This story is inspired by the TV show "Xena: Warrior Princess", without which I would've never gotten into this writing game. The leads may resemble certain characters in the series (you know the drill - the hair, the eyes, the works) but no matter how hard I tried, this didn't become a genuine Uber story, so now it's under the label "inspired by." I could call it an Uber/scifi Conqueror story, for lack of a better label.

Anyway, no copyright infringement was meant and the story was written purely to get these people out of my head. Don't plagiarise me - I'll know, and for the record, I get kicks outta hurting people (that's what being a sadist does to a person). Copies of the story can be made for private use but they should include the copyright notices and this disclaimer. Story ingredients include techno babble, proper English, violence, and numerous instances of the f-word. All feedback appreciated.

My eternal thanks go, as always, to my irreplaceable and quite incomparable beta reader, Michal. Also thanks to Loafie for being my expert in geography and human pathology - you're da bomb, babe.

The Oppression Engine

© Penumbra 2000 - 2001


Jodie Bryant 322.6, Jo for short, didn't feel like waking up just yet. Groaning loudly, she groped for her mobile to silence the annoying whine that had interrupted her sleep. The sleek unit slid off the nightstand to clatter on the floor loudly before coming to rest under the bed. As she groped for it, the gel mattress heaved violently around her.

"Uh, what?" she rasped into the mobile when she finally managed to find it.

"Unit Bryant point-six? This is Central. Sorry to bother you on your day off, but we have sort of an emergency."

"What's it to me?" Jo asked, somewhat grumpily, as she sat up and raked her hand through her entangled hair. Her sleep had been restless and the result was, as usual, a mess of a hairdo. Squeezing the mobile between her ear and her shoulder, she attacked one particular tangle with both hands, her still sleep-bleary eyes crossing as she concentrated on her difficult task.

"Unit Jefferson had a family emergency and we have two runs today. Can you fill in for him? We'd really appreciate it - and I promise you another day off soon enough."

Jo sighed. Well, it wasn't as if she had any noteworthy plans for the day anyway. Lunch with Eric could always be re-scheduled.

"I'll be there."

Chapter One: Pick-up

The gauge on the oxygen tank said it was two-thirds full. Jo tapped it a few times - quite out of nostalgia brought on by life-long immersion in old films, since the display was digital and so had no indicator needle that could get stuck - and, satisfied, hoisted the tank onto her back. Next to her, Unit Sigursveinn Jones 974.19 was busy sealing his protective suit, air hissing audibly as he pressurised it. From the neck down, he suddenly looked like a bodybuilder, even though Jo knew the man to be closer to willowy than anything else.

"This thing is a real ego booster, I tell you," Unit Jones, usually known by the nic Sig, said while admiring his air-enhanced form in the dressing room mirror.

Jo chuckled warmly and slapped his airy bicep. "And about as genuine as calf muscles made of soy, Sig," she quipped, referring to the latest fad in cosmetic surgery. Accented calves and shoulders were this season's trend, according to Vogue, and those that could not spare the time to build real ones could easily acquire rather authentic-looking implants made of soy protein gel. "We're taking Virginia out today, right?"

"Yep," Sig said, taking one last admiring glance and winking at his image in the mirror before grabbing his helmet and turning to Jo. "You ready?"

Jo nodded, checking the seals on her gloves for the last time. "Let's go."

Virginia was one of the older vans but whenever possible, Jo took her on gigs. Not only had she customised the music selection for the vehicle, but the van had special sentimental value to her, it being the first place where she had had sex in with her first girlfriend, when she was in her early twenties. Stepping into the driver's seat, she pressed the ID chip embedded in the thumb of her glove into the key slot and as the console in front of her lit up, she reviewed the mission statement Central had dumped into her mobile. At the sight of the address, her eyebrows shot up and she whistled in appreciation.

"Pasadena Canyon? Somebody really important must've died if we're called there," she said.

"Well, money does not make you immune to hemorrhagic fever. Nothing does," Sig replied, fussing with his suit collar. "Shall we?"

"We shall," Jo said, placing her mobile in the console cradle. The GPS display lit up and Virginia came to life. The quiet hum of the electrical engine grew as they exited the garage into the blazing midday sun of Todos Angeles. Jo leaned back and stretched her neck, keeping an eye on the autopilot indicators. Turning to Sig, she asked: "So what's the word today?"

"Intelligent doorknobs," he said assuredly.

"Intelligent doorknobs," Jo deadpanned, rolling her eyes. Sig was notorious for his freelance jobs and enterprises which had in the past involved everything from cosmetics development to rather buggy landline repair bots. His last effort, vertical hydroponic beds ("Food Off the Wall!"), had resulted in more than one irate customer, one of which had taken his substandard components and the resulting mess in his cube personally. The scar from Sig's encounter with him was still visible on his forehead.

Nervously fingering the gash, Sig smiled to Jo and nodded. "Intelligent doorknobs. Think of it - no more thumblocks, the doorknob recognises you by the chemical composition of your sweat. Open, sesame!"

"Sounds...intriguing," Jo allowed, and grabbed the overhead support as Virginia took a tight left turn to the 101 entrance ramp. The steep ramp took them onto Level 3 of the highway, the sign at the level entrance flashing Pasadena Canyon - 26 kilometres. The vehicle quickly accelerated to over 200 kilometres per hour, so that by the time Sig had given Jo a brief overview of the revolutionary doorknobs, the deceleration sequence had started and Virginia took the offramp. The spiralling descent made Jo's stomach turn as she braced herself against the console.

"You take the electronics, I'll deal with the containers this time," Jo said as they turned onto Pasadena Canyon, a winding street taking them through what remained of the south side of the San Gabriel Mountains. The street was lined with expensive houses, none of which were visible beyond the high walls and electrified barbed wire every one of them relied upon for protection. Reaching number 12900, the vehicle turned through the open gates and into the driveway, a short gravel affair that ended at the front porch of a medium-sized villa done in the venerable Hispanic style so popular in the region even back in the days when San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties still used to be three separate entities, before they merged to form Todos Angeles. Jo had always felt a sense of gratitude that the reshaped city had thoughtfully remembered its Hispanic origins with its new and inclusive - albeit somewhat pompous-sounding - name.

"I smell money," Sig whistled as they stepped out of the vehicle. Shading her eyes with her hand, Jo murmured something in agreement before heading around the van to pick up their gear. Snapping their helmets on and grabbing the assorted carrying cases needed for their job, they headed towards the door, both squinting in the harsh Southern California sunlight.

At the door, they were stopped by a Consortium-owned policeman. Shifting the containers she was carrying under one arm, Jo dug out her mobile and selected the display of her professional credentials, showing the unit to the man. When she spoke, her voice was amplified to a metallic-sounding, neutral tone by the microphone-speaker combination on her helmet.

"Consortium Haz-Mat. We're here to pick up a stiff."

"Well. She hasn't been here for long, thank goodness," Sig commented as he kneeled down to investigate the body they'd been called to whisk away, that of the deceased owner of the house. "What's your guess? Dengue?"

"Or Marburg but that's unlikely, given that the hemorrhaging is concentrated around the eye sockets and other orifices," Jo said, her brows knitting together. "The last strain of dengue did this kind of damage, though," she pondered out loud as she stepped forward and bent down to see better. "But I thought the latest epidemic was over?"

"I thought so, too," Sig answered, his gloved hand hovering over the woman's chest. "Boy, these are never pretty," he sighed and let his hand drop to his side.

"All in a day's work, Sig," Jo murmured and went to unpack the containers.

Hemorrhagic fevers remained the black plague of the latter half of the 22nd century. Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, dengue fever, hantavirus - they went by many names and came in many strains, each more virulent than the ones before. The strain mutations had nearly wiped out humanity in the 2030s, after so many had already died of the repercussions of the same cosmic phenomenon that had triggered the mutations.

Galaxy M185 is a small galaxy in the same local group as the Milky Way, although not exactly neighbouring it. Shadowed in reputation by nearby Andromeda and not providing any major celestial signposts, it had been of no interest to anyone but a handful of astronomers until, in 2029, the gamma ray burst brought on by the merging of two smallish stars in M185 finally reached the Earth's solar system. While gamma radiation from the sky is a perfectly normal phenomenon, the flare of 2029 was to normal gamma levels as the midsummer sun in the South Seas is to a penlight in a coal mine. It instantly cooked the ozone out of the atmosphere, destroying the layer of protective molecules that humans had struggled for over half a century to save.

Skin cancer. Radiation-induced mutations. Blindness. The instantaneous effects of the radiation burst were horrible enough, but it also destroyed the better part of the photosynthetic plankton in the oceans, the staple food of many oceanic species, causing a drastic decline in marine life.

Not that there were many people left to eat what fish remained, anyway. Sixty percent of the Earth's population perished within three years, and that was before the diseases began to hit with full force. Desperate not to let humanity die out, people scrambled for solutions, leading to the successful development of an artificial replacement for the ozone field. And in the human specie's desperate bid for self-preservation, prior societal squeamishness over the idea of human cloning rapidly dissipated and population replenishment programs were instituted. The ozone substitute, a gigantic shield made of countless UV-radiation filter screens that spanned half the Earth's surface at a given time, suspended in the stratosphere - the no-man's land between the clouds and the emptiness of space - had dramatically eased the skin cancer rates, and cloning had introduced a whole new concept of humanity.

And along with this expanded idea of personhood had come a new tradition of nomenclature. Jo was the 322nd clone from the genetic remains of Jodie Bryant, with Genetic Difference Subset 6; the genetic subsets, along with feature variances between different clone generations, were introduced to avoid having "carbon copy" clones which would weaken the overall human genetic fabric. But those differences worked beneath the visible surface and so, like the late original Jodie Bryant, all subsequent Jodie Bryants had the same strawberry blonde hair and vibrant green eyes.

The battle against the waves of disease was still being fought around the world, however. Whenever a new medicine or a form of gene therapy was devised, new strains quickly emerged which were immune to it; the tug of war was endless. As Jo wrapped this latest corpse in the vacuum bag, she briefly worried if she was patient zero of yet another epidemic. I hope not, she thought and sealed the container before depressurising it. But working in the hazardous materials unit had one benefit she was very glad of: they had access to the best available drugs and treatments - mostly because it would otherwise be extremely difficult to recruit employees into such a potentially lethal line of work.

"Ready to move," Jo breathed into the mic. Sig, taking air samples near the window, turned to her and nodded, waving the analyser in the air.

"The air seems to be clean. My guess is, she ate something she shouldn't have."

"I'll have the police take another look through her rubbish," Jo said and activated the hover. Immediately, the body bag lifted into the air at her waist level. "According to the prelim investigation, she had no outside haz contact for the past week. No trips, no weird mail, only nuked food."

"Well, she got it somehow," Sig shrugged and clipped the analyser to his belt. Crooking a finger towards Jo, he said: "Before we head to Central...check out the view."

Pacing closer to the window, the hovering body bag eerily following her steps as it was on auto-pilot, Jo peered out...and down. The house was situated right on the cliff edge of Pasadena Canyon, a natural formation that had been abruptly birthed on the night of January 16th, 2004, as a previously unknown seismic offspring of the San Andreas fault line had dramatically announced its existence to the world. Swallowing half of Pasadena and a good chunk of the San Gabriel Mountains, the quake killed an estimated 90,000 people and totally re-shaped the Western side of the then-Los Angeles landscape - and in the process created some prime real estate for people who were willing to pay for a view of scenery that rivalled the Grand Canyon.

" must be at least half a kilometre down there," Jo said and leaned in to see better. Her helmet banged against the glass window.

"At least. Man, can you imagine waking up to a gorgeous sight like this every morning?"

"Not with my salary, I can't," Jo sighed. "But she ain't waking up to it either any more. Let's get her outta here and onto a steel table."

"Roger that," Sig said and collected the rest of their equipment before they exited through the vacuum-locked door back into the sunshine, to make their second pick-up of the day. All that was left behind of the first was a large stain of body fluids and blood on the pale hardwood floor, and a mystery just about to begin.

Chapter Two: Quality of Mercy

"Oh - pardon me, ma'am..." the young intern said and shrank back as if he had just touched a live wire. ", Agent Villar," he concluded after glancing at the small nametag pinned on the ample chest he had just run into headlong.

"It's quite all right," Villar answered in her pleasant, low alto, and brushed a nonexistent speck of dust off her maroon jacket. "Be more careful next time," she added, her tone neutral. The man nodded enthusiastically and after one more apology, dashed off to disappear behind the next corner, as if he couldn't get away from her fast enough.

She didn't have to sound threatening to be so; usually the mere presence of a uniformed operative was enough to make people in the vicinity feel uneasy. The operatives, known only by their common designator as control agents, were a feared lot, mostly because nobody outside their exclusive community knew exactly what function they performed for the Consortium. The only glimpse into their world one could get was when one riding in an elevator with them, their thumbprint opening the doors to otherwise access-restricted floors; a fleeting glimpse of steel grey corridors, before the elevator doors closed again.

The underground floors beneath the Consortium's operational headquarters were a veritable maze of similar corridors, traversed by the people that as a collective were the bureaucracy that kept the wheels of the company formerly known as IntelAMD Corporation rolling. Upon a merger with IBM and Vergol Entertainment, the megacorp changed its name to Industrial Microelectronics Consortium, known in the greater Todos Angeles area simply as the Consortium.

After the war of 2092 with SWSG Industries, who ruled the Bay Area and environs, the Consortium had bought the rest of Todos Angeles that had remained in the possession of independent entertainment companies and thrown out the city government that had consisted of representatives of the media conglomerates. The Consortium thus became equivalent with Todos Angeles. A retaliation war was fought with SWSG in 2094, culminating in the detonation of a small thermonuclear device that left Oakland and its suburbs uninhabitable for the next several millennia. Now, the Consortium was in the process of buying off all the SWSG assets it could get its hands on - though to what end, nobody knew.

The Consortium local headquarters spanned a handful of city blocks in Culver City. The towering buildings ranged from a mere sixty floors to well over a hundred, not including the floors below ground. And far beneath Tower West-18, floor B15, was where Villar worked.

"Ground floor," she said quietly upon entering the elevator on B15, which acknowledged her request with a sound of its own. After that, everything was deathly quiet save for the hum of the elevator's motor; all conversation had died off the instant she had stepped in. Trying not to show her amusement, Villar tugged at the high collar of her uniform that, aside from the nametag, bore no insignia or other markings. They were unnecessary.

"Have a nice day," the elevator said as the doors opened and she stepped out. Not responding to the machine - which, she reasoned, would not have wished her well if it could understand where she derived her fun - she tucked her slim leather briefcase under one arm and nodded to the three-man security team in full riot gear that was always stationed at the front entrance of the building. She could feel all three sets of eyes following her and she smirked, knowing well that the sight of her, almost two metres tall and with a build most would describe as "statuesque," was nothing if not eye-catching.

Slipping on a pair of rectangular sunglasses the moment she stepped into the sunlight, Villar paced with obvious purpose from West-18 across the Grand Plaza towards East-1. The plaza was a pleasant oasis of green vegetation and water fountains, a favoured spot for family picnics on holidays. Now, it was populated with Consortium workers seeking to perfect their tans while having their lunch.

"Agent Villar," Agent Devron greeted her warmly at the front entrance of East-1, and shook her hand. A tall, striking man with coal-black hair and blue eyes the colour of the Arctic Sea, dressed in a uniform identical to hers, Devron could have been Villar's twin - which was not too far from the truth, actually. All members of Control were generated from a very limited set of genetic stock, and more often than not agents from the same lineage worked together. But rarely did they form friendships; befriending one's mirror image tended to be disconcerting to most, even if the usual name propagation scheme was eschewed to favour random name assignment. Villar and Devron, with their friendship, were an exception to the rule.

"Devron," Villar smiled. "I'm starving."

"No surprise there," Devron replied and grasped her shoulder, guiding her indoors.

Devron eyed her across the table, a mixture of amusement and apprehension in his eyes. "I swear, you exist on those nutrition bars."

Villar paused in her chewing and, annoyed, gave the man a look of warning. "I thought we discussed this mothering issue a while ago," she said tightly, before resuming chewing on the cardboard-tasting but very nutritious bar. He leaned back and shrugged, tilting his head in a manner that was very familiar to Villar: he was backing off for now, but would re-visit the topic in the future. She fleetingly considered how much they resembled an old married couple, but let the thought go, knowing full well that tight friendships always turned out to be like marriages anyway. Not that they could've married, even if they had wanted; unions of people of the same genetic origin were strictly verboten.

"I'm just worried," he said as his last stand, before switching topics. "I hear you're a candidate to replace Halcrow," he said, referring to her section chief.

She nodded in reply, finishing off the last of her bar and squeezing the wrapping into a small ball before tossing it into the nearest recycler. "Remains to be seen. She announces her successor in two days. Now, what I've heard is that you've been a busy boy, too, Devron," she said with a friendly smirk.

Devron chuckled and shrugged. "I guess so." Leaning in closer, he lowered his voice. "It's still a semi-secret, for Control ears only but...we finally got the viral strains to become airborne."

Villar's dark eyebrows shot up on her forehead. "Really? All I heard was, there was some sort of breakthrough in elevating the infection rate in dense populations - but an airborne strain? That is nothing short of amazing, Devron," she congratulated.

"Yep," he said, his smile infectious. "We're estimating a maximum ninety-two percent impact rate in urban areas, in favourable weather conditions. Estimated strain run time is only two weeks."

Villar whistled in appreciation. "Congrats, my friend. Impressive data."

"Yes, well, we still have to conduct more tests on human subjects to get a better estimate of the infection run-down rate...but I'm very happy."

"You should be," Villar said and sipped at her Caf. Ingesting the hot, bubbly liquid made her perspire slightly; the air conditioning was always having trouble keeping up with the extreme temperatures of Todos Angeles. "I smell a promotion for you, too."

"We rule, sister," he laughed and mock saluted her with his Caf cup.

The air was much cooler in the underground floors of West-18 than it had been in the East-1 cafeteria, but Villar still fanned herself with her hand as she stormed down the corridor towards her office. Her lunch hour chat with her one and only friend had stretched on for longer that it should have - but she was keenly interested in Devron's research in the virology department, so she had only herself to blame. Glancing at her inner wrist, where the embedded display of her implant showed the time to be slightly past 1400 hours, she calculated that she still had time to spare before her next case to review her notes.

As soon as she entered the cavernous anteroom, she made a beeline towards her secretary, stationed at a lounge chair in front of her office, a Braille display at his fingertips. "Sim, you have the chip on #455/L?" she asked him by way of greeting.

He smiled, lifting his hands off the display, which immediately froze. "Afternoon to you too, boss. It's back in your chip rack."

"Thanks. Any news on...y'know?" she queried, discreetly pointing towards the section chief's offices at the other side of the hall - a pointless gesture, really, considering Sim couldn't see it. Sim's milky eyes turned towards her and he shook his head ruefully. "Ah well," Villar shrugged and headed for her own office.

All the offices in her section of the intelligence department of Control were situated on the outer edge of a circular hall that acted as a waiting room and the work place of the outside units that handled all the business of the office. The office spaces, most of which were vacated at the moment, had slightly curved glass walls facing the central room. But what most visitors, as rare as they were, found most disconcerting was not the illusion of wide open space so deep underground, but rather the fact that the space was equipped with noise suppressors, making the cavernous room echoless. And as an additional result, nobody could hear anything being said over three metres away from them - as intended.

Upon entering her office, Villar plopped into her chair and swiveled to reach her chip rack. "Four-five-five," she said, and the requested chip lit up. Picking it up, she turned to face her desk again and pulled up her sleeve. There was a small slot below the plasma display on her wrist, and into it, she slipped the soft, gel-filled chip, then spent the following fifteen minutes or so getting acquainted with the data that suddenly was part of her awareness.

When done, she retrieved her mobile from its cradle on the desk and headed out, pausing at Sim's workstation again.

"I'm in Exultant, right?"

"Yes," Sim confirmed. "The subject has already been brought up from holding. He's in bracelets."

"Excellent," Villar said and headed off to the maze of corridors behind the offices. Pausing at the door with a small sign next to it that pronounced it to be named Exultant, she took a moment to remove her name tag from her chest and push a strand of her midnight-black hair behind an ear, before pressing her thumb against the lock. The pad flashed once and the door clicked open.

Her tall form was followed by anxious eyes within the room the moment she stepped in, but she did not make eye contact until she had sat down and placed her mobile on the table.

"Good afternoon," she said, her voice deathly calm, and met the slightly bloodshot grey eyes in the far corner of the room. "I am your interrogator. Please, have a seat."

Chapter Three: Sun Sliver

Neatly slicing the Y incision, Jo blinked to keep her eyes open; her night's sleep had been neither long nor of noteworthy quality. The blotted skin of their newest "customer," as they were called, peeled back effortlessly, exposing a the body cavity that was mostly a bloodied mass of gelatinous lumps - internal bleeding was never pretty or clean.

"Sample kit, please," Jo breathed through her mouthpiece. Sig passed the requested implements and Jo proceeded to fill the tubes with fluid swabs and tissue samples from what seemed to be the appropriate organs.

When the tray was filled, Sig took it under one arm. "I'm gonna run this into the lab right now, to see if there's still people there."

"OK. See you on Monday," Jo said to his departing back, before focusing back on the corpse in front of her. The room's only sound was the barely audible whir of the computer panel on the far wall, and the wheezing of her air filtration apparatus.

Of course she was not a trained pathologist, nor had she any medical training aside from what she'd learned from her years in the field, but she had seen enough people dead from hemorrhagic infections to be altogether too familiar with their nuances. Add to that the fact that it was Friday, that most of the pathologists were already home with their families, and that it was quite commonplace to disregard clinical regulations and let the more experienced Haz-Mat units to do autopsies on clear-cut cases such as this, and there was nothing extraordinary about Jo, who was experienced in handling the cutting laser, performing the procedure.

With a triple-gloved finger, she poked at the stomach.

"Stomach is small and tubular," she spoke for the benefit of the microphones. "Surface is taut, which indicates internal hemorrhaging." The rest of the organs were similar, full of blood, and she pronounced as much before returning to the stomach. Grasping more firmly, she felt underneath the pouch to see if there were any open veins there. As she held the stomach, she felt something...angular on her palm.

What the...? Jo wondered, her brow contracting.

Picking up the scalpel again, she opened the stomach and poked inside. Her fingers closed around a small, squared shape and she pulled it out. Wiping the loose tissue and blood off the object, she turned it around curiously. It seemed to be an ordinary data chip casing. Shrugging, Jo dropped it into the disinfection container along with the rest of the deceased's belongings; they would be cleaned and nuked to remove all traces of any virii present, to be made safe for handling again. Probing the other organs as well, she found nothing else that struck her as odd, so she pushed the organs back into a semblance of order, sewed up the Y incision and put the carcass into a freezer to await the results of the investigation and, eventually, cremation.

"The autopsy ends at 2046 hours," she announced finally, snapping off her gloves and dropping them down the recycling chute, where they would be broken down to their elemental parts, sterilised, and reassembled as new gloves. "Microphone off."

It was nearing twilight when she finally drove down to the garage of her housing complex. Detaching the mobile from its cradle and thus effectively shutting down the car, she climbed out of the vehicle, taking her groceries with her, and went up to her flat on the 33rd floor.

"Honey, I'm home," she called out and kicked the door shut behind her. At the sound of her voice, the dim lights brightened and the display panel on the living room wall lit up. Eternally tuned to one of the news channels, it remained mute.

She set the foodstuffs on the kitchen table, then flicked on the tea kettle. Grabbing the leftovers of her noodle and tofu salad from the fridge, she poured the steaming water into a tea cup, murmuring appreciatively at the faint scent of bergamot emanating from the mug - world upheavals be damned, Earl Grey was still Earl Grey. She balanced the salad in one hand and the tea in the other as she headed for the sofa where she sat down heavily, the gel padding of the sofa moulding itself around her contours, and sighed. It had been a very taxing day off, and she felt tired and cranky.

After wolfing down her makeshift late dinner and going though her messages - lunch with Eric tomorrow, check - she put her mobile down and pondered how best to numb herself to sleep.


The display flashed to the requested channel. More news. If she had one addiction, it was news, and considering she had access to over 700 channels (plus all the illegal ones that were financed by the Consortium's rivals and thus spouted anti-Consortium propaganda, and which everyone of course watched despite them being forbidden), her junkie tendencies were well appeased.

"...and the spokesperson for Sysco Corp, the recent purchaser of Lower Manhattan, denies allegations that they intend to turn the area into a correctional facility, as was suggested by yesterday's New York Times. A spokesperson for the Times spokesperson refuses..." the reporter droned on in a gravelly voice, obviously freezing in the sleet flying sideways - rare weather, even for New York in February. Jo wiggled her toasty toes in sympathy at the reporter's plight; for as much of a madhouse that Todos Angeles was, at least it was a madhouse with constant sunshine.

"Display off," she finally grunted, after a too-lengthy segment of the negotiations in the Hague on the finalisation of Egypt's annexation by the United States of Europe. Pursing her lips, she thought for a moment about what to do, since she was not feeling sleepy despite her exhaustion. Making up her mind, she went to the kitchen to fill her antique mug with more tea before grabbing a sweater and heading for the stairs.

Seven floors and four minutes later, she reached the rooftop. Stepping onto the soundproofing tarmac that covered the roof, she bounced on the balls of her feet a few times before heading for her favourite spot - a upside-down L-shaped exhaust vent from the air conditioning systems in the building. It was always warm to sit on, and it was high enough to see over the railing that bordered the rooftop.

As soon as she had sat down, the mobile in her pocket vibrated, announcing an incoming call. Cursing herself for dragging the thing with her in the first place, she dug it out of the thigh pocket of her combat trousers.

"Hey Sig," she said as the man's face appeared on the screen. "This better not be business."

"Unfortunately it is," the eternally smiling man said, shrugging apologetically. "Just wanted to let you know that the boys in the lab say the bug that killed Jane Doe is indeed dengue, but with a genetic make-up they had not encountered before."

"Really?" The last comment piqued Jo's interest. "Artificial?"

"Too early to say. But the doc said he's gonna look into it come Monday. And if it is artificial...I don't even want to know what that means."


"Could be. Don't know how they've managed to engineer the RNA stamp out of it, if that's the case. But we'll know more next week, eh?"

"All right," Jo said and glanced at the darkening sky. "Now get your ugly mug off my screen - you're about to ruin my sunset."

"Will do," Sig said, winked, and broke the connection.

Artificial, huh? Fuck, Jo cursed, and suddenly the sunset was not as beautiful as it usually was. Artificial meant engineered, which meant someone had taken Nature's killing machine and given it steroids. Shifting her eyes from her tea to the horizon before her, she imagined seeing a dark cloud of threat over the silhouette of urban Glendale that stretched towards the distant horizon, stopped only by the rolling, gentle shapes of the Hollywood Hills.

The sky was painted in bright shades of yellow and red as the sun sunk closer to the hills, getting progressively larger as it neared the horizon line. The brilliance of the sphere was blinding, and when it was entirely below the horizon, an eerie glow of pale yellow and pink remained to colour the sky, and in that light, Jo watched the edge of the atmospheric shield that had been built to replace the lost ozone follow the sun's path, like two horizons meeting.

When the sky became a uniform indigo, shaded towards ochre where the city lights reflected off clouds, she downed the last of her now-cold tea and rose to head to bed.

Chapter Four: Precision Point

She leaned against the table, bracing her hands on the slick, cold surface. With a well-practiced and thoroughly artificial look of compassion, she regarded her subject.

"You cannot win, you know that, Jan?"

"My name is not Jan," the subject hissed, glaring at her with eyes that were significantly more bloodshot than they had been two days ago.

"Your name is Jan if I say it is," she smiled. "Level three."

At the last words, the thick bracelets on his wrists glowed briefly and he screamed in agony as electricity passed through his body. He dropped to the floor, breathing heavily, and the air was spiced with the faint scent of burning flesh.

"Whatever," he groaned.

"Level f-"

"Fine, fine, my name is Jan," he interrupted her, rising to sit on his haunches, a flash of fear in his eyes.

"Actually, it's Langley." Slipping on a pair of old-fashioned wire-frame eyeglasses, Villar picked up her mobile and flipped through his file - a useless gesture since the data was already embedded into her wrist and thus her memory. But like the glasses, props were always effective. "Rajiv Langley 741.25, incubated August 11, 2171. Married to one Mira Haynes 558.2. No natural offspring." She set the mobile down again and regarded the man over the rim of her glasses. "May I call you Rajiv?"

"Whatever," he muttered, fiddling with his left bracelet, but the thick metal band was completely smooth and provided no openings for him to pry.


"Yes, you can," he cut her off again and rose to slightly unsteady feet. "Yes."

"You're learning, Rajiv," she beamed at him. "Now, back to our previous topic. You can't win, Rajiv."

"I can't win what?" he said, playing obtuse.

"This game of ours," Villar said and stood up, went around the table and sat down. She steepled her hands carefully in front of her and tilted her head - a gesture she had adopted from Devron - regarding the subject with a neutral look in her eyes. "I want the name of the mole in Consortium management. I want the name of the person who has the stolen data chip. And you will tell me these things, Rajiv. Why don't you sit down for now?"

He sat down heavily in the chair opposite her.

Score one for the home team, Villar thought and suppressed a smile.

"How can I tell you about these things? I know nothing of what you're talking about," he said, enunciating carefully. He had to grip his hand with the other to keep them from shaking - he had not eaten in two days, either.

"You are overlooking two things here: one," Villar counted with her fingers, "that I know you know the answers. And two, I have all the time in the world."

"No you don't."

"I don't what?"

"Have all the time in the world," he said defiantly. Villar smirked; of the three Ds of interrogation - debility, dependency, dread - the subject was already suffering from the first and second. Time to make the trio complete, she decided.

"And how do you know I don't have all the time in the world, Rajiv?" she asked, rising and stepping to stand close, her tall frame towering over him. He stood too and quickly backed a step away from the table. "I will not lie to you: until you tell me what I want to know, you are not leaving this room. I'm going to get the information out of you, no matter what it takes....and Rajiv, you know what?" she said, a smile of slightly unnerving quality spreading on her lips.

"What?" he asked weakly.

"I wouldn't need all this technology to break you. I could do it with just my words...and with my body," she concluded, taking a swift step and surprising him with a roundhouse kick to his head. The sound of her boot hitting his skull was a sickening, muted crunch and blood flew as he was propelled to the ground onto his stomach.

Villar approached the prone form and bent down to investigate the damage. Suddenly, he rolled around and reached for her throat with both hands, murder in his eyes, only to be stopped by his bracelets. He screamed as a burst of electricity shot through him and shrank to a foetal position, cradling his forearms to himself. Villar smiled.

"Although technology can be helpful now and then," she added. "I'd be careful. At level ten, the bracelets will sever your hands from your wrists."

On that note, she straightened up, brushing away the creases on her uniform trousers, and collected her mobile from the table before heading for the door. As she was about to open it, she paused and turned around.

"And Rajiv." The man turned his head towards her, a genuine look of fear in his eyes. "You will lose. I don't do this merely because it's my job," she said and paused for a moment. "I do this also because I enjoy it," she concluded, winking at the man before exiting. The door clicked shut behind her and all was quiet again

Control Prisoner Dispatch Unit Smith regarded the agent standing quietly in the hallway with some concern. The tall woman, Villar, was one of the more enigmatic agents working for the intelligence department; usually the interrogators were either pure, uncontrolled sadists, or they learned to kill all emotion inside them. But Villar...she was different. Unlike the sadistic bunch, she had intelligence and cunning in her violence: it always served a purpose - a thought more chilling that mere gratuitous violence, Smith always said. But she was also a genuinely nice person, always smiling, never rude or unfriendly - although her smiles rarely thawed the ice of her arctic blue eyes. She commanded respect not by generating fear, which was the common way of going about it, but through character. One could not help but be a bit overwhelmed by her presence. In a word, Villar was a perfect predator.

Smith approached the agent cautiously. She was resting her forehead against the wall, next to the room sign that said Exultant - Smith wasn't sure who had thought up the naming scheme for the interrogation rooms, but decided he or she was a sick individual - and she was completely still.

"Agent Villar?" she prompted gently, her hand hovering in the air between them, unsure of whether she should touch Villar or not.

At the sound, Villar snapped around, grabbed the arm coming towards her and punched Smith so hard she flew across the hallway. The agent realised her mistake as soon as she had made it and rushed to the woman she had battered, kneeling down next to her.

"I'm so sorry," she said, concern in her voice. "Are you OK?"

Smith moved her jaw experimentally from side to side, and aside from some twinges, her jaw was so numb she couldn't feel anything. "I'll be all right," she managed and rubbed her temples. "Agent Villar, you pack a mean punch," she said ruefully to the woman hovering over her.

"Not a good thing, sometimes," she said, smiling in relief that she had not injured the dispatch unit permanently. "I was...just in deep thought."

"That'll teach me to not to surprise you again," Smith said and shook her head before sitting up. "Help me up?"

With her assistance, Smith got on her two feet, swaying somewhat before her sense of balance returned. She was going to sport a massive souvenir of the encounter on her cheek come the morning, not to mention some bruising from her flight and eventual landing on the hard floor, but nothing seemed to be broken. Holding her jaw, she asked, "Are you done with your subject?"

"Yes," Villar said. "He'll need some medical attention."

"I'll arrange it," Smith said.

"Get some for yourself, too."

"I'll be all right," Smith said, hoping that Villar would leave her presence soon enough. The intensity rolling off the woman in waves made her uneasy. Villar nodded and after pinning her nametag back on, turned and headed for her office.

As she walked down the hallway, she was very aware of the way the muscles of her arms were jumping, and of her elevated respiration rate - a sure sign that she was aroused. Adrenaline-infused, she had let some of her anger show, and the physical release of violence, as brief as it was, was highly addictive. Breathing deeply, she attempted to diminish the primal desire in her, but with little effect. She knew from experience that it would take a while.

Late in the afternoon, her adrenaline rush from the morning had had time to subside, and as she unlocked the door to Exultant again, she was feeling calm and focused. There was a pattern to develop, and having that goal helped in finding her concentration.

Being a successful interrogator took more than ruthlessness, Villar had learned. Above all, it required balance. Too little violence and the subject did not fear you; too much, and he was liable to be killed. Not enough intimidation and the subject was allowed to retain his sense of self; an excess and he was going to go catatonic. Balance.

"Who is the mole in Consortium management?" were the first words out of her mouth as she stepped in. "Who has the data chip?" she went on without a pause, pacing quickly to him and hitting him with a left hook to the diaphragm, followed by a punch to his face that was so hard blood spurted from his nose as he fell to the floor, groaning in pain.

As he writhed on the floor, trying to draw air into his spasming lungs, she went around the table and sat down. Tugging the front of her uniform into pristine order, she regarded the subject.

"You are pitiful."

He groaned something and got up on all fours, spitting blood.

"Here," she said and threw him a towel she had brought in with her. "Clean yourself and sit down."

He did as was told, brushing his face with the coarse fabric, and sat in the chair. There was hunched wariness in his form, his shoulders tensed, instinctively waiting for the next attack. Good, Villar thought as she analysed the signals he was sending. Fear is getting there. Let's have a hit of desperation...

"How did you sleep?"

He eyed her uncertainly, taken aback by the non sequitur. "I didn't."

"Ah, yes," she said and leaned back. "Did you know that going without sleep for long periods can cause permanent insanity? Death comes eventually, too, but not for a long while."

"Thank you for informing me of that, bitch," he said and spat some more blood on the floor.

"Level four."

When he had stopped writhing after the electric shocks and seemed to be able to hear her again, she said: "I know you know who the mole is, Rajiv. If you tell me the mole's name and who has the data chip now, I will let you go."

"Why should I believe you?" he ground out. His hair was in disarray, his eyes held defiance that was very brittle.

"Have I lied to you, Rajiv? You injure me by not taking me at my word," Villar said, crossing her arms over her chest and tilting her head. "We have no need for you after we have the data chip, and getting rid of bodies is much more cumbersome than simply letting people go. And were you to tell what has happened to you...nobody would believe you."

"I...I don't believe you."

"Level five."

His screams were much more ragged than before and when the involuntary twitching of his muscles finally subsided, he hugged himself tightly. The smell of charred skin was much more prominent.

"I can make the pain go away, Rajiv," she said slowly, her voice a seductive, low alto that fairly sang in the silence of the room. "I can make it stop. But not if you refuse to co-operate."

"I won't tell you anything," he said, squeezing his arms around himself tighter.

"Did you know that soon, your sleep deprivation will become so great that you will be able to resist the stimulants we are giving you? Do you know what happens then, Rajiv?"

He shook his head.

"The most effective way to keep you awake is not allowing you to close your eyes. So we will remove your eyelids," she informed him, her voice steady and conversational. "Now...what is the name of the mole in Consortium management?"

Chapter Five: Evanescent

Outside, the sun was high, and Todos Angeles was fairly boiling. Inside, however, it was a comfortable 20 degrees centigrade, and in Jo's office, the only light available was artificial.

Their recent customer's possessions were few, and until the Consortium police would have time and the courtesy to request the items found on her person, they would be in the possession of the Consortium Coroner's office, of which Haz-Mat was part. And so, while waiting, Jo was going through the belongings that were spread around her table. A cash card, her mobile, a wedding band, two hair clips, an antique silver dollar that was well worn, the data chip found in her stomach, a lip gloss, public transit pass.

A woman living in a zillion credit condo - what would she need a bus pass for? Jo thought, her eyebrows contracting as she picked up the pass. A sleek, smooth rectangle, it only sported the SAMT emblem and a serial number. Finding no answers engraved on its shiny surface, she put it down and rested her chin on her fist. Something about the case was severely bothering her. Or actually, many things about it were bothering her. It was as if she had pieces from three different puzzles that provided no cohesive picture.

The viral strain that killed Jane Doe was dengue fever, although a strain they had not yet encountered. Because all man-made strains were RNA-stamped to reflect their origins (and thus even the strains terrorists used, since they were all invariably stolen from governments or governmental corporations such as the Consortium), it was usually simple to pinpoint who was behind the strain. But the stain in this customer had no such RNA stamp, and it had some characteristics that made it oddly distinct. It meant that either a new naturally born viral strain was on the loose in North America...or that somebody was doing some engineering on their own. Jo couldn't decide which scenario was scarier.


Shaken out of her deep thoughts, Jo jerked and managed to sweep the bag that had the customer's belongings in it on the floor.

"Dammit, Central - don't go around scaring people like that!" she grunted at the supervisor who had so surprised her.

"Sorry about that," she apologised. Central, more formally known as Unit Constanza Estevan Bolea 1022.22, was a woman of great circumference and voice, who had the uncanny ability to make her subordinates both respect and adore her. "I came for the Jane Doe's belongings. The police have identified her and want to get on with the investigation."

Crawling under her desk to retrieve the silver dollar that had rolled there, Jo grunted something unintelligible as a reply, and sighed. One of Central's more annoying habits was her tendency to sneak up on people; more than once Jo had exhaled her coffee all over herself upon hearing Bolea's voice suddenly centimetres from her ear.

"Here you go," Jo said and gave the bag of assorted goods to Central.

"Thanks," she said and put the bag under her arm. "Listen...since I dragged you in to work on your day off, why don't you take the rest of today off and don't come back until Wednesday, how's that for a deal?"

Jo's mood brightened and she beamed at her boss. "Hey, thanks. I'd love to."

"See you later," Central said as her departing words. As soon as she was out of sight, Jo did a solitary high-five and shook off her work boots, putting on her own shoes, collected her back bag and was out of the office.

Even though it wasn't even rush hour, the traffic on the freeway was nightmarish. From the days of the great mass dyings of the previous century, the earth's population had shot up to ten billion once again, thanks to some very effective pro-procreation campaigns and, of course, cloning. But on afternoons like this, Jo wished the scientists had produced a little less people to populate Todos Angeles; the megacity had 26 million inhabitants, and every single one of them seemed to have gotten in into their heads to take a drive. The three-level, eight-lane highway was, in essence, a parking lot with exit signs.

"Oh, fuck this shit," Jo cursed as the line nudged forward, only to halt again after half a meter. She smacked the driving console which emitted a worried sound at the physical stimulus.

"Do you wish to change driving instructions?" the car queried politely.

"No. Play some music instead."

"Please specify genre."

"Industrial garage. See if you can find Hamster Duct-tape's latest album."

"Playing," the car said pleasantly, in a voice that Jo found slightly unnerving since it was not entirely female, nor specifically male. The discordant sounds of the strangely named band's music filled the confines of her car, and Jo leaned back, closing her eyes and trying to relax.

The air in the car was stuffy and hot, and smelled faintly of heated metal and the cooling fluid of the electric circuits that powered the vehicle. Jo breathed it in deeply, trying to alleviate the headache she was fast developing. Irritated, she rubbed her temples. It bothered her to hurt. Leaning over to tie her shoelace did not help the pressure in her head one iota, and she gritted her teeth. As she was straightening again, something half hiding in the cuff of her trousers caught her attention. Curious, she fished for the item and pulled out a data chip.

"What the...?" Jo murmured. It was standard issue 13GB gel chip, warm and slightly squishy between her fingers, the label at the interface end of it bearing no markings except the chip's serial number. Turning it around, she pursed her lips in thought. Where had it come from? "Oh damn...the Jane Doe," she said, as the source of the chip finally dawned on her. It was the one that she had found in the recent customer's stomach.

Dropping it onto the dashboard, she turned to look behind her. The freeway was as jam-packed behind her as it was in front; no way could she turn around and return it work. "Shit," she cursed and turned to face forward again. Well I'll just send it to the police department come Wednesday, she thought and shrugged the matter out of her mind.

Chapter Six: Against a Dark Background

"Where is the data chip?"

To herself, Villar was starting to sound like a broken record - but that was the whole point. In a deep state of mental distress, such as the subject was experiencing, simplicity was the key. Complex questions would not be understood, but those worded straightforwardly enough would get through to his sleep-deprived brain.

"No," he whispered, his chin resting against his fists on the table. The deep cut that Villar's kick had opened on his forehead was slightly infected and in all probability hurting like hell. He was pale, and his eyes were burning.

She tilted her head. "You don't look too good, Rajiv."

He did not have the energy to reply.

" this," she said and took out a ration bar from her pocket, throwing it across the table to him. His eyes flickered between Villar and the bar, wariness in the look. "It's just food, no drugs," Villar assured him. "I do not need to resort to tricks like this to get drugs into you."

He grunted in agreement, having gotten his injections of the stimulant drugs over the past week. He took the bar, unwrapped it, and after one more suspicious glance at the quiet agent, proceeded to wolf it down.

"I don't want you to die on me, Rajiv," Villar said as he ate. She rested her cheek in her hand and regarded him, pondering.

"So you need me after all?" he asked between bites.

"Not really, no. It's more a matter of professional pride."

He paused, swallowing what was in his mouth with difficulty - he had not had much to drink in the past days, either. "So I'm just another faceless victim in your cushy nine-to-five job?"

"Well...yes," she said, smiling. "You are insignificant, Rajiv."

He finished the last of the bar and threw the wrapper on the floor, turning in his chair so that Villar saw only his profile. He stared fixedly at the featureless far wall, his eyes blinking rapidly.

"It's really disconcerting, isn't it?" she began smoothly, her voice sheer velvet. "You were the CEO of a very successful microelectronics company. Nice house on the canyon. Annual vacations in Hawaii. Beautiful wife. And suddenly," she said, snapping her fingers, "it's gone. All of it."

He turned around suddenly, his eyes feverish. "Why do you mention my wife?"

"No reason whatsoever," Villar said and gave him a wide smile - a smile so insincere not even his strained brain could avoid noticing the falsity.

"What has happened to my wife?" he demanded, half-rising from his chair.

"Nothing that might interest you," Villar replied and rose, too, heading towards the door.

"Tell me about Mira," he said, gritting his teeth as he approached the departing agent. As Villar paused at the door and turned around, smirking, he reached out, only to be stopped by his bracelets again. He shrank back, his scream hoarse and pained.

"Please...what has happened to Mira?" he whispered. Villar only smiled, before opening the door and leaving.

Like most agents, Villar both lived and worked in the Consortium building. She also had a house in Santa Clarita, but when she had a subject she was working on, she slept in her office; interrogation was an art form that required the most unusual hours and constant concentration. Contrary to the subject's accusation, it was most definitely not a nine-to-five job.

So, sprawled out on the bed laid out along the far wall of her office, Villar stared at the dimmed light panels in the ceiling, her mind analysing the day's accomplishments. So far, the subject had been exemplary in his responses: just enough sobriety, and just enough paranoia. Villar smiled. She was playing the man like a well-tuned instrument, and she would get him soon enough. The next session would be crucial.

Turning on her side, she regarded the darkened office behind the glass wall that had also been dimmed to allow for privacy. It was almost 1 a.m. and the secretarial staff had left hours ago. In some offices across the chasm of the main hall, lights were still on, signifying other agents on the job, either resting or preparing themselves for the next session. Some of the others she knew well, a few she had fucked, most were just acquaintances; theirs was a job that took a certain kind of person to last in it, and more often than not a newcomer wound up taking either another job, or a Consortium-paid mind erasing at a local mental institution. Only a handful had lasted in the job as long as she had.

Her alarm was set to wake her up at 5 a.m. and so she closed her eyes. Consciously pushing away the case details and images from the day, she concentrated on existing in a world that was a white canvas. Blank, like her mind.

To the image of the everlasting whiteness, she fell asleep.

"You must be thirsty," she said as soon as she sat down.

"Yes," he said and swallowed painfully.

"Thought so." The ration bar she had given him earlier had been laced with salt, for the exact reason of inducing extreme thirst. "I can make the pain go away, Rajiv. If only you tell me the name of the mole in Consortium management."

He lowered his head, swaying it slowly from side to side. His hair was greasy and matted against his head.

"Rajiv," Villar said forcefully and leaned forward. "They are not your friends."

He lifted his head, a moment of defiance flashing in his eyes before he hid it. "I don't know what you are talking about."

"Would your friends do this to Mira," Villar said, her voice suddenly soft, as she pushed a large glossy photograph over the table. He picked it up, and his hands started to shake.

"What...what is this?" he asked, and he looked as if he was about to cry, if only he would have had enough fluids in his body to shed tears.

It was a photograph of a woman dead of a hemorrhagic fever. So much was obvious from the amount of blood she had lost from every orifice of her head, the large pool of earthy red around her a garish frame for her pale face.


Villar nodded. "Yes, Unit Mira Haynes 558.2 died of dengue fever."

"You...did this to her?" he asked, quiet anger in his voice as he violently pushed the photograph back across the table. Villar took it and put it in a folder before answering.

"No. We did not kill her."

"Why should I believe you?" he asked. His hands were unconsciously clenching into fists.

"Think about it, Rajiv," she said and leaned forward. "Why would we kill her and have you here? We know she is the closest connection to the mole, and was most likely in possession of the chip. No." Villar shook her head empathically. "We began cautiously, not wanting to alert the mole to the discovery of his or her existence. So we captured you, a fringe player. She's your wife so you know here she keeps the chip....and then she is found dead, twenty-four hours after you are delivered to us.

"Your so-called friends in the anti-Consortium movement got scared, Rajiv. When you disappeared, they thought discovery was near and decided to sever the only link between them and the main body of the movement. That link was Mira," she finished quietly, tapping the folder underneath her palm. "They've let you loose, Rajiv."

When the look of confusion on the subject's face morphed into one of desperation and understanding, Villar knew she had him.

"Who is the mole in Consortium management?"

"McClure. It's...McClure," he said feebly, before resting his forehead on the table. "But if Mira didn't have the chip, I don't know where it is. Oh God...Mira," he said, his words quieting down to a whisper.

"Good," Villar said, suppressing a smile. The man had been easier than she had imagined. And all she had to tell was the truth - that it had been resistance who had killed Mira Hayes, not Consortium.

"Can I go now?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," Villar said and rose. "I'll arrange for someone to escort you out." With that, she left the broken man to his thoughts.

"Hey, Devron." Villar greeted the man on the screen with a smile. The one Devron offered to her was almost uncannily identical.

"Hey hon. What's up?"

"You still looking for subjects for tests on the infection run-down rate?" At his nod, Villar leaned forward and steepled her long fingers. "I have a subject I'm done with. Normal procedures?"

"Yes. I'll send your secretary the forms and someone to pick up the subject. Heck, send everything you can manage - we are still long way from having a reliable sampling."

"All right. Contact Sim if you need more details," she said and paused. "Lunch tomorrow?"

"Sounds good. Call you later," he said and winked, before cutting off the connection.

As soon as his image had vanished from the screen, Villar leaned back and exhaled heavily. The interrogation had been moderately successful, but her work seemed only have started. Damn missing pieces, she cursed and loosened the stiff collar of her uniform. It was now her job to locate the chip, too. Now where could it be...?

Part 2 -(End)

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