The Oppression Engine, part 2 (of 2) -- by Penumbra

Please see part 1 for disclaimers and copyright notices. Comments, email me at

Chapter Seven: One-Eighty

Balancing her grocery bag in one arm, Jo pressed her thumb on the lock of her front door. The lock clicked faintly and flashed green, and she pushed the door open.

"What the fuck!" she exclaimed as soon as she got in, her eyes raking over her flat which, while never exactly neat, was in a complete state of disarray. Her sofa pillows were on the floor, every drawer open, her usually neatly arranged data chip selection on the floor in a messy pile - definitely not the condition she had left her home in when she had gone out to buy the ingredients for her dinner.

Part of the mystery was cleared up the moment a man the approximate size of a gorilla and about as hirsute stepped out of the kitchen and into the hallway. "Are you unit Jodie Bryant 322.6?" he demanded.

"What's it to you, monkey-man?" she asked, taking one step further into the living room. "Who the fuck are you? What have you done to my place?"

"Just answer the question," he said and advanced on her. A woman emerged from behind him, and began to move towards her side. They were both dressed in dark blue, a uniform type Jo was not familiar with, and thus paranoia hit her. Urban legends held many stories about SWSG Industries agents kidnapping Todos Angeles citizens right out of their homes, and these were definitely not Consortium cops.

"Yeah, I'm Jo Bryant. Who are you, fuckface?"

"No need to get offensive. Please come with us," he said, reaching out to Jo. She noted that the man's hands were covered in thick latex gloves and more warning bells went off in her head.

"Why should I?" she asked and backed another step. Peripherally she was aware of Monkey-man's companion trying to circle around her.

"All questions will be answered. Do not resist," he said, and was almost upon Jo.

"Fuck you," she said firmly and turned around, taking a swift step towards the hallway. The woman was there to block her, but instead of stopping, Jo ran headlong into her, knocking her in the throat with her elbow.

The woman reeled back as Jo spun around, digging into her grocery bag and coming up with an eggplant. She threw it at Monkey-man who deflected the flying vegetable easily enough - but was too slow to react to the container of soy sauce sailing towards him. The soft economy-size bag burst and he was showered in the dark liquid. He let out a short wail as the salty sauce stung his eyes, and staggered back against the wall. Rubbing his eyes, he didn't see Jo swing a glass vase at him. It caught him on the back of his head with a hollow bong - Jo was unsure if it was his head or the vase that made the sound - and he was out like a light.

Twisting around, Jo was just in time to catch the female intruder; swinging the shopping bag which now contained only a big bottle of mineral water underhand and up, she caught the woman under her chin. The impact sent her flying into the wall and, the coast thus cleared, Jo ran out of her flat. When she reached the lifts, she pounded on the call panel hard enough to crack the plastic.

"C'mon, c'mon," she goaded the machinery, her gaze flicking between the lift and her flat door. Finally, after what seemed like a small eternity and a half, the lift let out a beep and the doors opened.

The lift was occupied by two more men, in indigo uniforms identical to those of the two she had encountered in her flat. Shit! Jo screeched to a halt, her heart in her throat.

"Here, goon. Catch," she breathed and threw the shopping bag to the man in front, about to step outside. Instinctively, he caught it, staggering into his companion's path and knocking him against the closing lift doors. While they were stumbling against one another, Jo made a one-eighty and was running further down the hall.

"That's Bryant! Catch her!" the woman yelled from farther down the hallway, pointing at Jo. Apparently she had gotten her bearings again, and was hurrying towards the lifts and yelling at the two men who had finally managed to exit the car - the other still holding on to the grocery bag. "Move, idiots!" The last words got the men's attention and they followed her pointing finger, just in time to see Jo disappear around a distant corner.

Jo could hear the rushing, heavy footfalls of her pursuers behind her, gaining, as she ran as fast as she could, trying very hard not to hyperventilate. At the next corner, she kicked open the door to the emergency stairway, but kept on running, going through the door to the tunnel connecting her building to its neighbour, and closing that door carefully behind her, before going on. Blood pounding in her ears, she dashed across the covered walkway and found the next building's staircase, running up the steps until she reached the roof.

"Oh, fuck me," she exhaled and leaned against the nearest vertical surface - an air conditioning exhaust vent - and slid down the slick side. Her lungs were burning from the sudden exercise and she felt light-headed. A few minutes and several deep breaths later she could feel her heart settle into a more manageable rhythm, and she stood again, her legs trembling. Peeking anxiously over the edge of the roof, her eyes searched for the intruders, trying to see if they bought her ploy and thought she took the stairs down.

She spotted two of the intruders down on the street, 40 stories below, like two beetles amidst the empty space between the buildings. Only two? she thought and lifted her eyes, just in time to see the third intruder on the roof of her building, his head turning rapidly from side to side as he searched for any signs of her. Finally, he approached the edge and looked down, only to jerk back and speak rapidly into his mobile; obviously, he had only now noticed the existence of the cross-building walkway. OK, Jo, time to move on, she told herself and could almost hear her legs file a severe protest at the notion of more running. Aw hell, she cursed, and plodded on towards the stairway door.

Four buildings later, Jo's legs refused to work any more, and she sat down in the stairwell, not really caring any more if they caught her or not. Her lungs were on fire and her legs felt like she had two anvils tied to each one.

"Motherfucker," she sighed and rested her forehead against her updrawn knees. Her head was swimming in red haze, and she was sorely cursing her previous lack of enthusiasm for anything approaching exercise. But she felt relatively safe: her building was but one of twelve that circled a plaza, all connected to one another by multiple accessways. Searching every one of them would take time, and running into the intruders would be nothing but bad luck now. Unless they called for reinforcements.

What the hell is going on? she wondered, rubbing her temples. Her flat had been searched for...something? What? Her days in trafficking illegal uppers were ten years in her past, and her life was nothing but carrying and opening contagious stiffs - dangerous, but in ways very different from her wild youth. Taking a deep breath, she analysed the situation.

The intruders really couldn't be SWSC agents because they had come for something, not merely for her, and besides, the stories were mere urban legends. But they were after something she had. And what did she have? Emptying her pockets on the concrete step below the one she was sitting on, she took stock of her belongings. Her mobile; two paper handkerchiefs; a stick of government-supplied UV-proof lip balm; a pair of latex autopsy gloves; the data chip. Picking up the gel chip, she turned it in her fingers, frowning. Damn...they really want this back, she realised. Wonder what's in it?

Taking her mobile, she slipped the chip into the interface slot and flipped to the file display table. The chip contained nothing but a few video clips and a few other things, all named with what seemed to be obscure number codes, before Jo realised they were marked by date. Picking a random video clip, dated 23/11/2201, she pressed "play."

The clip was about ten minutes long. When it ended, Jo switched her mobile off and set it down carefully. She was considerably paler than she had been ten minutes before.

As she stared out of the tram window, she twirled the chip between her thumb and middle finger, deep in thought. Outside, Santa Monica Boulevard was fairly glittering in the brilliant sunlight, and the public announcement screens said that UV radiation was up to level four ("Sunblock recommended, beaches closed, undue exposure to be avoided..." - all citizens of Todos Angeles could quote the manual). But despite having her eyes trained outside, Jo saw none of it. Her mind was solely occupied by the little green chip and what its contents meant - and to her, aside from the immediate danger of being in possession of it, it represented a total upheaval of how she viewed the world and the city she lived in.

Sighing audibly, she finally put the chip away in the thigh pocket of her cargo trousers and leaned back. The air in the tram was stuffy and smelled of sunscreen lotion and disinfectant fluid, mingled with the smell of humanity. Across from Jo sat a strawberry blonde woman who had green eyes. Jo arced her eyebrow and studied her critically. The build, with its strong swimmer's shoulders and narrow waist, was the same, but the woman opposite her was certainly much taller than she was. That means she has either subset four, or subset nineteen, Jo thought; her own genetic subset, number six, gave her small feet and higher cheekbones than the rest of the Jodie Bryants, along with more minor differences. Their eyes met, and they exchanged a knowing look, both smiling in the same lopsided manner, before the contact was broken.

Meeting an almost identical twin of oneself was not an everyday occurrence, but it happened often enough for it to be completely normal. The odds were increased in large cities, where the cloned populace tended to congregate; the clones were the world's largest minority and like any ethnic group, small communities sometimes shunned them. There were cities and states where cloned individuals were denied citizenship or residence, and some had even outlawed cloning, now that the world's population had finally reached its pre-disaster numbers. And in a few megacities like Todos Angeles, over eighty percent of the population was cloned, rather than naturally conceived. In fact, Jo knew only two or three people without a genetic designation - being a minority that was sometimes considered to be of lesser genetic quality, they tended to keep a lid on their heritage. Another factor was the fact that only the most recent clone generations had the ability to procreate anyway.

She got off the tram at the corner of Melrose and, after applying some more of the protective lip balm to replace what she had worried off her lips earlier, started down a side street.

When she reached her intended destination, one cul-de-sac and one wrong turn later, the sun was already setting - a good thing, since Jo could feel the skin on her face tighten; she had gotten slightly sunburnt. The atmospheric shield wasn't as effective as it could've been.

"...and number eighty-five," she murmured, counting the house numbers. She leaned on the buzzer and when the screen above them flashed to life, she smiled. "Hey, girl."

"Jo? What the fuck are you doing here at this hour?" Contrary to the harsh words, the woman on the screen was smiling widely, obviously pleased to see her.

"Nice to see you, too, Gab," Jo answered cheekily. "Now can I come in?"

The door buzzed and she stepped in, walking up the two flights of stairs to Gabriela's flat. As she was about to knock, the door flew open and she was enveloped in a bear hug and shaken somewhat violently around.

"Jo! I thought you'd become a stranger!"

"Stranger to my sister?" Jo asked, her voice slightly muffled by the expanse of Gabriela wrapped around her. "No way."

Gabriela, a woman in her thirties with ample cleavage - or an "awesome rack", as Sig had once described it - and hips, and warm brown eyes set deep into her chocolate-coloured face, finally let go of Jo and pulled her in. "What brings you here?"

"Ah, yes, well..." Jo sighed as leaned against the nearest wall. She was suddenly exhausted to the core. "It's a long, strange story."

"I've got the time," Gabriela said. "C'mon," she goaded and nudged Jo towards the kitchen. "Tell me all about it over dinner."

Chapter Eight: Digital Tension Dementia

Villar was annoyed, and certain the officer standing rigidly at attention in front of her was aware of her annoyance. His eyes kept travelling between her face, his boots, and the switchblade knife she was tapping against her knee.

"Where was it, then?" Tap, tap, tap. "The chip."

"According to the autopsy report, in her stomach. She must've swallowed it."

"Obviously," Villar snorted. Tap, tap, tap. "So it wasn't in her belongings, and the coroner's office didn't have it, either."

The man shook his head empathically, the gesture echoed by the woman standing next to him. Both sported impressive facial bruising. "We've captured the other Haz-Mat unit on duty, Unit Jones, but he's clean. His partner unfortunately escaped," he said, instinctively touching the bruise on his skull.

"Very unfortunate," Villar hissed and arced a perfect dark eyebrow. The man's gaze dropped suddenly to the tips of his boots. "Find her. I'll deal with Jones. Yes?" The last word was said to Sim, whom she could see hover at the doorway.

At the prompt, Sim stepped closer. "Um, just wanted to let you know you have a prisoner delivery notification. Jones, Sigursveinn, 974.19, filed under case docket #484/J. He's held in Vivacious and is already in bracelets. have an incoming data dump from Agent Devron. Something about viral infection research." Sim set the case data chip on her desk, smiled to the officers in the room, and departed. The female officer's eyes followed him, curious; she was obviously new and not used to the fact that all the civilian staff in Control were blind, for reasons of security - there was certainly no shortage of blind people, genetic blindness being one of the more common mutations. Villar found it immensely ironic that one of the most hush-hush departments in Consortium was also the most exemplary equal opportunity employer in the city.

"Officer Hendricks." The woman's head snapped around. "Thank you," Villar said sarcastically and with one fluid flick of her wrist, closed the switchblade. The loud click made both officers jump. "Anything else?"

"We have applied for a permit to use mobile location triangulating, but DW is her service provider, so ..." he trailed away, shrugging apologetically. Mobile unit data relaying in Todos Angeles was conducted by either of two rival companies: the Consortium, or the biggest datacommunications giant in the area, DWComm. As a result of their cutthroat competition, co-operation in cases such as this was not easy to come by.

"Yes," Villar said and pinched the bridge of her nose. She was usually not prone to headaches, but this case was giving her one. "I'll see what I can do about it. I'll also deal with Jones, while you keep up your searches. Dismissed." Both of the officers did a reasonably snappy imitation of a military salute and exited her office. Villar watched their retreating backs until they disappeared, and then swiveled her chair around to face the far wall of her office.

The wall was decorated by a lithograph of William Blake's "Pity" and she regarded the dark painting intently. The running joke of the office was, of course, that it was the only shred of pity that ever entered her sphere of existence, but for her, the painting served a clear, definite purpose. She could always find something new and as yet unseen in the painting that had been the sole item of décor in her office for the past four years; according to one definition of art, it is the tears and laughter of someone who inhales life, and Villar was firmly of the opinion that life had endless variations. She never grew bored of the painting.

She was nearing the solution. Villar's eyes narrowed. It was time to tighten the trap a bit more.

She made a move towards the subject and he shrank back, instinctively lifting his arms protectively in front of him.

"Please," he said, his voice shrill. "Why are you doing this?"

He really has no clue, Villar thought, and let herself relax visibly, leaning back against the edge of the table in interrogation room Vivacious. She had not said a word as she had entered the room, only proceeded straight to the man in the chair and punched him so hard his chair had tilted back. Caught totally by surprise, he was on the floor, bleeding.

"I am your interrogator. Please sit down," she said.

Obviously baffled at the contradiction between her violent actions and her courteous, sonorous voice, he rose slowly and sat in the chair she had indicated. His eyebrow was swelling quickly.

"Sounds ominous," he ventured. "Interrogator, I mean. Why did you hit me?" he asked, gingerly touching his swelling cheek.

Villar shrugged, nonplussed. "I enjoy it."

"I see." The subject seemed to find no reply to that, and the silence stretched. Villar was an unmoving statue, her eyes on the subject, and he began to fidget more and more. "What do you want from me?" he finally blurted, when the tension became too much for him to handle.

At his words, Villar rose and paced to stand next to his chair. He leaned back, obviously distressed at the invasion of his personal space, and craned his neck to look up to her face.

"You are unit Jones, 974.19?"

"Yes, that'd be me."

"You know unit Bryant 322.6?" she continued, apparently not listening to his answer.

"Jo?" His face took on an expression of wary curiosity. "Yeah...why?"

"We're interested in her whereabouts. Tell me where she is and you're a free man."

"And what if I tell you I don't know where she is?" he countered, folding his arms across his chest.

Villar smiled - one of her less nice smiles, the kind that only made the ice of her eyes seem colder in contrast. "Oh, trust me. You don't want to give me that answer," she said and cracked her knuckles loudly. The subject paled.

"But...that's the truth. I haven't seen Jo since Monday. Today's her day off."

Villar's eyes narrowed and the smile vanished from her face instantly. She leaned over the subject. "I don't believe you."

Panic entered his voice. "I swear, the last time I saw her was in the morning staff meeting on Monday!"


The word was not accusatory, merely stating a fact in a firm manner. Villar drew back a bit and hit him across his face with her knuckles. His head jerked back and forward again as if mounted on a strong spring, and he let out a yelp of surprise.

"Look...whoever you are," the subject said, holding his manhandled jaw and making his voice a bit unclear in the process, "Using me as a punching bag won't change the truth. And that's exactly what I'm telling you."

Villar straightened and rubbed her knuckles, going around the table and sitting down in her chair. "Let's assume you are. I know you are a friend of hers, so you know where she likes to spend her time when she's having a day off. Friends, relatives, clubs...vices. I want to hear it all."

"Why are you so interested in her anyway?" the subject asked, his voice irritated.

"Oh, we have our reasons," Villar said and smiled again, steepling her fingers on the table. "Reasons important enough for me to beat you to death if that's what it takes to extract the information out of you. Make no mistake of that. Now...names, please."

It was nearing 2 am. but Todos Angeles was still as vibrant as it was during the day. Villar gave the sparkling sea of light opening beyond the window one last glance, before turning into the room and leaning against the window frame.

"So, what are you still doing here? You've got a husband and kids to enjoy." she said, sipping her hot tea.

Devron turned in his chair and regarded Villar with a good-humoured if slightly exasperated eye. "You of all people should know - I think workaholism is in our genes, darling. Comes with the looks and the predisposition for messy desks" he replied, indicating his desk that was strewn with data chips, RNA analysis cels, discardable data pads, and old coffee cups.

"My desk is not messy," Villar objected.

"Well, that's just because you deal with even more top secret info than I do," Devron countered and leaned back against the high backrest of his chair with a sigh. Stretching his arms above his head, he yawned.

"You look nearly dead," Villar observed and shrugged at the mildly wounded look in Devron's eyes. "Well, you do."

"My research is in a critical phase. We're still trying to contain the mutative tendencies of the airborne virus strains. A major bitch, that is," he said and rose, joining her by the window.

Villar turned to face his profile, smiling warmly at the features so familiar to hers. Craning her neck to look down from the 71st floor window, she couldn't even see the ground, hidden in the deep darkness of the night and of the shadows cast by the tall buildings. "I don't envy your task, Devron," she said, taking another sip before turning to mirror his position. She could feel the nervousness and tiredness emanating from the man next to her, but if there was anything rivalling the strength of his determination, it was his stubbornness; telling him to relax and stop to smell the roses would not help anything. She worried about him, as much as he worried about her. That was the reason she had decided to make this late-night call, upon seeing Devron still logged on to the LAN: to tear him away from work for a moment.

"I do envy your view, however," she said, in an attempt to lighten the sombre mood. It worked; he let out a small laugh.

"Well, considering you work underground, I'd imagine so," was his dry reply. "I love the view especially on clear, cloudless nights like this." He placed his palm on the cool glass and squinted into the distance. "Isn't it beautiful. The city of all the angels."

"And us devils."

"You got that right, m'dear," Devron laughed and leaned against Villar. "Damn, Villar...when did we become old and jaded?"

"I think we were old the day we were born, Devron," she replied quietly and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. There was an unspoken understanding between them - both knew well that for the sake of their souls, dwelling too much on the nature of either's occupation was something they avoided at all cost. They were both angels of death, and both preferred to ignore that reality.

Chapter Nine: Surface Patterns

Jo was feeling groggy and irritable as she wolfed down her breakfast, reading the morning edition of the Todos Angeles Times, downloaded onto Gabriela's newsflimsy - a wafer-thin display onto which a person could spill her orange juice without damaging it. And that's exactly what Jo did - spilled her orange juice all over the front page.

"Oh for the love of..." she grunted and shook her wet hand, before taking a napkin and wiping the thick liquid off her hands, the news display, and her trousers. Making a perfect three-point throw to the recycler chute with the napkin, she flicked onto local news.

The main headline was the death of Michael McClure, the heir-to-be of Consortium management. A picture going across seven columns of the front page depicted his rather gruesome death and what it had done to the most ubiquitous landmark in all of Todos Angeles proper: the letter "H" of the Hollywood sign. He had climbed the right-side vertical column of the "H", fired both barrels of a shotgun point blank at his face, and died promptly as his brains and copious amounts of blood were left to drip down the face of the white letter. The Consortium police's official news release said the death was being investigated as a suicide; two dabs of angel dust had been found on his person, as well as a ripped holophoto of his second wife whom he accused of adultery in his goodbye letter, also in his pocket.

Frowning at the gory news, Jo flicked on to the next page. The forecast promised mostly sunny with highs around 25 degrees centigrade, precipitation zero. As usual. Sighing in frustration, Jo folded the flimsy and downed the rest of her juice.

"Gab? Can you lend me a clean shirt?"

Her stepsister entered the kitchen. "Sure I can...but Jo, what are you going to do?" she asked, a worried look on her face, as she sat down opposite Jo. She had heard the quick and dirty version of how Jo's life had been turned upside down - and her flat literally so - the previous night.

"I haven't got a clue," Jo replied and shrugged, trying to make the words sound lighter than what she actually felt. All the options she could think of were too depressing to think about too deeply.

"Couldn't you just drop off the chip at a mailbox and send it off, back to the Consortium? Be done with it?"

"Sure I could, but I'm not sure that'd be the end of it. I tried calling Sig, the guy that was with me on the gig that morning, twice today," she said, pointedly. "He didn't answer. In fact, his mobile link has been disconnected."

"What?" Gabriela looked baffled and she started to fiddle with a corner of the newsflimsy, her fingers nervous. "Why?"

"Now, I don't know what that means. But Gab, if the data on the chip is indeed genuine, it's one fucking hot item."

"Watch your language," Gabriela said, letting go of the flimsy and leaning back.

"Gabriela-a," Jo said and rolled her eyes, frustrated. "Can we stick to the subject? We're talking about information sensitive enough to make someone disappear," she said pointedly, trying to curb her impatience with her sometimes intensely naïve sister.

"You mean they..." Gabriela said, trailing away at the end. Jo nodded sagely. "My goddess."

"You said it, sis," Jo sighed. "But the fact remains, I need to decide what to do with the chip. It's not just about my hide. And I need time to think."

"So you're going to just hide? Think that'll keep you safe?"

Jo let out a snort of ironical laughter. "Honey, this is Todos Angeles. People disappear and reappear every day."

As she walked down Wilshire, wearing Gab's too-large magenta-coloured sweatshirt, she thought about her words. Disappearing in Todos Angeles was indeed easy, but the question was, where to go? On the wide avenue, there were a few people but Jo knew that the best way to stand out like a sore thumb was to be a pedestrian, and so she kept looking over her shoulder, her heart racing in triple digits. Every time a police patrol car glided past her, she held her breath, but nothing happened.

So where to now? she wondered, shoving her hands deeper into her pockets. Her life hadn't actually prepared her for the role of a fugitive, and she smiled at the ridiculousness of the word. Fugitive. That's something you only see in films, right? Wrong. And the worst part was, she had no idea what to do. Turning up onto La Cienega, she counted her choices: she could go to the police; she could go into indefinite hiding; she could try to act as if nothing had happened and people had not broken into her flat - Consortium agents, most likely, trying to get back what was theirs. None of the options appealed to her.

Taking the fateful data chip out of her pocket, Jo turned it on her palm, watching the green-tinted gel filling glint in the brilliant sunlight. Such an innocuous device, carrying the political future of the city and ultimately, all of California. Damn. I've been blind. Wish I still was, she thought depressingly and put the chip back into her pocket. If only Jefferson's kid hadn't caught the flu last week...or if I hadn't been so nosy in the autopsy...I wouldn't be in this mess. Fuck, she thought and stomped at the cracked asphalt of the pavement.

She stopped at the corner of San Vincente and looked around the deserted intersection, mentally flipping a coin over her options. Heads. Run.

"Here goes nothing," she muttered to herself as she descended the stairs to the metro.

The corner of Hollywood and Vine, one of the most famous intersections in the vapour world of the entertainment business, was framed by parking lots on three sides - a fact that Jo found intensely fitting - with one corner sporting a sex toy shop. It had over the past two and a half centuries, lost whatever it was once known for, but that didn't stop tourists from concentrating there in gaggles, pointing all around and chattering in nervous groups. Jo pulled her cap lower to shield her face from getting captured on too many vacation photos - she was finding paranoia difficult to curb.

Hollywood used to be famous for being the hub of the entertainment industry, but the only entertainment available there now was of the bare flesh kind. Hollywood Boulevard was lined with strip joints, sex shops, all-night liquor stores and bums, only traces of its past glory visible here and there. The streets were still paved with brass stars bearing the names of long-dead actors and entertainers, but they had been worn nearly smooth by centuries of neglect. The film industry, with the death of traditional celluloid and the breakthrough of all-pervasive personal media, had started to move to more comfortable locations in the Valley around the turn of the millennium, and that had been the beginning of a long road downhill for Hollywood proper. Now, there was even talk of revitalising the Walk of Fame tradition, but on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The fame of past centuries still lingered about the place, but nowadays, if you were white and wanted to disappear, Hollywood was the right place to do so.

Jo stopped at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga. Covering most of the face of an indie media station's building was a massive screen that, while usually displaying loud toothpaste commercials and the like, was tuned to the local news.

" a related story, the wife of Michael McClure, who committed suicide late last night, Marcia Johnston 524.20, was found dead in Griffith Park. The suspected murder weapon resembles the shotgun that killed her husband hours later. The police theorise a murder-suicide by Mr. McClure. The couple are being mourned by their colleagues in both..." the computer-animated newscaster droned on in her perfectly generated, smooth voice.

Jo frowned at the screen that turned on to other news. The name McClure rang a bell and she had a nagging thought that there was a connection she was supposed to see, but couldn't. Shrugging the thought away, she started up Cahuenga.

Chapter Ten: Noose

Villar inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the odourless, perfectly regulated air of her office. This case was nagging at her like the beginnings of a migraine and she was not at her best when she was frustrated. Trying to push away the growing knot in her stomach, she rocked in her chair, her long fingers pressed together. Momentarily distracted by the mathematical perfection of the equilateral triangle formed by her hands, she turned her right palm upwards and traced the contours of her hands with her eyes.

Her hands were strong from years of weight training and martial arts. The fingers were long, her nails carefully tended and polished in a shade of maroon that was slightly darker than her uniform - and much darker than the blood sometimes staining those hands. Her knuckles still ached from her violent session with subject Jones, but she had washed the blood away as soon as she had exited. Turning her hand around and balling it into a fist, she watched the blue veins on the back rise into a sharp relief, and she mused for a moment on the balance of her life: hers was a thinker's profession, but ironically enough, manual labour was what usually brought the best results. Torture had been a useful method of interrogation for countless centuries, and she was not about to throw such a powerful tool into the waste bin, despite the relatively more civilised society in which she lived.

Civilised, she chuckled to herself. Yeah, right. Not more civilised - merely more efficient.

"Uh, hey, boss?" It was Sim, hovering by the door.

"C'mon in," Villar rasped, her voice raw from exhaustion. The irregular hours were getting to her. "What's up?"

"Somebody upstairs wants an update on the missing chip chase. Somebody very high up," he said, waggling his eyebrows for emphasis.

"Let me guess...McClure Senior?" Villar said and snorted. "Figures. Don't they know they've got the best on the job?" She leaned back and entwined her fingers behind her head.

"I'll remind them of that, boss," Sim chuckled and winked. "I'll send him the latest status report. You also have a new subject delivery notification, one unit Adams, Gabriela, 899.1, filed as #122/A. She's placed in Cheerful...what do you want to do with case #484/J? He's still in Vivacious."

"Yes. Thanks. He's been fed?" Villar asked. Sim nodded. "All right. Send him off to Devron, normal procedures."

"Sure, boss," Sim said and closed the door behind him. It sealed itself with a faint hiss.

The case was beginning to irritate her. She'd had numerous people go through her clutches, but had closed in on the solution only a little. Oh, she knew whom she had to catch, but the subject kept eluding her. Unit Bryant. She could vividly recall the woman - of course, considering the case data chip was embedded in her wrist at that moment - and see her face in front of her, smiling mist-green eyes and all. The bumbling idiots sent to apprehend her had allowed her to escape, on what was supposed to be a routine pick-up job.

The whole affair had been nothing but a series of mistakes and bungling, starting from the moment McClure lost the chip she was now trying to locate. "Cretins," she murmured to herself. While she relished the intellectual challenges posed by her job, she detested being stuck with cleaning up messes created by others, and the fact that such projects tended to be affairs in tedious micromanagement by whomever had committed the gaffe that time.

Villar considered going to the gym to beat her frustration out on a punching bag, but decided otherwise. It was time to get this thing over with.

Peeling back the flap of fabricated skin on her wrist that concealed the data interface slot, she plucked out the case chip and replaced it with one bearing the docket number 122/A. The data flashed into her mind and she did a quick routine sort on it. Nothing remarkable or dubious; Gabriela Adams was an average citizen by all accounts, aside from some dealings in her youth with the intravenous drugs market - which was mostly controlled by the Consortium anyway, so there was no opening there. Hmm. Let's take the direct method then, Villar decided and cracked her knuckles. The sound was loud in the confines of the office.

She had barely made it out of the main corridor and into the hallway when her mobile buzzed quietly in her pocket. She stopped and leaned against the wall before pressing the call acceptance button.

"What can I do for you, Officer Hendricks?" Villar asked the woman whose crisp features were on the screen.

"Ma'am, we have finished our search of the home of the subject's sister. We have found a shirt she was wearing the day of her disappearance -" Villar noted the woman's careful wording with an ironical smile and a lifted eyebrow that flustered the officer momentarily. She plowed on bravely. "- and her DNA is all over the place, but there is no indication of where she might have gone."

"All right. Get out of there and mobilise a city-wide search. Leave a watch on the house. I want her captured, Officer Hendricks," she enunciated slowly. "Now, not later."

"Yes, ma'am," Hendricks said and nodded for emphasis.

"I'm interviewing the sister next. I'll give you more details when something relevant arises." With that, she cut the connection; Hendricks was beginning to annoy her, moreso because she insisted calling Villar "ma'am" and she detested the designation.

She had just enough time to slip the mobile back to her pocket before her boss came around the nearest corner, making a beeline towards her.

"Director Halcrow," Villar greeted her boss quietly and clasped her hands together behind her back.

Her relationship with Halcrow was complicated, having gone through a brief tryst, a bribery scandal, and the everyday clash of two egos that usually manifested in very loud screaming matches. In Halcrow's office, there were two ways of going about things: Halcrow's way, or the wrong way. Villar, never having been one to follow anything but her own instincts, had rebelled against this world order and eventually won Halcrow's grudging respect, but not without a price.

"Agent Villar," she replied in her low, slightly raspy voice, and smiled. She was a remarkably compact woman and in no way fazed by the fact that Villar towered over her by a good thirty centimetres. "I have been getting some very distressing calls from people in the higher echelons."

"And so have I," Villar grinned. If they had one mutual dislike, it was being micromanaged.

"I've been following your progress on the case," Halcrow continued. "Excellent work. You're heading for a session with the suspect's sister now?"

"Stepsister," Villar corrected. "Yes."

"All right. You do your job, I'll keep the vultures off your back"

"Thank you, director," Villar said. "Ops also has our normal surveillance of resistance and SWSG agents in the city notched up a bit, and they have been informed to look out for the suspect."

"Good. As you were," Halcrow said and nodded to Villar before going down the hallway. Villar watched her retreating back and tilted her head, thinking. She had known from the get-go that whatever she did, Halcrow would back her up - but what the conversation had revealed was that both of them were under extreme pressure to solve the case. Halcrow gave her leeway when it came to methodology, but with this case, no dilly-dallying would be tolerated. Villar shrugged; she'd get to the solution, no matter what. She'd just have to get there fast.

"Breath mint?"

The subject eyed her warily but took one of the transparent baubles in the tin box anyway. Popping one into her mouth as well, Villar closed the lid with a snap and slid the container back into her pocket, before she leaned back with a casual air.

"Now, tell me about Jodie Bryant."

"Why?" the subject queried, her eyes narrowing.

Villar shrugged. "We are merely interested in talking with her, about an object she might have gained possession of by mistake. Nothing more."

"Well, I don't know where she is," the subject replied and mirrored Villar's position, folding her arms across her ample chest. There was a certain amount of hostility in her pose, and so much confusion and mild dread that Villar could almost smell it in the air around her.

"And if you did?"

That seemed to throw the subject off a bit. "Uh...I'd tell you, of course. You just want to ask her a few questions, right?"

"You are correct," Villar said and nodded for emphasis. "However, I'm not inclined to believe you. She obviously spent the night at your place, and you are her sister. How could you not know where she is?"

The subject got a bit defensive at that. "Look, she's a grown-up, and I see her once a year or so. It's not like we're bosom buddies or anything. And Jo is a very private person. So I have no clue."

"A private person, not a close friend, who turns to you immediately when she's in trouble?" Villar countered, lifting one of her eyebrows.

"But you said she's not in trouble, right?"

"She will be if we don't find her soon," Villar hissed and rose abruptly. "I do not have time to argue with you over semantics. Jodie Bryant's life is in immediate danger if we don't get to her before some other, let's say, interested parties reach her."

"Judging from what she told me, you're no better than anyone else," the subject said, beginning to warm to her words. "I know you captured her partner at work and haven't released him yet. How can you guarantee to me you'll let Jo go?"

"I can't," Villar said, smiling as she smelled victory. The sudden white smile had a disconcerting effect on the subject, as always. "However, what I can guarantee is that you will not see the light of day again, if we don't find her. And if nothing else, I'm a woman of my word."

"But this is the twenty-third century - you can't threaten me like that," the subject said, clearly outraged.

"I just did," Villar replied, her smile widening.

Chapter Eleven: Parallel Universe

Upon nightfall, Hollywood looked less dingy as the cracked pavements and frumpy low buildings of the area were shrouded in the darkness pierced only by the neon lights and advertisement screens littering the neighbourhood. Although, as she walked down Cahuenga, Jo couldn't imagine at whom the ads were aimed: everybody walking on the street seemed to be high on something, be it angel dust, alcohol, or VR games, the latter easily spotted by the heavy goggles they wore as they paced like zombies, trapped inside a make-believe world they did not want to leave.

Earlier, Jo had taken a room in the least seedy motel she could find, in the corner at Cahuenga and Franklin, and spent the afternoon inside. At dusk she had decided to venture out for some food and to make a few calls. The Kung Pao chicken she had devoured had been remarkably bland, and her calls had not reached anybody. Most disconcertingly, her sister's number had been registered as "disconnected". She had tried again and again, until a man had pounded on the glass wall of the comm booth, clearly tired of waiting. Jo had vacated the coveted space and had momentarily debated using her mobile, but fear of exposing her location had deterred her from that course of action.

"What a fucking mess," she muttered to herself. She wasn't usually one to talk to herself, but blurting expletives out loud made her feel a bit better as well as helped her blend in with the street people who populated the area.

She was worried about her sister. That was what bothered her most, in addition to the fact that she had no clue as to what to do next. She had a gut feeling she'd be safe amidst the dregs of life for a few days, but what would happen after that? Could she keep on running? Where? It seemed that everybody she came in contact with just disappeared, without a trace.

Shoving her hands deeper into her trouser pockets, she hunched her back and stepped aside to pass by a man who had passed out on the pavement. The street was quiet beneath her sneakers, and the air smelled of greasy food, industrial lubricant and dirty money. No streetlights were needed - the pink and red neon lights flickering above every strip joint and liquor store painted the pale concrete of the street in nervous shapes, and once in a while, in the shadows of side alleys, a lighter flashed as a crack pipe or something equally illegal was lit. Cigarettes were stuck in a few mouths, but since the Tobacco Pollutants Act of 2166, they had become unlawful and indecently expensive, driving smokers to the fringes of society along with speed freaks, pimps, and winos.

Passing from one shadow to another, she ducked into a small corner store. The window had bars thicker than her thumbs combined, and she was sure that the frail man behind the counter was wearing a bullet-proof vest and packing heavy firepower. The only other customer was a thin, tall man with hair done in an unattractive shade of faded green and with a row of implant jewellery adorning his forehead. He was browsing the potato chip selection, while Jo headed for the energy bars. Selecting one, she paid and went back outside, the bright fluorescent light of the shop making her uneasy.

She paused at a shadowy spot between a strip joint and a parking lot and leaned against the wall. Tearing off the wrapper, she took a bite, only to spit it out immediately. "What the hell..." she said aloud and sniffed the bar. It smelled of fermented grease and Jo's nose wrinkled in disgust. She threw the rotten bar across the parking lot. "Shit!" she exclaimed and rested her forehead against the cool, dirty cement of the wall. "How did my life become such a fucking mess?"

It was a rhetorical question, addressed only to the heavens. But even though she did not expect an answer, she got one anyway.

"Chaos theory."

Jo's head jerked upwards and instinctively, she hunched into a defensive position. Leaning against the wall a few metres away, the guy with the green hair let out a bark of laughter and dug into his potato chip tube to get more to crunch on.

"Relax, Jodie. I can call you Jodie, right?"

"Who're you?" Jo asked, grateful that her voice did not tremble as badly as her hands did, squeezed into fists in front of her.

"I'm here to help you, Jodie Bryant," he said, detaching himself from the wall and taking a step forward. "You have something we are very interested in."

"Who are you? Consortium?"

He laughed again, a dry snorting noise that Jo found slightly disturbing. "If I was Consortium, do you think you'd be standing there? No, you'd be bound and gagged in a car, on your way towards Culver City." He paused for a moment, eating the rest of his chips before tossing the tube into the recycling chute next to him. Jo noticed he was wearing thin latex gloves. "I represent certain parties from, let's say, a more northern location."

"Let me guess. SWSG Industries?" Jo said and relaxed her hands before they cramped. She eyed him suspiciously, wavering between listening to his rap and fleeing.

"That is unimportant."

"So it is SWSG," Jo deadpanned, making him frown.

"Whatever. Look, I'm just here for the chip. You give it to me and we'll protect you from the Consortium goons."

"Why should I believe you?" Jo asked, her paranoia rising again. Her gaze flickered around, trying to find a possible opening or distraction. They guy wasn't threatening and he did blend in with the local crowd remarkably well, but the events of the past few days and her lack of sleep had seriously altered her mindset.

"If I wasn't one of the good guys, what would I be doing here? Look, no weapons, no nothing," he said, parting his long ragged coat. "Look...I have a car parked a few blocks from here. We've been monitoring your progress -"

"How?" Jo demanded.

"Corporate politics," the man said. His smile displayed a perfect row of white teeth - definitely not a derelict's dentition. "Your mobile operator is DWComm, with whom we have a long-standing agreement. You've been on our radar from the moment you were assigned to that pick-up Now c'mon," he said, looking around. "We don't have much time."

"I don't want to go anywhere," Jo said and backed up a step, her palms finding the moist, cool cement of the wall.

The man frowned. "Do you want a replay of the Second Corporate War? Do you know what's on that chip?"


"Did you hear the news about McClure Junior?" Jo nodded in reply. "His suicide is about as real as my hair colour. They killed him because he was stupid enough to lose that chip you're now carrying, and they sent a message with him. If they're desperate enough to snuff one of their own, what makes you think they won't kill you the moment they spot you?"

Jo didn't have an answer to that.

"Look, we just want to know what the Consortium is up to, so we can be prepared, and we want you to be safe," he said, spreading his arms. "Nothing more."

No sooner had he spoken the words than his chest exploded outward. Shards of bone and heavy droplets of blood rained on Jo and she instinctively ducked and shut her eyes, not seeing as his now lifeless body fell to the ground with a muted thump.

"That's her! Get her!"

"Smits, left flank!"

The shouting coming closer down Cahuenga made her get back into motion. Wiping the blood from her face and neck, she sprang into a dead run, jumping over the body and turning sharply left into the dark parking lot.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck, Jo's mind kept repeating as she ran, twisting and turning in the pitch-black maze of cars. She could hear energy blasts whiz past her ears and hit a car behind her, and she ducked, rolling under a truck. A blast hit the ground where she had been only seconds before. Bouncing back to her feet, Jo crouched down and squeezed between cars, slowly circling back towards Cahuenga. She paused behind a trailer and peeked around the corner. The parking lot was awash with bobbing high-energy flashlights and the air punctuated with yelling. The firing had ceased for the moment, however.

Jo's heart was trying to pound its way through her ribcage and she was afraid that if any more surprises were forthcoming, she would have a coronary. The blood splattered on her was making her t-shirt stick to her chest, and she felt cold despite the heat of the night.

The voices were getting closer. Taking a deep breath, Jo turned and started running again, towards the back end of the lot. A cry behind her informed her that she had been spotted and she dove behind a car just in time to duck a blast that hissed overhead. She exhaled violently and rolled away to avoid another blast. Making a mad dash towards the far corner of the lot, she slipped into the narrow alley leading away from the wide streets.

The alleyway was dank and Jo ran, jumping over discarded car parts and the homeless sleeping on the damp asphalt. There was even a VR junkie, leaning against the dark wall, his arms twitching as he fought the demons projected onto his retinas.

"Shit, man," Jo hissed as she neared the exit of the alley. At its mouth, a car was parked, its lights on, and through the steamed window Jo could see a middle-aged woman fingering a small container. Jo leapt on the car, kicking the rear window as hard as she could. The woman inside jumped, dropped the injector into her lap and revved up the engine. As she sped out of park, Jo jumped off the car, grabbed an advertisement screen support structure and climbed up the maintenance ladder, flattening herself against the back of the ad. The static electricity made her teeth crackle as she ground them together, and her hair flew wildly about her head.

Holding her breath, Jo saw her pursuers exit the alley, just in time to see the car whose driver she had startled screech into a gear and shoot away. Mistaking it for Jo's getaway car, the figures clad in deep indigo ran after it, shots hissing from their weapons. Another car, this one with blinking blue lights, rounded the corner and most of the agents jumped into it, before it took off after the retreating car. The rest ran after it as fast as they could, leaving the street strangely quiet in their wake. Jo exhaled slowly and had to wilfully force her limbs to move. She climbed down stiffly and slipped back into the alley.

She fingered the green-haired man's mobile nervously; her palms were slick with sweat and she could feel the adrenaline drain from her, leaving her legs shaky. She checked the screen for the umpteenth time. Dark purple Hyundai. OK, she repeated to herself, her eyes flickering nervously about.

After she had lost the agents, she had returned to her dead would-be helper. Nobody had touched his corpse; people merely walked around the dark lake of blood and went on with their business. I fucking love Hollywood, Jo had thought morbidly and turned him over. Consciously avoiding looking at the gaping hole where his chest used to be, she rooted around in his pockets. She found a cash card - a fortunate thing, since hers was close to zero - a lighter, two grams of angel dust, and his mobile. She left the dust be and palmed the mobile, which showed he had a car parked a few blocks away.

Dark purple Hyundai. The proximity sensor unlocked the door as she stepped close to the car and she got in, slipping the mobile into its cradle. The console lit up and she locked the door, breathing a sigh of relief. She was out of hot water, momentarily - until the goons would retrace their steps and find his mobile missing.

Easing out of the parking spot, Jo turned the car north, towards the Hollywood Freeway.

Chapter Twelve: Night Life

Villar's mobile chirped unobtrusively as she punched the call end button and set the sleek oblong device on the desk. Exhaling slowly, she lifted her gaze to the ceiling, as clinically white as the rest of her office. "Why do I always get stuck with imbeciles?" she bellowed and slammed the glass surface of her desk so hard that the mobile jumped. Sim, who was nearby arranging her case archive, jumped as well.

"I hope you're not talking about me," he said, only half joking. He held no illusions as to what Villar was capable of.

"What?" she grunted, turning towards him. "Oh no - rest assured. I'm talking about the people in Consortium Ops who I trusted to do a simple job. But no, they botch it, and in the process kill my only link to my target." Villar sighed. " The damned idiots shot an SWSG agent she had just made contact with, and then let her escape. Their only captures of the night were the CIO of a small consultancy who likes to inject amyl nitrate, and the agent, sans the contents of his ribcage."

Sim leaned against the data chip storage unit, nervously squeezing a chip as he regarded his boss - or gave a perfect impersonation of regarding her. "So, what now?"

"I send more goons after her and hope she stumbles into their trap," Villar said, her voice laced heavily with irony. "Meanwhile," she continued, checking the time on her wrist, "I go pound out some of my aggression at the gym."

"Good for ya, boss," Sim replied and slipped quietly out.

"Damn. Sometimes I wish I was still a ranger. At least I could go frighten park perverts," Villar muttered to herself, before hoisting herself up and exiting the office.

The bag swung wildly and Villar's every strike exploded in a white cloud of magnesium dust on its surface. Her breath was coming in heavy grunts, her bare skin and the prominent muscles underneath glistening in the fluorescent light.

"Fucker," she groaned and gave the maimed bag one final roundhouse kick before retreating. Her neck cricked loudly as she twisted her head and she winced at the sound. Too many hours at the desk, too few of exercise. Wiping her forehead with her wrapped hand, she took a sip from her water bottle and bounced a few times on the balls of her feet before attacking the bag again. Her primal grunts echoed through the nearly-empty gym; the only other person present was a young man doing sit-ups near the wall. His bulging musculature and the numerous scars on his smoothly tanned body revealed him to be an Ops elite agent - the muscles were grown with semi-organic machinery implants, hence the scars. Some of the Ops agents chose to get the scars removed but most kept them, as proud reminders of the depth of their loyalty to the Consortium.

Pausing again, Villar re-wrapped the thick gauze on her right hand, focusing on getting the end seam just right.

"You certainly are anal," an amused voice sounded behind her. Villar paused only for a fraction of a second, a smile spreading on her face.

"Must be in the heritage," she said, finishing up with her wrapping before turning to run an appreciative gaze over Devron's body, clad only in a tank top and loose gym trousers. "But damn if the rest of it ain't perfect."

"Oh, you make me blush," the man twittered in an exaggerated manner, and sat down on the bench next to her water bottle. "Why are you so cheery at 4 a.m.?"

"It's the adrenaline."

"So work is driving you nuts again. So many people to intimidate, so little time?"

"You are too observant for your own good, Devron," Villar said, her voice suddenly dropping half an octave, to its most threatening register.

He tilted his head calmly. "You are a fucking psycho, you know that Villar?"

"Part of the job," she said in a more normal voice and plopped down to sit next to him, still tugging at the right hand wrapping. "So why're you here at this godawful hour?"

"Because I'm a fucking psycho, too," he replied lightly. "Didn't feel like going home just yet. We're this close to the solution," He indicated with his thumb and forefinger only a hair's breadth away. "The viral run-down is not totally clean yet, and that's essential to get right if the strain is ever to see any real-life applications. Which, I guess, you are better aware than I am."

"What?" she said, looking at him quizzically. "Why would I know anything about your job?"

"The chip you're chasing," he said and took a sip from her water bottle. "Rumour has it, it contains some highly classified conversations conducted by Consortium management on how to apply my research. All of a sudden, a day after the chip is declared missing, the priority of my pet project here is notched up two places."

"So you're thinking...they're trying to get out of it what they can?"

He nodded. "Yeah. The way I see it, if there's indeed a connection, they found a way to utilise my research, but they can't do it if the chip data becomes public knowledge."

Villar leaned forward, bracing her forearms against her knees. "But if you get the research done before it's published, they have lost nothing," she finished his line of thought.

"Or at least they have gained plausible deniability. Data can always be fabricated afterwards to match events - even SWSG knows that and would not dare to try it." He paused for a moment. "Or, as my three-year-old would have it, 'this is deep crud, man.'"

Villar laughed at that, and the morbid mood was broken. By mutual unspoken consent, they chose not to take the issue any further. For a long time, it had been painfully obvious to both of them that Devron's work had just one application: biological warfare, in its most comprehensive, horrid form.

They were taking turns on the bag and when Villar's mobile chirped demandingly, she had her hands full of work as she attempted to both dodge Devron's punches and keep the bag in place. He paused, too, and backed off a bit, shaking his arms.

"I'll need to get this," Villar said apologetically and clapped most of the magnesium off her palms before accepting the call.

"Uh, Agent Villar?"

"Yes, that'd be me," she said to the man in Ops uniform on the small screen and pushed her sweaty hair back. The man's expression was sceptical but Villar didn't blame him: she must've been a mess. "You caught me at the gym," she explained.

"Ah," he replied and nodded understanding. "We are currently in pursuit of a Jodie Bryant, who I believe is wanted by your office. The car she is driving belongs to a known SWSG Intel agent stationed here in the Todos Angeles area."

"Where is she heading?" Villar asked.

"North. She's near San Luis Obispo on 101 now, blasting along like a madman. Traffic is difficult so the pursuit might be tricky."

"Don't even think about losing her this time," Villar said. "She's slipped our grasp too many times already."

He smiled at that. "Don't worry ma'am. We'll have her."

"Contact my office for delivery information. I want her yesterday. Villar out," she snapped and disconnected the call. Picking her towel up from the bench, she wiped her face, her brow in deep ridges.

"End of our workout, I take it?" Devron said, leaning against the bag.

"Yeah," she grunted and lifted an eyebrow. "Rain check on that sparring match?"

"You got it, sister," he said. "Now get in the shower. You want to look presentable for the lamb being marched in for slaughter."

"Har har," she replied and threw the towel at him. "Talk to you soon," she said and, picking up her stuff, headed for the showers.

"Have fun," he called out behind her. She turned in mid-stride, winking at him.

"I always do."

Chapter Thirteen: Short Road Trippin'

Jo felt dissociated from reality - which was nothing new, she got like that sometimes. It was a strange feeling, as if she were outside her body, looking down at her hands and torso, and seeing a stranger. She became a detached observer, not a person. Her psychological profile said it was her defence mechanism against situations she overwhelmed by. The last time she remembered it happening was when her previous work partner and best friend had told her she had contracted dengue fever - the risk is part of the job, she had said with a shrug - and then perished only eight days later from excessive internal bleeding. But, the disassociated part of her calculated, this was a much deeper swamp.

The contents of the chip were still at the front of her mind. The men and women in the video clips had spoken in terms like "CBR" and "Modern Offense," and it had taken a while for it to sink in that CBR stood for "Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Warfare" and the only modern thing about the offensive they were preparing to mounts against Northern California was that, unlike in a war fought with conventional weapons, it would kill civilians exclusively.

Suddenly, the wailing sound of a siren could be heard over the music playing in her car and it shook Jo out of her morbid thoughts. A few cars behind her, the blue strobe lights of a police car winked to life. Her first instinct was to punch the manual override button, before the police satellite link would override her car's controls.

"Do you wish to engage manual steering?" the car queried pleasantly. Apparently the previous owner had not bothered to disable the safety precautions.

"Yes! Fuck," she said and fleetingly realised every other word out of her mouth in the past three days had been an obscenity. From the console in front of her, a steering column inflated and she grabbed it, swerving into the next lane between two trucks - an extremely dangerous move considering the speeds of the vehicles on the highway.

"Your driving is unsafe," the disembodied voice of the car informed her. "Do you wish to discontinue manual steering?"

"Shut the fuck up!"

"Voice verification turned off," the car said as its parting repartee, and stayed quiet as Jo drove glued to the bumper of the truck in front of her. She shifted lanes again. The police vehicle was now hidden behind the truck, and her head spun around as she attempted to keep it that way, while keeping an eye on the GPS display. The intersection off 101 to 58 was coming up soon and she bit her lower lip, hoping against hope that she could slip onto the eastbound route; after a few turns, the road would lead her to Highway 5 and the progress northward would be easier.

She had stopped briefly at San Luis Obispo for a battery recharge and some water, keeping her head low and her cap pulled down on her head while she did her business with the automated teller at the charge station, but apparently somebody had recognised her. Or more likely, she had walked past a hidden surveillance camera and the system had automatically IDed her as a criminal on the loose. Gotta love Big Brother, she thought bitterly and at the same time wondered how she could have progressed even this far without a tail.

"Zoom out. Show the border," she said and the GPS display obeyed, showing the jagged border in bright red, running from south of Monterey through the divided city of Fresno; beyond the border beckoned the relative safety of the state of North California. "Calculate time to the border."

"Estimating one hour and eight minutes at current speed. General traffic congestion alert for the intersection of Route 58 and Route 229," the disembodied voice of the car said.

"What's happened?"

"The news bulletin reports that an automated toxic waste transport vehicle has collided with a truck. Probability estimate maintains the congestion will not be cleared before arrival at current speed," was the reply.

"Thanks," Jo murmured, her mind quite elsewhere as she eyed the rear view camera display.

"You are welcome," the car said pleasantly.

Jo sighed at the courteous reply. She was willing to guess that it was quite primitive and puerile of her to feel that there was something very wrong about talking to an inanimate object that appeared to possess intelligence. Of course, it did not - the Artificial Intelligence Systems Act of 2091 prohibited building sentient self-learning systems for commercial purposes - but the illusion could be very strong, and it did disturb her. Not that she had anything against artificial sentiency; after all, one of her best friends, Eric, was a construct personality who existed on the nets only, with no corporeal embodiment aside from the handsome generated face he assumed whenever she called him. But she drew the line at cars.

She eased to the rightmost lane and took the exit towards 58, and her head kept swerving back and forth as she attempted to find the police car. She caught a glimpse of the blue lights between the two trucks and felt relieved: they could never make the exit, and the next one was four kilometres down the highway.

Her palms were sweaty on the soft rubber grip of the steering wheel and she braced herself as the steep curves of the offramp generated enough G forces for her to be squashed against the door. Finally, two levels down, she hit 58 and breathed out a sigh of relief. Her heart was still beating triple-time, but with all the excitement of the previous few days she had come to accept it as a permanent state of existence. Her system was over-hyped and the adrenaline brought on by the fear and uncertainty she felt was making her lightheaded. And she had come to find that she deeply hated being this scared.

Just as she was calming down somewhat, another set of blue lights flashed three cars behind her. A new sheen of cold sweat rose on her forehead.

"Oh gimme a break," she murmured, shifting her grip and stepping on the accelerator. The car shot to the next lane and she squeezed between two buses; the second honked at her and she made an universal gesture known to all motorists.

"Where's the next ramp to the lowest level?"

"The nearest downramp is coming up in one point two kilometres," the car said and the GPS display zoomed to it.

"Excellent," Jo grunted and shifted back to the right lane, to the sound of more honking. The police were now four cars behind, obviously attempting to gain on her but with little success because of the hellacious traffic. They did manage to follow her to the downramp but the distance between the vehicles remained as Jo took the curves with a speed that threatened to throw her off the ramp and onto the level highway so fast her front bumper threw sparks as it struck the asphalt. As soon as she had the car back under her control, she stepped on the pedal and shot towards the east.

"Intersection with Route 229 approaching. Please merge to the southbound lane."

"Is the congestion still there?" Jo asked.

"Yes. Estimated delay, eight minutes."

"I don't have eight seconds to spare. Shit!" she snapped and pounded the steering wheel with her palm. She could already see the intersection in the distance, a sea of stationary cars gleaming in the pale pink light of the early morning. And visible beyond the cars was thin column of dark smoke. Probably the toxic waste truck burning up, she thought. No wonder it's taking the road crews so long to clear it...that shit is fucking dangerous. OK, plan B then.

The only problem was that she had no idea what plan B was.

Swerving between lanes to keep moving forward as the traffic did an elaborate dance of stop and go, Jo kept an eye on the rear view display. She had managed to put a bit more distance between her and her tail, but she had no more than a few minutes' lead. Her eyes wandered from the cars beside her to the steep, bushy hills beside the highway and a thought struck her.

"How far to the border? As the crow flies."

"Aerial distance to the border of North California eleven point nine kilometres," came the prompt reply.

"Twelve kilometres, huh?"

"Rounded to the nearest integer, twelve kilometres," the car confirmed and Jo wished they had at least programmed it to sound less snotty and assured.

"Thank you," she said, gritting her teeth as she made a sudden left turn, causing the driver behind her to slam on his emergency brakes. Fleetingly Jo saw the driver's collision protection foam fill the car, before it was out of her field of vision. She got into the far-left lane just as she was approaching yet another sharp bend in the remarkably curvaceous Route 58. "Here goes nothing."

As she rounded the corner, temporarily in the blind spot of the police car tailing her, she twisted the steering wheel sharply, sending the car across the median and into the oncoming lane. Jo could not remember ever being so frightened as she dodged the approaching cars, almost causing a pile-up as she negotiated the four lanes, only to plow right through the barrier fence and into the ditch between the road and the hillside. The car slammed to a standstill as it hit the bottom of the ditch, and Jo was suddenly surrounded by white protective foam. Despite the foam, she was sure she had gotten whiplash, but otherwise she felt all right. Suddenly, it was very quiet; only the hum of traffic on the highway behind her and the whine of the engine capacitor charging broke the silence.

"Do you require medical assistance?" the car queried, ever helpful.

"No," Jo grunted and rubbed her neck, spitting out a mouthful of the sour-tasting foam. "But thanks for your concern," she added wryly. The world cleared somewhat as the foam slowly evaporated.

"Accident analysis estimates self-recovery is not possible. Do you wish to request towing?" it continued, cool as a cucumber. Jo brushed some residual foam off the status display which was flashing bright red.

"Yeah. Call the fucking National Guard, for all I care," she said, and opened the door and stepped outside.

The bushes she had plowed through came up to her waist and the growth continued uninterrupted as far as she could see, over one sensuously rolling hill after another. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Jo tried to will her hands to stop shaking as she brushed the rest of the sticky foam off her face and hair. Taking one last look at the car, which appeared almost comical in its wildly tilted position, she turned away from the road and began running up the hill.

She had lost count of how many hills she had scrambled over at around fifteen, when she had stepped into a pothole and sprained her ankle slightly. Every step shot a twinge of pain up her calf but she gritted her teeth, trying to concentrate on moving in as direct a line northward as she could. The sun was higher, the air warm and dry on her cheeks.

Her arms were covered with small scrapes and cuts from the dry, coarse vegetation; she had long since stopped pushing the bushes from her path because that only made her palms bleed. Twice she had stopped because she thought she had heard something. She had crouched near the ground and listened, her heart hammering in her throat so loudly she was sure they could trace her merely by the sound. But the terrain was difficult and she knew the hills were a nightmare to track with electronic equipment because of all the residual heavy metal waste from the industrial ore combinate at Cambria. But she held no illusions: her chances of getting to the border were slimmer than slim.

She rounded another small hill, staying low and as much behind the bushes as possible. Beyond the hill was revealed a semi-circle of the same generous, rolling shapes, surrounding a small valley. It was getting hot as the sun rose higher, and the dry dust she kicked up on every step was irritating her eyes. Rubbing them, she knelt on the ground, suddenly feeling tired to the bone. She had not eaten anything in hours and she was running purely on adrenaline and fear.

"What the fuck did I do to deserve this kind of karma?" she choked out, resting her hands on the bone-dry ochre earth.

"It's not karma, Bryant. Just bad luck."

She rose abruptly at the voice, coming from mere metres away from her. Standing amid the bushes were a group of two women and a man, all sweating profusely in the dark Ops uniforms, all looking very serious.

"Come peacefully and you won't get hurt," the taller of the women said, stepping forward. "You can't escape."

"How did you get there?" Jo asked, instinctively backing up a step.

"We were driving you here, Bryant," she replied and indicated the cul-de-sac of hills surrounding them. "The perfect trap."

"I was hunted down?" Jo said, squeezing her hands slowly into fists. She felt focused again.

"Yeah," she said and smiled. "We're lazy that way."

Suddenly, Jo turned and sprinted back the way she had come. She plowed right through the brush, not even feeling the deep gash on her cheek from a thorny branch. She could hear the heavy footfalls of the Ops people getting nearer, as commands were shouted all around her.

She nearly blacked out as the lead Ops agent leapt onto her back and she was forced to inhale the dust deeply as they fell to the ground, rolling from the impact. Jo struggled feebly but the effort was futile due to the heavy weight upon her and the dust that clogged her lungs and nose. She coughed, elbowing the woman who grappled with her, her breath heavy in Jo's ear.

"Give it up, Bryant," she exhaled and twisted Jo's arm violently against her back. Stars danced in Jo's eyes from the pain and she screamed, but the raw sound was cut off suddenly as the agent hit her in the head with the butt of her stunner, and she went unconscious.

Chapter Fourteen: Dusting Off Your Saviour

Villar took off her silver-coloured nametag and smoothed the fine wool of her uniform jacket so that the impression where it had been attached was no longer visible. Slipping the tag into her trouser pocket, she tugged on her collar and pressed her thumb on the lock. It flashed green and the door unlocked.

The moment she stepped in she could feel the burning gaze on her, but she paid no attention. Seating herself carefully, she finally lifted her head and met the angry eyes across the table.

"Good morning," she said, her low alto smooth like satin. She noted that the eyes shooting daggers at her were a rather striking shade of mist green.

"I am your interrogator."

- t h e   e n d -

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