Tuesday 22nd May 2057, 09.00 hrs
Democratic Borough of Kensington, London
Convincing Pazooki to hack into our target’s Intralens took all of five minutes. Gullible wasn’t the word. It was Good Practice, I’d said, as part of our assignment. Good Practice my arse, like we were MI7 or something and human rules applied.
‘Oh, it keeps folding in half.’ He hunched over our office sink and stretched his eyelid again.
Most mornings I blocked out my apprentice’s minor meltdowns with an audio break, but not today. ‘Get it sorted or lens up later,’ I said.
He whined, ‘I can’t, I need it for the hack.’
My hand itched to slap him into shape but, lucky for him, the alarm on my Toshiba M9 sounded. I grabbed my max-caf and rushed across our antique-clad office. The M9 groaned at the resulting coffee splash. I mopped its keypad, chucked the sodden tissues on the sickly, purple carpet and tabbed the answer pad.
‘Morning, Mr La Haye, sir.’
‘Don’t treacle me, Sasha. You get it back yet?’
‘We’re working on it, sir. I’m planning to go in person this–’
‘I don’t give a flying kharkou how you do it, Sasha. I want results. Got that?’
He cut the connection. The M9’s screen flipped back to running my retrieve and kill scenarios. I stared, unseeing.
‘Ahem.’ Pazooki poked his bald little head around the kitchen doorway, a tear tracking down one cheek. ‘I’m sorry, boss. It’s just so unnatural.’ He shrugged. ‘These human eyeballs aren’t evolved to take double the weight of a contact lens.’
‘Look,’ I said, drawing my mouth into smile position, ‘it takes a while, but trust me, in a couple more years, you’ll be used to that body.’ As I patted his shoulder, he flinched. ‘By then, humans will have better tech and we’ll all get bio implants.’
He nodded and rubbed his scalp.
‘Give it one more try, there’s a good little genius.’
Predictably, Pazooki’s eyes sparkled at the rare compliment and he trotted back into the kitchen.
I shivered. Pazooki had been ‘utterly flustered’ when I suggested the hack and he’d set the air con to max out. I re-tuned the thermostat to not-a-fucking-fridge and pulled on my jacket. It ought to be the other way around: Pazooki (skin and bone boy), nice and comfy at a hundred degrees and me (the well built Geno Silva downgrade), sweating through two shirts by breakfast.
I took a deep breath. It was Geno Silva, The Skull, who’d finished off Pacino’s un-killable Scarface. And, if I had to (which I probably did), I’d do the same to Bougara. Silva wore the stare of Mexican history: oppressed and defiant. And oppressed again. It’s my story – hell, it’s even the original Sasha’s, too. People like us can’t ever forget the golden rule: never let the fuckers see your weaknesses.
Pazooki let out a gossamer sigh and stood in front of the eighteenth century coffee table, tugging a thread off his special shades of khaki shorts. ‘I’m still not sure I can crack their system,’ he said.
I feigned mock disgust and threw the rigid remains of a day-old croissant at him, observing how it bounced off his ribs. He jutted out his chin and minced over to the tall, glass immersion booth behind his desk – one of two reasons I hadn’t razed this shithole to the ground after eight weeks of cow-towing to La Haye.
‘Look, I know you’d rather be, you know,’ he fluffed the air with his hands, ‘looking for your daughter, but there’s no need to take –’
‘Okay!’ A picture of Kalina, laughing and jumping in her yellow dungarees, her cherry-brown, frizzy hair bobbing behind her, forced its way into my head. My stomach churned and the familiar stinging pressure at the back of my eyes set in. ‘Just get on with it, for Marjaar’s sake.’
‘Yes, boss.’ He slid open the booth’s door and powered up enough hi-tech to elicit a geek-wide orgasm across the entire city.
I could hardly believe phase one was in the bag. Part of me was tempted to tell Pazooki the truth but it would be suicide: despite good intentions, his tongue was as loose as a politician’s promise. If he knew the real reason I needed the hack, no question, he’d spill his guts. Word would get round and, shortly after that, our Lord and Master would spill mine.
There was half a pack of Marlos in my top drawer. I fired one up and tried not to think about where Kalina was or what bastard her mother had taken them to live with. My darling wife would never have left without a plan B. A couple of years back, I’d twigged that Xanthia’s idea of watching over her child was standing on tiptoes for a better view of some rich arsehole at the bar. Apparently, I was just a stepping stone in her grand plan. Maybe if she’d known I was a top assassin and not some has-been businessman from old St Petersburg, things would have been different. Maybe, maybe. Dragging on the Marlo felt good.
I started at a beep from the holo-emitter embedded in my desk. Pazooki, smiling, tapped on the booth’s glass and pointed towards my desk as a life-sized hologram of our latest target, Doctor Lily Bougara, flashed into view. The holo spun slowly, its head almost touching the ceiling. She was a petite, stunning, thirtysomething with the cappuccino-brown skin and plump lips typical of Pergantites and Marjaarans alike – my apprentice’s ideal role model.
In his naive little bubble, Pazooki no doubt thought this image would get me ready to do whatever needed doing – cold-kills had never been an issue before and as far as anyone else, including Pazooki knew, they still weren’t. My plan to keep it that way was simple enough, the ‘simple’ being that it simply had to work: I’d study this Bougara woman, find her secret faults and circumvent the superstitious crap rolling around in my head. Simple. My top lip bloomed with sweat. An assassin who couldn’t cold-kill anymore was no assassin at all. We all knew that, even Pazooki.
‘Wohoo, I’ve done it, boss!’ Petrov Pazooki, crap trainee assassin but AI manipulator extraordinaire, had, indeed, nailed it. He fell out of the booth and strutted towards me. ‘LILETH_BOUGARA.lenz can now stream, real-time, straight into your SASHA_MAKSYM.lenz account but there’s no way anyone can trace it unless they already know how the infiltration works.’
‘And no one else does.’
He grinned. ‘Correct. Now you can see everything she sees.’ He snorted with pride. ‘You’re basically inside her head.’ He stopped talking, gazed at the hologram, and sighed like a teenager in love. ‘Shame if we have to kill her. Such a waste.’
I lit my third Marlo of the morning and watched the smoke drift through Bougara’s image until it gathered against the purple ceiling. ‘It’s not our call so drop it.’
Pazooki’s famine-thin shoulders sank and he fiddled nervously with the seam of his khaki vest – specially selected to match the shorts, obviously.
‘Such great hair,’ he said, still staring up at his new heroine.
I flicked ash on the carpet. ‘No one asked Bougara to instigate our beacon,’ I said. ‘Four billion Marjaarans are more important than one Pergantite. It’s simple logic.’
I put my hand up to stop him ‘You’re right, it’s a shame it’ll only respond to her DNA signature, like a goose and its chicks, but that’s life.’
‘Goslings,’ he said.
‘A goose’s chicks are –’
He paused. ‘Sorry, boss.’ He bit his lip and swayed thoughtfully. ‘But maybe, maybe she’ll –’
‘What? Want to help us? Thumb our message into the beacon without so much as a squeak?’
Pazooki shrugged. ‘It’s not impossible.’
‘Ha!’ I leaned back in my chair. ‘Self-delusion must be such a comfort.’
‘Sorry, I –’
‘When was the last time a Pergantite helped a Marjaaran?’
Pazooki toed the carpet. ‘She doesn’t know she’s a Pergantite.’
I flicked my half-smoked Marlo at his feet. He jumped back, huffed, and carried the butt to the ashtray, holding it between thumb and forefinger like it was a dead wasp.
‘Don’t be such a kir, Pazooki. How long do you think it’ll take the local Guardians to discover there’s a beacon in the offing, then contact Bougara and tell her the truth?’
A sulky shrug.
‘Exactly. Now, get me the saline.’
After two attempts (and no whining whatsoever) the iris-sized, conical lens was in my eye. A look up and left logged me into Bougara’s hacked feed and I closed my eyes to watch what she could see, and listen to everything she heard through our linked audio implants.
‘...to the café,’ she was saying, the white of her lab coat flowing past. ‘I need to clear my head. Can I get –?’
Feeling dizzy, I blinked out, my hands spread in front of me as if to stop myself from falling, even though I was already sitting at my desk. ‘What’s wrong with this thing? Interactive cinema was less erratic.’
Pazooki trotted into the booth and checked the feed. ‘Nothing’s wrong. She’s a leftie, that’s all, most people lens up rightside. Your perception will adjust to the difference after a few minutes. Plus, I’m adding synchronised Googlecam feed off of Euro Sat 692. It’ll appear as a mini screen on the bottom of the main picture so you’ll have an outsider’s perspective of her too.’
‘Okay, enough,’ I said, the customary snap creeping back into my voice.
Pazooki’s face fell. Shit.
Since being dizzy was part of the deal, I hissed the tops off two icy beers and took one over to him; time to seal his runaway mouth. ‘No one needs to know what you just did,’ I said. ‘No one, understand?’
‘Oh, boss.’ He down-flipped his hand. ‘I won’t tell a soul. Wouldn’t want the humans to find out that this is even possible or all our lens data would be at risk.’
I nodded. Better to let him think it was humans I was worried about.
Mistaking my beer-giving for some kind of friendship ritual, Pazooki swivelled in his chair, took a delicate sip, and launched into a post-mortem of his monster hack.
‘Once I’d worked out what to do,’ he said. ‘I used our data on her Unique Brainwave Pattern and set up a search algorithm to run on the Intralens network. It wasn’t that difficult.’
I raised my finger and forced a smile. ‘Not for a student of brainwave pattern ID techniques.’
He beamed back. ‘Our education system has its advantages.’
For almost a whole minute I feigned interest in Pazooki’s methodology (better he got it out of his system with me and no one else), but I soon lost track of his geek talk. Instead, I imagined my target on her way to the café she’d mentioned; saw, in my mind’s eye, the bounce of her dark, wavy hair and tried to picture a red cross painted on the back of her head.
Pazooki fidgeted on his seat and steepled his fingers. ‘I said, what about if I did this one?’
A full swig of beer shot out of my mouth and splashed onto the carpet. I spat after it for good measure. ‘You?’ I wiped my chin with the back of my hand. ‘When that pigeon flew into our windscreen last week you wanted to nurse it back to health. How would you kill Bougara? Death by pout?’
He pouted. ‘I’ve got to start somewhere.’
I waved the idea off. ‘Forget it, Pazooki.’
‘Yes, boss. But, boss?’ He cocked his head to the side. ‘When you said to tell no one, did you mean absolutely no one, not even the La Hayes?’
I clenched my jaw, trying to gauge whether he was for real. ‘Absolutely.’
Okay, just checking because –’
He tossed back his non-existent hair and pranced into the kitchen like a show horse on acid. I’d have to try and act more grateful, at least for the rest of the day. Thanks to his savant-like skills, I wouldn’t need expensive outside agents so my Lord and Master could go fuck himself: what Charles La Haye didn’t pay for, Charles La Haye didn’t need to know. I silently repeated my new mantra: familiarity breeds contempt. I could get familiar. I could be contemptuous. We all had to die sometime and it was probably Bougara’s turn, that was all.
I paced the office. At training camp they’d taught us that everyone had an In: a front they put on for the rest of society; a front that got them admired and wanted by the people around them. First, I needed to find Bougara’s. The Doctor title was, itself, an In but she had two PhD’s and didn’t seem to flaunt it; didn’t advertise on any brain-show sites. From what I’d learned so far, her most blatant In was her manner. We’d watched her from the company Ferrari at 06.30 this morning. She held out her wrist without being asked and pulsed a tip to her waitress at her local mega café; and later, she’d chatted to some old tramp at Purfleet station till the Canary Wharf tram arrived. I wasn’t fooled for a second. The Telos Stoppers made me look forty-five, but seventy-three years as an Earth-based switcher had taught me that humans were rarely nice for nothing – and since my target still believed she was human, it counted.
Bougara’s other In – maybe a symptom of some latent rebelliousness in her nature – was her choice in footwear. Almost everyone who could afford shoes wore synth sandals with Kool Blu inlay to combat the heat. Doctor Lily Bougara, on the other hand, tapped along in natural leather, knee-high cowboy boots. Probably didn’t use inlay either, just the real deal. Yee-haw.
I stopped pacing and ran my fingers through the holo. If she were some teenage bimbo in up-arse shorts instead of three-quarter trousers, the boots might look tacky. But thirty-three’s not bimbo age and the midnight river that flowed all the way down to her waist wasn’t bimbo hair styling either.
Pazooki, apparently recovered, returned to his favourite, central spot on the carpet and sighed at our target’s superficial beauty. His voice faltered. ‘This weekend I’m buying an identical wig.’ He stroked his scalp. ‘My original body back on Marjaara has lots of hair,’ he said. ‘And the face is. . . prettier.’
‘Was, Pazooki. Past tense.’ I went into the kitchen and rummaged for a fresh croissant. ‘You know the deal. Your original body’s as good as dead, same as mine, same as any other switcher’s. Shunting through it when these shells wear out doesn’t mean it’s still yours.’ I tapped his bony head. ‘The sooner you get that in there, the better.’
He sniffed. ‘The original mission was straightforward. Central assumed the First Wave hadn’t made it or you’d have signalled them by now.’
‘And you still thought it was a good idea to mind-crash two light years across the cosmos and dump into a foreign host?’
He pulled his hurt-to-the-core expression. ‘The First Wave was meant to check the place out and stay safe until the meteorites arrived. You weren’t ordered to create some hierarchical, secretive, credit-generating cartel.’ He spread his hands out at our purple macrocosm of the La Haye global empire.
‘No one sits around waiting for thirty years, let alone the seventy it’s turned into,’ I said. ‘What did they expect we’d do, Macramé?’
He shrugged and turned to stare into the full-length mirror beside his desk. The switching; his new body; and the shitty job, were stressors for sure but now he looked ready to blub. I tapped the base of the max-caf cup and took a gulp before it had time to re-warm properly. Next stop: the target. I grabbed my shades before Pazooki kicked off.
‘Be ready to move on the good doctor in an hour.’