London or something.
Rubbing his face with his hand, he stood up and made his way through piles of scattered clothing to the bathroom.
He called up the bedroom cam on his implant and stole lascivious glances at Linda while he shaved. Sleeping facedown on top of the covers, naked and splayed, she was hotter than MindPorn. So there was one reason to be grateful for his job, right? He wouldn’t have met her if the feds hadn’t recruited them both off the gamer sites in the same season. They’d gotten to talking the first day of training, and were spelunking each other’s crevices by the end of that week. She was lean and dark, with ropy muscles like a man’s. So aggressive in bed that sometimes she reminded Tim of some kinky fantasy he might punch in to iBabe for a change of pace. He liked it at first. She swept him into her sensuality like a rogue wave. But the truth was—now?—two years later? Sometimes he found himself dreaming of someone softer, sweeter, more vulnerable, more . . .
Womanly, was the word that came to mind. He smirked to himself while he razored the last suds off his chin. He didn’t want to say something like that out loud or Linda would complain and have him sent off to feminist re-ed. Well, not really. She wouldn’t do that. She wasn’t the bitchy sort. But she could. She might.
He toweled his face briskly and returned to the bedroom. He rooted through the clothing piles on the floor and finally pulled on a relatively clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Then he thumped downstairs, ready to blow yet one more evil schmuck to Kingdom Come.
Tim was old-school. He used a controller and worked on projected VR in Augment Vision. Linda, of course, was more hardcore. Sometimes he’d come into the den and find her just moving her fingers in the air while gazing into space at a bunch of coordinates no one could see but her. She probably thought she was being impressively expert, and maybe she was, but Tim just found it creepy. He preferred the feel of the device in his hands, and he liked being able to watch the DroneGo animation of the scenery around him as his gunner careered through space to its target.
Today, judging by the 30-year-old cars parked at the curb and the meso-Arabic street signs along the bullet-riddled colonnade—plus the coordinates, which even in GoMode appeared at the top right corner of the scene—he was in Baghdad. Which made sense, given the target info brain-loading off his implant: he was hunting Ahmed Atwa, an Egyptian terrorist long believed to be hiding in Iraq.
It was late in Baghdad, almost 11, and there was a curfew in force. Only a few men were out walking the street. They appeared as animated three-dimensional images zipping past him on either side. None of them noticed Tim’s gunner drone weaving between them. The attack craft was no bigger than a wasp and made virtually no noise. It appeared in the animated scene as a flying dragon, an icon he’d chosen for its coolness factor. Linda’s icon was just her interlinked initials. (Tim wasn’t supposed to know that, but he’d hacked into her Battle Feed to find out if she was getting better assignments than he was.) He amused himself now by making the dragon slalom the cartoon columns as it moved in for the kill.
Just beyond the colonnade, there was Atwa, sitting with another man at a table in a street-side café. They were drinking whatever unholy shit terrorists drank and planning whatever unholy plans they planned, none of which was going to matter in approximately four more seconds.
On the final run-in, there was a glitch. A frizz of static lateraled through the room. The flying dragon seemed to stutter-step in midair. Tom suspected that Linda had hacked his Battle Feed just as he’d hacked hers. She was the competitive type, same as he was.
In any case, the static died. The animated drone’s movement quickly smoothed. Tim guided it up behind the bad guy’s head, just at neck level. He pressed X on the controller.
The 3-D animated figure of Atwa put his hand to the back of his neck as he felt the sting. In the last moment of his life, he probably thought a mosquito had bitten him.
Then his entire body exploded, bathing the man across from him in gore.
Tim let out an excited “Whoa!” and the job was over.
But just before the feed went dead, something happened. Something weird.
There was another lateral flash of static; another visual stutter—just for a second. Then, as the animation faded into nothingness, a jumble of 3-D numbers danced at the center of the room. It was as if the curtain of animated scenery had dropped away, exposing the underlying reality beneath.
Tim saw the numbers only for that brief moment, but it was enough for him to recognize a set of coordinates—and to see that it was not the same set of coordinates that had been running in the corner of the scene during the hunt.
Which was weird enough right there. But what was also weird was that the coordinates were for somewhere not far away, somewhere right here in Los Angeles.
So . . . like . . . what was that about?
Tim’s immediate thought was Linda—that she was cheating on him. Not just cheating on iBabe like everyone cheated, but in actual RL relationships—real life—maybe even with people he knew.
He’d had bouts of jealousy with her from the beginning. Partly it was just the what-the-hell of her: Why was a MindPorn fantasy girl lighting the wick of a skinny, frizzy-haired nerd like him? On his bad days, his insecure days, he figured she must just be using him as home base while carrying on any number of affairs with musclemen—and, for all he knew, musclewomen—on the side. He thought it was the sort of the thing she’d do. Spread it around. Swaggering and macho. Daring you to challenge her. What? Did you think a woman couldn’t be just as promiscuous and dishonest and unfaithful as any man?
So his reasoning—if you could call it reasoning—was a) she’d hacked into his Battle Feed and b) somehow she’d spilled her address book into it and c) just as the feed was shutting down, he’d caught a glimpse of the location of her last hookup. Did this make any sense? About three minutes after it occurred to him, it didn’t matter whether it made sense or not. He was jealous, and he knew he had to check it out or it would drive him bats.
Linda was still dead to the world when Tim slipped out the front door. Of course she was. Because, of course, she always had to prove she could fry just as much DJ as he could. Tim went around the house to the garage. He pressed the button to open the front gate and then unlocked his scooter from its post. He hopped the bike and keyed the coordinates into the geeps. Then he kicked the machine to life and puttered off down the driveway.
Another perfect day in the City of Angels. Sunlit, 70, with spring-like breezes—and what was it, February? Tim tooled the scooter down out of the hills and was soon weaving through the autos past the restaurants and pleasure palaces and theaters of the Sunset Strip. Their parking lots were packed even at this early hour. The places were filled with connoisseurs of every variety of food and Dancing Juice and sex.
On the boulevard itself, the traffic was moving quickly. It reminded Tim how much he loved the freedom that his scooter gave him. The automatic cars went in swift lockstep motion, whereas he could weave in and out between them, catching glimpses of their passengers, the women putting on makeup, the men putting on makeup, the men and women both frying Deej and at least one couple enjoying some backseat afternoon delight.
The scooter’s geeps guided him south away from Sunset and onto the residential streets, where hot babes and boys sunbathed on the lawns outside their houses. Then, just beyond, a series of swift turns brought him into a warehouse district. He motored under a freeway overpass and onto a deserted stretch of concrete covered in graffiti. Here stood an old storage facility, white brick, three stories tall, abandoned and half in ruins. The geeps announced that he had reached his destination.
Okay, not a hookup spot then, he thought—and he almost drove away right then and there and headed home. But then, what was this place? Why had these coordinates appeared in the VR scene right after he’d waxed Ahmed Atwa?
Tim dismounted and chained his bike to a No Parking sign standing aslant at the edge of the sidewalk. He wasn’t sure why. Because he was curious? Because, for some reason, he was afraid? Because he already half-suspected the truth and had suspected it, deep down, for a long time?
Whatever. He moved toward the building as if helplessly.
There was no door, just a doorway. There were no lights, just the sun streaming soft and golden through the broken windows. Rubble crunched beneath his sneakers, and mice scrambled for cover in the shadows, unseen. Tim peered into the ground-floor recesses. Nothing there but a flight of stairs in the far corner, old wooden stairs, the railing splintered, some risers collapsed. He crossed to them and made the precarious climb, the treads groaning as they yielded under his weight.
As soon as he reached the second floor, he saw what he had come to see.
A section of the rear wall and part of the ceiling had collapsed into the room. White bricks and a wooden beam lay in a pile in the mote-hung sunlight. Tim approached the pile slowly. After only a few steps, he saw the hand sticking up out of the bricks.
The dead man in the rubble had been blown to bits from the inside. That’s how it was when the gunner drone got you: the injected explosives spread through you and went off almost before you knew you’d been stung.
His heart beating hard, Tim moved closer, close enough to the mound of debris to look directly down into it and see the remains of the target. Not a Middle Eastern type at all, but a gangly white man with short hair and what used to be a button-down white shirt before his guts had exploded through it. Not a terrorist on a Baghdad street. An American, right here in L.A.
Tim stared down at the wreckage and the dead man, and his mouth went dry. But before the idea that was taking shape in his mind could fully form itself, there was a soft footstep behind him. He gasped and spun—and found himself facing a living man not so unlike the dead one. A tall, thin, clean-cut man in his late twenties, staring at him big-eyed out of the room’s far shadows.
“None of it’s real,” the man whispered.
And then the police stormed the building.
They came without sirens, but the pounding of their footsteps on the pavement outside gave them away. The man in the shadows ducked out so fast he seemed to vanish. That brought Tim back to himself and he started moving, too. He rushed to the window just in time to see the last of the armor-clad riflemen charging into the open doorway below, weapons raised. He knew he had to get the hell out of there. They could not know he knew what he knew.
He couldn’t fling himself out the window. He’d likely break his leg. And anyway, there were still cops in their cars out there, watching for anyone who tried to run. The other troopers were already thundering up the stairs. He couldn’t stay here. He had to go up to the next floor. There was no other option.
He darted past the corpse in the rubble and reached the stairs. The railing on this flight was intact, and he grabbed hold of it and flung himself up. He heard the police muttering to one another behind him as he cleared the final step and reached the third floor, the last floor. It was a ruin, like the floors below, but not empty like those. There were stacks of old broken office furniture here and ancient metal storage boxes piled helter-skelter on top of one another.
Breathing hard, Tim stopped and looked behind him, his eyes wide and bright with mortal terror. He heard the gruff cop voices below him. There he is. Clean him up. Get him out. Move it. If they found him up here, they’d kill him. He knew it.
Suddenly, he was grabbed from behind, a hand pressed hard over his mouth. His heart seemed to seize in his chest as he was dragged down roughly to the floor.
The man who had grabbed him was the man he had seen downstairs. He muscled Tim behind a stack of storage boxes. He kept his hand over Tim’s mouth so tightly that Tim struggled to draw breath.
“Don’t say anything,” the man whispered in his ear. “They’ll check up here, but I don’t think they’ll search the place. They just want to clear out the body, that’s all.”
Tim nodded. Desperate for air, he tapped the man’s hand urgently. The man released his grip and Tim sucked breath as quietly as he could, his chest heaving. Sure enough, a moment later, there were heavy footsteps on the stairs. A police rifleman in full battle rattle crested the steps and passed his weapon barrel over the room, scanning the corners through his starlight goggles.
Tim and the man cowered motionless behind the cabinets. Tim willed his heart to beat more softly.
“All right. Let’s go, let’s move,” came the bark from downstairs—and the rifleman sank away again, his footsteps joining the full rumble of footsteps down below.
Tim could not wait until they were gone. He whispered, “Did I kill that man?”
The other man didn’t answer, but Tim turned and saw him nodding in the gray half-dark. “We finally broke through to you,” he whispered back.
“You? Me? Why me?” Tim started to ask—but the words turned to dust in his mouth. He knew why. He had gone to their site. Their dark website. More than once. He’d told himself to stop going there, but curiosity had gotten the better of him. He kept going back again and again, and they must’ve spotted him and found out who he was and what he did.
“Look,” he said, still whispering, even though he could hear the troopers leaving the building now. “I’m not religious or anything. Understand? I was just curious, that’s all. I just wanted to see what it was.”
The man drew a long breath, now relaxing as they heard the cop-car engines start on the street below. “I have to go,” he said.
“No, wait,” said Tim.
The man didn’t wait. He stood up quickly. “The dimension lock will open in an hour, and the Fourth Street alley’s nearly an hour away,” he said. “They can keep it open only for 30 seconds before it shows up on the radar. If I miss my chance, I’ll be stuck here another day. I can’t risk that.”
Tim worked his way to his feet as well. He stood where he was and watched the man shuffling through the rubble to the stairs.
“Why do they do it?” Tim asked the man’s back. “Why do they kill you?”
The man stopped in a beam of pale yellow light. He took hold of the stair railing. He glanced back. “You kill us, Tim.”
Tim felt his throat tighten at the words, but he swallowed hard and repeated, “Why?” his voice trembling. “What do you do?”
The man made a sorrowful gesture with his hand. “We don’t do anything. We talk. We tell people. What we believe. How we live. And they join us. People like you.”
Tim shook his head. “I’m not joining anything. I’m telling you: I don’t believe in any of that stuff. I was just curious. You know? I mean, the way people drop their voices when they talk about it. . . .”
The man seemed about to respond but then only repeated, “I have to go.”
He headed quickly down the stairs. Tim stood where he was a long moment before he followed him down. He stopped on the second floor and looked toward the pile of rubble.
The corpse was gone.
His scooter was where he’d left it, undisturbed. He wondered why the cops hadn’t noticed it or searched more carefully for its owner. But he was too agitated to wonder much. He swung into the saddle and kicked the starter and puttered away.
None of it’s real. That’s what the man had said. But what was that supposed to mean, exactly? Did it just mean that the Battle Feed wasn’t real? That was pretty obvious now, after all. The animated 3-D pictures that were meant to make it look like his drone was in Baghdad . . . the coordinates . . . the Egyptian terrorist in the outdoor café . . . when all the while he was really targeting an Angelino evangelist half a mile out of Hollywood. None of it was real. Was that what he meant? Or had he meant more than that? Had he meant everything? Anything and everything that came over his devices. The news. The iBabes. Hell, even the video calls from his brother Brad in St. Louis. He hadn’t seen Brad in the flesh in years. How would he know if his brother was just some digital construct now? Or if the news was all some grand fabrication spun out by laughing bureaucrats in a D.C. cellar somewhere? How would he know?
Stop, he told himself. It’s absurd. Stop. Of course he’d know.
He was motoring back through the residential district now, past the sunbathers on the lawn again. And just as he was telling himself to calm down, to get real, his implant sang: a single note, a note he knew. It was a moment—even a full minute—before he realized what it was. Then, on instinct, he glanced into his sideview mirror—and then he looked back over his right shoulder and he saw it: the drone flying up behind him, no bigger than a wasp.
It was almost within striking range.
Tim cried out in fear and threw the throttle wide. The scooter darted forward fast and reached the corner. He started to turn the bike hard—but that move would be fatal. The drone could cut across the diagonal, cut across the corner of the grass, and blow him to pieces in a second. Now, though, he wrenched the handle bars and spun the bike into a 180. He saw the little shooter zip past his face, maybe half a foot away. It couldn’t stop fast enough. He was counting on that. The drone flew into a eucalyptus tree. The explosion was a whisper, a little point of flame.
But at the same moment, Tim felt the bike skidding out from underneath him. He went down to the pavement hard, the jolt shooting up through his shoulder, making his teeth ache. A few of the sunbathers on the lawns lifted their heads to see what the ruckus was, but no one got off the grass, no one got up to help him. He scrambled to his feet, his whole body throbbing from the impact, blood running hot down his brow and his leg. He grabbed hold of the handlebars and wrenched the scooter upright.
He didn’t get back on though, not right away. That tone, that note he’d heard through his implant just before he saw the drone: that was Linda’s tone, her call to action. He’d heard it ever since he’d hacked into her Battle Feed to find out what she was up to. Maybe she doesn’t know, he thought. Maybe they had her fooled with fake coordinates the same way they’d fooled him. Maybe they had her thinking she was hunting down some Islamist in Somalia or somewhere when she was really chasing her lover.
He had to warn her. He had to let her know the truth.
He called up the den cam on his implant, and he saw her there. She was sitting on the sofa. Using a controller and the VR animation because he wasn’t there to see her so she didn’t have to show off.
And there was the scene: no animated Baghdad . . . no terrorist in a cartoon café. . . . Tim was looking at Linda—and Linda was looking at Tim right there in front of her, right there on the street, right there where he was.
She knew exactly whom she was hunting.
Tim’s mind was in full Screaming Panic Mode now. He was weaving in and out of the automatic traffic at full speed, dodging down side streets and up boulevards in a chaotic zigzag. He had turned off his implant. He had torn the geeps off his handlebars and dumped it in the trash. He didn’t think he could lose the trackers, but he hoped he could slow them down.
He would have to find his own way, but at least he knew where he was going. There was only one place he could go.
The dimension lock would open for 30 seconds in the Fourth Street alley. In an hour. That’s what the man had said. Through the lock, he could make a space-leap to another place, their hiding place. But there wasn’t much time to get there. Fifteen minutes, tops. He’d be lucky to make it, even traveling at full speed.
None of it’s real. That’s what he kept thinking. If you could call it thought. It was more like a wild raving cry repeating over and over in his terror-rattled mind. None of it’s real. Not the surprising moments of Linda’s tenderness, or her teasing hints at fellow feeling or even her offhand smiles or anything—anything at all—except the sizzle of nerve ends ignited by sex or Dancing Juice or fancy food. Nothing was real except the dumb dull haze of pleasure that had kept him staring openmouthed like an idiot child while other men and women somewhere issued decrees about what he could do and what he could believe and what was right and true or even thinkable—and whom he had to kill to make a living.
At first, when he skidded into the alley, tires screeching, he thought he was too late. The narrow concrete corridor seemed empty. But then he spotted them. They were pressed into the dark spaces under the walls, beside the Dumpsters. There were three of them: the man he’d seen in the old warehouse, an Asian guy, and a black guy, all short-haired and neatly dressed in slacks and button-down shirts.
Tim’s heart misgave him when he caught sight of them. They looked like some kind of priggish sex-starved missionaries. That was probably exactly what they were, he thought. Surely, there must be some better way of life than that, some finer world than theirs.
He had brought the scooter to a stop just inside the mouth of the alley. He sat there astride the saddle, watching while the dimension lock opened. A section of the air became a glassy blur, and all three men came out of the shadows and hurried toward it.
Tim could see through the blurry space to the place where they were going. He could see a woman standing there, waiting for them, lifting her hands to them to pull them through. She was tall and slender, her blond hair in a bun. She was wearing a prim, blue frontier dress that covered her, neck to ankles. And again, something in Tim went hollow at the thought of a sterile world of dweebs and virgins chanting scripture by way of a good time. . . .
But then, he thought, look at them: the three men. Running toward her. Reaching for her. So eager to go back to wherever she was. Only the one white man hesitated even a little, and that was just to glance over his shoulder, to glance back at Tim, to beckon him to join them.
Whatever they did, whatever they had, they were willing to come here to proclaim it, willing to risk their lives, willing to die to bring others where they were.
And he was not willing to die to stay.
He got off his bike and started walking, then jogging, then running after them, running toward the woman in the long dress just visible through the blur.
She lifted her hands to him.
Only when he got closer did he see how beautiful she was.