Event File 04

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File Tag: Mission Statement

Timestamp: 08:00-11-8-2155


“So, you think this’ll work?”
“No f-fucking clue.” Tweak snapped. “But I already spent a week coding them. If you got a better idea, you do it. Have fun.”

Jim glanced up from the device between his fingers to blink at her. Kevin repressed the urge to take the brat to task for a response like that.
Beside her friend, Billie glanced away. “We think they might work. It’s a start anyway,” she murmured, fingers fiddling with the hem of her shirt. “I wired the casings. They’re touch sensitive. Press them and they’ll start transmitting code. There’re twelve viruses on each transmitter. If a system’s vulnerable a green star’s gonna show up in the left-hand corner of the screen. That means one of our viruses got in and we can let it start slaving other machines in the TechoCo setup. It’ll get to a comp we can use sooner or later, one that’s got authentications that’ll get us onto the Social Feed as an admin. Then we can upload the Folder direct, without using our rig at all. If it can’t find a way in, it’ll buzz three times.”

Kevin took one of the little black boxes carefully, studying it before passing it to Yvonne.

“Why not just —” Jim mimed typing, “— hack in and do it that way? Probably safer than us walking from place to place seeing if something’s unlocked.”

Tweak’s glare skewered him. “Safer? You even read the specs, genius? Bases tried this four t-times before. Four. Twenty y-years ag-go. ‘L-leven years ago. Six y-years ago. R-rolling Thunder. Those bases. Tried. To. Hack. The Social Feed. With something big. On their rigs. All. Those bases. Got bombed. All. Of them. Are dead.” She crossed her arms, one foot tapping. “You don’t. Screw. With Techo systems. Head on. You do. You die. That simple. I d-don’t know if this’ll w-work. B-but for now, we try it. Then we’ll know.”

The little beast was at it again, speaking to them as if they were all gibbering idiots. Kevin loathed and despised that trait of hers.

The problem was, the little beast was right. Kevin had read the mission packet Aidan had brought home from Sector, and bases who’d tried variations on this sort of attack through direct hacking had been traced. They had died.

Swallowing his pride, he gave Tweak a nod. “Well, thanks for the hard work. We’ll put the idea through its paces.”                                                                                                                                                        

Tweak stared at him for a long moment, weighing his words. Then she shrugged. “Start with cafes. Easy marks.”

************

They took Tweak’s advice the next day, setting off at dawn and slipping onto the Grid in time to blend with the lunchtime crowd.

“I still say this is nuts.”

Kevin shot Jim a smirk as they walked. Keeping his voice low and trusting the noise of the crowded street to camouflage their conversation, he allowed himself a little humor. “We have to do something insane on a regular basis, don’t you know? Otherwise our reputation will be ruined.”

Jim smirked as TechoCo contracted employees eddied around them. That was what the vids always got wrong, Kevin mused as he stepped through a holographic ad of a dancing woman wearing nothing but a Santa hat. Films made a novice mistake on clandestine work. You didn’t go to an out of the way place for the purposes of holding cloak-and-dagger conversations. You went to the loudest bar around, sat in a back corner and let the inanities of the world drown out the intelligence.

The Denver Tech Center provided more than enough noise to hide a conversation with, no doubt about that. The ad campaigns for the Winter Holiday Shopping Season were already in full swing, and the Tech Center was the place people came for the gifts they couldn’t get anywhere else. Each Corporation’s proprietary shopping area conformed to its policies, with Sixteenth Street and The Pearl up in the Boulder Complex being some of the few integrated ventures. In TechoCo’s case, that policy seemed to be ‘if you can afford it, you can have it.’ There were all the usual shops for food, toiletries and amenities, but there were also streets for body-mods of all sorts. Streets where holographs showed sex acts poured overly-rehearsed screams of passion into the afternoon. Down there, tired people looked at you with eyes that made their poses seem artificial. Kevin averted his eyes from those streets.

Today they walked the streets of the Tech Center under the guises and DNA signatures of two CAS level TechoCo employees they’d coded into existence. Their falsified credentials had gotten them through the employees’ doors into the gated complex, bypassing the long Visitor’s line where Citizen cards were read and anyone whose Corporation didn’t approve of what TechoCo sold in its proprietary retail areas was turned away, their attempt at entry logged.

Moving down the round promenade with its fifty subsidiary streets, the two Dusters hunted accessible public consoles that might be exploited for delivering the Folder. It was bedlam. In addition to the usual ad holos, speakers played music on every corner, blending discordantly with the noises of ads and people. Every building and fixture sported a holographic decoration: fluttering faeries, chuckling elves that appeared in the corner of a viewer’s eye. Reindeer walking the streets. Bedecked trees concealing lampposts. Wrapped presents hiding utility boxes.

It was supposed to be festive. Judging by the number of people wearing glasses designed to block the holos or walking as if they were in a storm, it managed to be a sensory burden and not much else.

Catching Jim’s eye, Kevin nodded discreetly at a Kitty Cafe. The other man nodded, wincing as a green and red-clad image of an elf popped into existence and offered him a present. Kevin walked through the ad.

Slipping inside, they wound their way between the other patrons and the handful of cats wandering free around the cozy room, paid a ridiculous amount for their net access and their undersized drinks and found seats. Kevin would have liked something more to drink, but the sign by the register reading ‘Today, Small Drinks Only for Our Customers Of CAS Standing And Below. Water Shortage in Effect. Sorry for The Inconvenience’ made that a moot point.

A kitten hopped up into Jim’s lap, and he smiled down at it. Kevin signed into the console. The layer of printed epithelial cells covering his own skin gave an oddly muted effect to the touch of the keys against his fingertips. Since wearing the coded Synth hid his own DNA and removed the threat that a particularly keen security guard would scan his genome and get curious about a man with CAS standing credentials and CES standing genetics, it was a small price to pay.

“Too bad Hen can’t see this place.” Kevin remarked as he typed, bringing up a Social Feed and casually browsing the Top Stories Today. Dross as usual, save for a story that made him sigh. The water allowance had been reduced by half in AgCo, TechoCo and National Banking’s Citizen Poor Standing neighborhoods. Barely citing the snow pack on the mountains that provided the entire city with water, the idiot article focused on the political infighting between the Corporations imposing water restrictions and the Corporations who refused to ‘jeopardize employee quality of life.’ That line made Kevin want to curse.

Of course, the whole thing glossed over the fact that the snow pack sustaining the city was down by seventy-five percent for the fifth year in a row. Denver was dying by inches, and the Corps were intent on keeping it too distracted to notice.

Jim chuckled, pulling Kevin’s attention away from the article and down to the kitten curling up to sleep in his lap. “Yeah, Hen’d love it,” the other man agreed, oblivious to Kevin’s darker train of thought. “One of these days I should get her a cat or something. Couple of years maybe.” Jim’s smile softened, the way it always did when his daughter came up.

Kevin caught his subordinate’s eye for a moment, quirking his lips slightly as the anger in his gut cooled. He always enjoyed doing a run with Jim. He was the brains of the logistics division and Yvonne provided the impetus with her boundless energy, but it was Jim who held them together with his calm efficiency.

As he typed, Kevin gently pressed his elbow against his side. The code broadcaster in his pocket gave a soft buzz of initiation as it set to work trying to pry open a crack that a deliverable folder could be squeezed through.

He killed some time flitting through the Social under his John Smythe persona, repressing a sigh when his code broadcaster buzzed three times in succession against his flank. Another failure. This was the seventh cafe they’d tested and found well and truly secured against files sent over the Net. Plugging something in wasn’t an option: TechoCo had learned not to put accessible ports on their public terminals decades ago.

This was turning into something of a frustrating run.

A cat rubbed against his legs, and Kevin bent to pet the creature. It was a shame the base couldn’t afford to feed extra mouths. Having an animal around would be a liability they couldn’t afford, not with their limited resources. But it would have been nice for the kids.                                                                 

An ad flashed into existence between them, the eight-foot tall polar bear with a Santa hat leaning down over them both. Jim jumped. The kitten in his lap catapulted to the floor and scrambled away.

“Fifty percent off all merchandise. Come in today. Show how much you care.” the bear holo rumbled, flashing the logo of a jewelry and wearables store between its paws.

“Oh for godssakes.” The barista stepped out from her station and pulled a tab from a rack on the wall. She hit the screen, and the polar bear vanished.

She shot the two men an apologetic smile. “Sorry folks. That ad’s emitter is fritzing, it keeps getting its direction wrong and projecting in here. We talked to the chain about it.”
“No worries,” Kevin assured with a smile. He caught Jim’s eye, leaned back and stretched. “Well, I’ve finished. Feel like walking?”

“I got nothing going on,” Jim agreed, the code phrase meaning he hadn’t gotten through either.

A flock of image-only ads assaulted them as they stepped out of the café, washing them in a riot of color and false cheer. Kevin caught Jim’s eye and rolled his a little, making the dark man smirk.                                                                                                        

“This is getting incredibly old.” Kevin muttered.

“You’re telling me. When the ads start showing up in stores, I’m officially done,” Jim replied in the same quiet undertone.

Kevin glanced up the hyper-colored street beneath its billowing shade cloth awning, and back at his subordinate. “Let’s take a break, shall we? We need new vids and something for Topher. He turns twenty-one next week. I’ve got some ideas about that, and I’d like to get him a bottle of something especially nice to accompany the festivities.”

“So, he’s not sticking with that thing about Muslims not drinking when he hits twenty-one?” Jim asked as they wove through the crowds, Jim closing his eyes as they passed through a pop-up holo advertising the newest tab.

“Asked him about that actually,” Kevin replied lightly as he sidestepped a chattering group of teenagers, “According to him that’s not such a big deal in Lebanon. Given that he put himself in the med bay a few years back observing Ramadan, I don’t think his piety’s in doubt.”

“Oh, I remember that,” Jim laughed, rolling his eyes. “Hundred and eighteen outside and he won’t drink water. Crazy.”

“Religion’s never made all that much sense,” Kevin agreed wryly, “his or mine. Of course, I’m probably going to hell for saying it.” He crossed himself and adopted a saintly expression. Jim rolled his eyes, shaking his head as he smiled. “Okay yeah, let’s look.”

They stepped down a side street devoted to indulgences. Boxes of fine cigars stood in one stall, marred with the glaring red sticker reading ‘Warning: Cavanaugh Corporation Employees Not Permitted This Purchase. One Year in Detention and Sixty Point Drop in Citizen Standing.’ Beside them, bottles of what said it was coffee liqueur stood gleaming darkly, their prices well into the Citizen Secure Standing range. Given the roya blight that had killed most coffee trees before the geneticists could render the plant immune, Kevin doubted the stuff had even a passing acquaintanceship with actual coffee.

He studied bottles and considered. Topher had talked about being allowed sips of arak at family parties before his family had come to the US. That would be a nice touch.

“Jim let’s check the international section. I think I’ve got an idea.”

They purchased eight bottles of imported arak at prices Kevin was glad he wasn’t actually paying, courtesy of the carefully edited cards they carried which fooled systems into believing they’d received money. The tariffs on international goods were through the roof in the Tech Center, but the grin these would bring to Topher’s face would make it worth the effort.

And Topher wasn’t the only one who had a birthday coming up either. Aidan’s birthday was in two weeks. That had been in the back of Kevin’s mind since he’d checked the date: November 20th.

His mind flicked away to safer territory; after all, there was Christmas at the end of the next month to consider.

“Speaking of coming events, what do you think the new folks will think of our Christmas festivities?” Kevin asked. As Jim packed the bottles into his padded backpack, Kevin idly studied an adult boutique across the street. The name, Sub Rosa, surprised him with its level of sophistication.
“That we’re nuts,” Jim replied blithely. “I—”
An ad showing a sugar plum fairy asking if he’d like to purchase music appeared in front of Jim’s nose, and he nearly dropped the bottle. He grunted and swiped his hand left, dismissing the thing.

Kevin gave a quiet bark of laughter. “Well at least we’re consistent. We don’t have a lot more carrying capacity, but if we see anything special the event is just around the corner. We should start hunting about. We don’t want to be down here too long with this level of sensory bombardment.”

“You’re telling me,” Jim remarked, quiet but heartfelt. “Remember who ended up in his room for two days not talking the last time.”

“I remember,” Kevin agreed quietly. He did, too. It was hard enough for unaccustomed brains to handle the sensory overload on an average Grid day, but the level of advertising and the social-engineering tricks played during the Winter Holiday made an average run into a gauntlet for those born off-Grid. After Jim’s bad time three years ago, Kevin had run some mission statistics and written a proposal for a base regulation to send only Grid-born personnel out on Winter Break runs, restricting those runs to emergency-only. More than one Dust-born operative had gotten killed through sloppy actions brought on by the distraction or lost track of time and blown a mission. Of course, everyone on Grid was distracted by the constant bombardment as well, which was what made the Winter Holiday a nice period of downtime for Dusters. But Sector had picked the restriction proposal up, and then Regional had adopted it. Last year it had become a national thing, so apparently everyone agreed that it was better to avoid the Grid all together during the Winter Holiday Shopping Season.

Of course, some of them wouldn’t have the luxury of staying off-Grid this year. Not with the Folder to deliver. Kevin absently made a mental note to check with Damian and try to figure out some sort of mindfulness routine that would help their people fight the sensory overload they’d have to endure as he watched the store across the street. The ad holo wrapping around the Sub Rosa building flowed through a series of images, holding his eyes. A red rose held between perfect white teeth. Two silhouettes of indeterminate gender, just about to kiss. Fingers trailing through rose petals.

November 20th.

Kevin knew exactly what gift would make Aidan happiest. What he hadn’t decided was whether he had the courage to cross the street and get it.

If only his legs didn’t feel like lead. If only this was easy. If only he could shrug off the fears that had once kept him safe the way he’d slip out of a slick poncho. But human psychology was never that simple.

Children in Kevin’s class had been reminded again and again that they were as close to the peak of human perfection as possible. Human perfection had been the aim of everything he’d been taught outside the home. Every medical and technological tool at Cavanaugh Corporation’s disposal was used to uplift the human race. That was their public line.

But when perfect became a possibility, imperfect became criminal. A fit person shouldn’t have aberrant urges. Immoral and unnatural behavior was aberrant. Aberrant behavior was to be rooted out and destroyed in order to protect the future. How many ways had the Corporation found to try to drill that into his head?

His parents had tried to soften the blow. They’d given him shields of Socrates and Shakespeare, Styx and Ignatius de Loyola to hold up against the battering indoctrination. But they’d only been able to do so much.

Cavanaugh’s concept of human perfection was utter garbage and Kevin knew it. Cavanaugh’s corporate policies were a sick stew of hubris, exceptionalism and marketing, using people’s fear of being seen as less than worthy to sell them endless prescriptions and procedures. Any deviation was a reason to write people off and throw them away.

He’d seen the dead children being turned into dog food in the vids from the Folder. The Corporation had no right to speak about moral behavior. Their own immorality knew no bounds.

And yet there were still times like this, when he felt the shame of failing to live up to the standards that had been set for him soiling his thoughts. He still stood here, feeling as if the word ‘aberrant’ was written on him in letters of black slime.

He was aberrant. He always would be.

“Kev?” Jim asked behind him. Kevin gave an abbreviated ‘nothing’s wrong’ wave of the hand, the software of his mind trying to process.

“Okay then,” Jim remarked quietly; accepting, as usual, that his officer had these silent spells of thought now and again. One of these days he should mention how much he appreciated that, Kevin thought distantly.

He slipped his hand into the inner pocket, fingers brushing over the plastic baggie he’d been carrying since he’d begun thinking over Aidan’s birthday present. He drew a long, slow breath in and let it go.

“Mind poking around on your own for a moment? I’ve got something I want to buy across the street.”

Jim shot a look across the street, blinked several times. Then he caught Kevin’s eye and nodded. “I got this.”

Kevin gave him a smile. “Thanks.”

Squaring his shoulders, he crossed the sidewalk.

The electronic bong of the bell over the door nearly made Kevin flinch. He hadn’t wanted to hide from the casual gazes of others this much since his first run as a logistics specialist.

He forced his breathing into a steadier rhythm as he stepped inside. The establishment was surprisingly clean: white walls, accents of dark wood, red carpet. Something inside Kevin had expected sticky floors and grime. He’d expected physical filth because he’d associated this act with being dirty, he told himself, and that was another piece of psychological refuse he could toss out.

As he moved, he activated a security-check program on the tab in his pocket with a series of taps on the case. A casual glance at the screen a few minutes later gave him the layout of the security systems. Nothing to worry about. Good.

The man at the desk was clean-cut and patient-eyed, speaking softly to a customer when Kevin came within hearing range.

“…Sorry sir, but AgCo doesn’t approve of the practice associated with your purchase. It’s banned in your contract.”

“Wha?” The skinny man muttered, blinking watery eyes. The store attendant surfed his voice over the customer’s with practiced ease, hiding behind formality.

“Your Corporation’s Mission Statement is to feed the masses and serve the Lord as a Christian Corporation. To protect your immortal soul, your Corporation has listed this purchase as outside the bounds of Christian morality. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

Kevin heard the tell-tale note in the voice that gave away the reading of a script projected on the man’s cornea via an implant. A casual glance at the store attendant and the glint of green in his brown eyes confirmed it.

“Oh shit…” the customer groaned, covering his face with a hand for a moment. Raising his eyes, he took a step back. His eyes were wide. “You ain’t gonna have to report me, are you?”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” the attendant replied quietly, “It’s TechoCo’s policy to work synergistically with all Corporations in accordance with their stated policies. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Have a nice day.”

The man gulped and scuttled for the door. Kevin spared him a moment’s compassion as he studied collections of cock rings and flavored lube. Poor bugger was really in trouble now, breaking a clause in his Citizen Contract. American AgCo was a harsh master too.

Come to think of it, how had someone from AgCo gotten into a TechoCo proprietary area? They were usually banned.

After a moment’s consideration, he shrugged the thought off. It could have been any number of things, none of them his problem today.

He waited until the store had lost the sense of tension before casually strolling to the desk himself.                                                                  

“Afternoon. I’d like to place an order,” he stated, holding out his Citizen Card. Seeing the TechoCo logo on it, the attendant visibly relaxed. He met Kevin’s eyes with a quick, genuine smile of relief.

“Of course, sir. Just let me run this.”

The man took Kevin’s card. He could feel his pulses pounding in his wrists, pounding down in his gut. Breathe. In for a count of five. Out for a count of five. Repeat.

The card reader binged green, and the attendant handed the card back with a bright smile.

“What can we get for you today?”

“I’d like to place a bespoke order for a personal toy with a DNA lock. Mind if I see your printing options?”

“Right this way sir,” the young man agreed, putting his hand under the table to press what Kevin knew was the button to call another employee from the back. According to his check, the security button was on the other end of the counter.

The printing room he was led to was another tastefully appointed space, the printer a slick dome totally unlike their clunky monster. The printer back on base looked like an overfed mechanical scorpion on treads.

The attendant walked through possibilities and Kevin made his choices in a shockingly brief span of time.

“Now if I can get the DNA sample sir?”

The attendant held out his hand, smiling. Putting on a polite smile in turn, Kevin slipped the plastic baggie out of his pocket and held out the blonde hairs. If Aidan had any record on the Grid whatsoever this would be impossible. Lucky for them he’d been born in the Dust.

The 3-D printer whirred and ran. Fifteen minutes later, Kevin’s serviceman held out the neat black box. “Thank you for your business. If you and your girlfriend enjoy the product, please write us a review?”

“I’ll do that,” Kevin agreed politely, taking the box and tucking it under his arm with a smile.

Stepping outside, Kevin drew a long breath as his heart soared. He’d done it. He’d actually done it. Hell yes.

A spring in his step, he crossed the sidewalk, eyes scanning for Jim’s lanky form among the liquor bottles.

He spotted the tall black man a few meters down the promenade, walking up to the man who’d been in Sub Rosa getting a telling off. The man wore a tray around his neck and a hat projecting a holo ad at least as tall again as he was: ‘Ask Me for a Sample! Best American Rye. Brought to You by Nodding Wheat Distillery, an American AgCo Brand.’

Now the fact that he was in here made sense. Kevin was glad to clear up that little mystery. Disparities always made him edgy on Grid runs.

“Hey, I’ll try one,” Jim remarked easily as Kevin drew level with him.

The harried man turned, eyes haunted. He looked Jim up and down, and his face folded into a leer that dropped Kevin’s gut into his boots.

“I don’ serve monkeys,” the AgCo employee drawled. The drink he had been holding out was dumped on Jim’s hand, soaking his sleeve.

“Fuck!” Jim snapped his hand back, shaking it off. Kevin glanced at him for a moment, made his assessment, stepped in and snagged the man’s collar in one hand.

“Listen to me, you little plebe,” he stated, every syllable cutting like a knife, “I just recorded your behavior. You will apologize to my colleague and you’ll do it now, otherwise I’ll turn in an inter-Corporation CSS level complaint which will drop your Citizen Standing Number so low that you’ll need to beg the rats at the city dump for table scraps. Are we clear?”

The man yelped, the glasses of amber on his tray painting his shirt in fragrant splashes as he was yanked forward.

“What the… aw fuck seriously?”                                                                                                           

“Do I sound like I’m making a joke?” Kevin asked, tightening his grip a calculated fraction. The little rat in his hand swallowed hard.

“Sorry sir. I never had no good upbringing, God bless.”

“Whatever,” Jim grumbled, wiping his hand on his pants.

Kevin let the sample-vendor go with exaggerated distaste, dusting his hands off. “Mind your manners in future.”

He turned away.

Behind him, he heard the AgCo employee hawk and spit.

“Gene-tampered blood-muddying degenerate children of Lilith,” the little man grumbled.

A lance of rage ran through Kevin’s gut. He forced it down. No point in running the risk on giving this man more than a piece of his mind unless it was truly warranted.

The man’s mutter continued behind him as they walked. “Running with a goddamn nig—”

That did it. Kevin glanced at Jim for the look of the thing.
“We have an anti-defamation and defense of brand clause in our contract, right?”
“Right,” Jim agreed warily, “but—”
“Thought so.”
Kevin turned, stepped back and delivered a very neat undercut to the man’s gut, fast and hard. The man’s sample tray spilled as he dropped to his knees. Kevin stepped neatly out of range as the man vomited his lunch. He glanced at Jim and smirked, massaging his aching hand.

“And now I’ll need a wash,” he added as he turned away, pitching his voice carefully to ensure the man heard the comment as they walked.

Half a block later, the rush began to wear off. Kevin was quite glad that TechoCo had anti-defamation clauses in their agreements with other Corporations that allowed physical responses for anyone provoked. At the moment, he knew cameras would already have run the events through the system and approved his calculated action. If they hadn’t, he’d already have been stopped by a Peacekeeper.

He had calculated, but he had gambled too. That had been a stupid move on his part.

But damn it, if he didn’t stand up where he could, what was this fight worth? Besides, that little cretin had needed a lesson in manners. Children of Lilith indeed. And what he’d called Jim had been far worse.

He caught Jim watching him out of the corner of his eye. “What?” he asked, forcing himself into more casual body language. Jim held his eyes for a moment beyond what was comfortable.

“You scare me sometimes man. Thanks, but still.”

“Yes well.” Kevin shrugged. “He’s a plebe. He’ll think twice about that sort of garbage the next time. My good deed for the day.”

Jim shrugged, glancing down. Then he blinked, shoulders stiffening. “Fuck…”

“What?” Kevin asked sharply, hearing the fear in the soft word.

Moving a little closer to Kevin in the crowd, Jim pulled out his tab and placed it in his left hand, covering his move with an act of showing Kevin something on the physical screen.

Kevin sucked in an involuntary breath, brain kicking into high gear. The Synth on Jim’s left hand was peeling away in strips.

“The alcohol?” Jim asked quietly.

Kevin nodded. “Think so.”

“Shit.”

“Hands in your pockets,” Kevin muttered. “Don’t let a camera catch an image. Come on.”

Eyes scanning, Kevin hunted for the biggest crowd available. They needed somewhere to get lost.

Two blocks down, a holo sign flashed in eye-searing yellow over a sidewalk thronged with people:

Water Allocation and Assignment Station. Please Wait Your Turn Calmly.

Kevin nudged Jim and sidestepped his way into the back of the line. Perfect.

For the next half hour, they stood waiting. People fidgeted. People complained. People played games on tabs. People shuffled their feet.

“Least it isn’t fricking hot.” Jim muttered. Kevin nodded absently.

Such a large group of people standing together triggered every sensor on the block, and ads popped up every second or so, their jingles and messages blending into a discordant clamor.

In his head, Kevin kept a running clock on their Synth. It could last for six hours in middling temperatures. They’d put it on four and a half hours ago.

They were running out of time. But there was nowhere else crowded enough to confuse the cameras. Once they were in a crowd rather than a line, people going in many directions at once, Jim could slide on his riding gauntlets without an informer or a camera catching a glimpse of the peeling synth.

“All right! Next fifty, inside!” a Peacekeeper bawled beside the door. They crowded forward with the rest of the throng. Jim shifted to avoid being touched by the fat man behind him or the girl in front of him as the crowd clustered with the two hundred people already in the space, the general scrum filtering into lines that led to fifteen clerks at deal-table desks in the echoing meeting hall. At least there weren’t any ads.

“Next.”

Kevin could hear the clerks giving out applications for water increases, handing out approvals and denials based on…what? Probably how much the people could pay. Possibly extenuating circumstances.

Around the walls, Peacekeepers stood watching carefully, but Kevin knew their habits. They were watching for antisocial behavior. Quiet action would fly under the radar.

One of the men in crowd beside them leaned on a silver-tipped cane, his outdated bionic leg creaking. He glowered at everyone in sight. A young woman bounced a crying baby on her hip and chewed on her lip. Far, far ahead, the officials behind their desks simply did their work, voices never changing tone.

“Jim,” Kevin murmured under the base rumble of the crowd, “kneel down and dig out your riding gloves. They’re fairly stylish; wear them around. I’ll make sure you’re not trampled.”

“Yeah.” Jim agreed tightly. Going down to one knee, he dug in his backpack.

Kevin idly watched a man argue with a clerk.

“What do you mean I’m not approved?!”

The official’s voice was too low to come across as anything but ‘mumble mumble.’ The man behind the table didn’t look up from his console.

The man in front of the table threw up his hands. “Paperwork?! My kids haven’t had water for three days, asshole!”
‘Mumble MUMBLE mumble.’
“How much?! You bastard! You’ve got a job, and if you don’t do it, I’m gonna —”
The man was too angry to realize that he was in a slowly widening circle of empty floor. He was too angry to notice the Peacekeepers closing in until they grabbed him.

There was the smack of metal on flesh. The sizzle of electricity. A high yelp.

Kevin looked away, his gut burning. Water for his kids. That was all the man had wanted. Water for his children.

And there was nothing Kevin could do to help him. If he said anything to stop this small crime, he wouldn’t be around to help end the systemic injustices.

He knew how the equation of the situation balanced. He still hated it.

Clenching his fists, he stood still as the man was dragged away. Those around him met his eyes with glances of blank fear.

And that was the bloody infuriating part of it all. If everyone in this room stood up and said ‘no’ together, the Peacekeepers wouldn’t stand a chance. But no one was standing up if they ran the risk of being the one who was shot down for it. No one who’d been on their knees as long as these people found the idea of standing up easy to contemplate.

Jim stood and nodded. Tight-lipped, Kevin returned the nod. “I’ll make an appointment and come back later. Too crowded in here,” he remarked for anyone listening.

Turning, they pushed their way to the exit.

************

It was a long, quiet ride back to the secure room where they’d stashed their extra Synth in the refrigerator. Kevin took the risk of disabling the room’s wall screen, giving them some peace. He put a ‘bud in one ear, chose a song on his player and focused on scrubbing the day’s dead Synth off his hands in the room’s basin. He didn’t intend to be rude to his base mate, but he needed the music to get him through the moment.

He used a scrubbing pad as he would at home rather than wasting precious water, filling his mind with the simple task and the music.

Don Henley was right. The dice were loaded. The good guys had lost.

Jim’s voice was quiet when he spoke.

“You haven’t said anything in a while. You doing good?”

Methodically, Kevin set aside the cleaning pad.

“Just thinking. Out, damned spot, that sort of thing.”

“Hunh?” Jim muttered. Kevin smiled bitterly, the moan of bluesy notes in his ear.

“Did I ever tell you about Lady Macbeth?”

“This another history thing?” Jim asked, his voice accompanied by the flop of his body hitting one of the beds.

Kevin nodded absently. “Yes.”

“You gotta tell me right now? I’m beat.”

Kevin breathed a laugh. “Sorry.” He rinsed his hands clean.

“The gridbuzz getting you down?”
“Yeah. Feel like my brain’s full of static,” Jim’s weary voice replied behind him. “How you stay chill I still don’t get.”
Kevin shrugged. “Oh, it gets under my skin eventually. But I did start VR education at two years old. A little more than a decade of VR and AR educational programs wired my brain for the stimuli.”

Jim grunted. “Lucky.”

Kevin didn’t respond to that. The man wouldn’t call it ‘lucky’ if he’d seen the child Kevin had been coming home sobbing with exhaustion.

But that was in the past. He had more important things to focus on now.

“Well. We can make a few more tries in another neighborhood tomorrow, before we head home. Tweak said this code broadcaster was only her opening volley.”  He forced himself to raise his head. “We’ll make this work.”

“How’s the hand?” Jim asked.

Kevin made a fist and grimaced. “Aching like the devil. I think I must have hit one of his ribs.”
“Nice going,” Jim observed dryly.

The bed creaked as the man stood. Jim’s hands took his, feeling along each finger as he spoke.
“No breaks. Doesn’t feel like a sprain or anything. Still, want me to get the kit out and check?”
“No thanks. My nanites will take care of it,” Kevin replied quietly. Jim raised his eyes, measuring.

“So, you know I hate that garbage about blood muddying as much as you do. But hitting the guy?”

Kevin looked away. “Stupid of me. I know.”

“Yeah, it was,” Jim agreed, his tone level.

Kevin shrugged. “What he called you was untenable.”

Jim cocked a brow. “He called you a Child of Lilith and you didn’t crack.”

Kevin shrugged. “Yes, well. He can call me what he likes. To put it bluntly, my genetic situation is an issue in some places and an unfair advantage in others. What he called you… well, it’s kicking a man when he’s down. I don’t stand for that.”

Jim gave him a cockeyed look. “To put it bluntly is right. And here I thought you were good with words.”

Kevin dropped his eyes. “Sorry. It did come out rather badly.”

The taller man smiled wryly. “Eh. If you think about it, he’s on us both for the same thing: genetics. Which is rich coming from anybody out of AgCo. They changed the genes in every food species there is, then they talk about ‘defying god’ when it’s the human genome getting some work. Go around calling themselves unsullied. My ass. I guess it’d get to me too if I wasn’t used to it.”

“You shouldn’t be used to it,” Kevin muttered irritably, “and then on top of it…on top of it, people like that little rat take my faith and turn it into one more whip across everyone’s backs. It makes me livid.”
Jim gave him a cockeyed look. “Thought you were some kind of Catholic. They’re Protestants. Not really your faith.”

“Jesuit, true. But getting sect-specific is a waste of time. It’s still Christianity.”

“Christianity’s been a stick to hit folks with a long time, man. You know more history than me.”
Kevin sighed. “You have a point. All the same… it shouldn’t be like this.”                                                                                                                  

Jim let go of his hand. “Way of the world, man. And by the way, gene-mod boy, you’re all good. I bet you won’t even notice this in an hour.”

“Probably not,” Kevin agreed quietly, flexing his aching hand.

Crossing to his chosen bed again, Jim pulled up a book to read on his screen. Kevin stared at his fingers, flexing them slowly.

Way of the world.

The way of the world was to force you into unacceptable choices. Accept evil in exchange for safety. Decry it and become a target. Stand up and sacrifice your chance to do future good. Keep quiet and sacrifice another person’s life.  

The world presented these choices every damn day. And he had to keep making them.                                                                                                      

“You’re still thinking about that guy, aren’t you?”
“Hmm?” Kevin glanced up.

Jim spoke without looking at him. “The guy in the water line. You still thinking about him?”
Kevin gave him a gallows smile. “How did you guess?”

Jim snorted. “Man, I know you.”
“Fair point.” Kevin dropped onto his bed, closing his eyes.

“Jim?”

“Yeah?” Jim asked.

“Something’s got to change. I’m…I’m getting tired of feeling like I’ve got blood on my hands, you know?”

Jim sighed, turning his head to stare at the ceiling. “Yeah man. I know.”