“The Kid, the Witch, and the Tank-Grown Girl” by Neil Carstairs
(EPUB | MOBI)

Tommy Schnurr was waiting for the Witch in a coffee shop called Rosemarie’s, up on Level Seventy and across the deck from the Dominion Theater. The matinee performance had just finished and the audience was spilling out onto the concourse, filling his vision with a swirl of movement that made Tommy’s head spin.

Tommy didn’t like crowds. He especially didn’t like crowds of up and mid-towners that filled the air with their overloud voices and blinded the eyes with their dazzling clothes.

Tommy hunched over his Americano a bit more, as taxi-pods came twirling down from docking bays, to scoop their fares away to uptown restaurants and hotels.

“Hello, Tommy.” The Witch came up on his blindside, sliding into the seat opposite. A drone trailed her and placed a large cappuccino on the tabletop. She sat, sipping at her drink and watched the theater crowd thin down.

“Sorry I haven’t been in touch lately,” she finally said; her interest in the outside waning.

Tommy shrugged. “I’ve been keeping myself busy.”

The Witch dabbed her lips dry with a napkin. “How’s the wiring?”

“Still in place.”

“Operational?”

“Yeah. Don’t use it too much, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course.” The Witch nodded to a security drone that rolled passed the window. “Had any problems recently?”

“I went through two scanners to get here. Not a peep from either.”

“Good.”

“Why?”

“See the table in the corner? Two girls, both blondes?”

“Yeah.” Tommy didn’t turn his head.

“One is our mark, her name is Suki Danks.” The Witch waited, as if the name was supposed to mean something to Tommy. When he didn’t react she prompted him. “Danks?”

“Do I know her?”

“Not her but of her great-grandfather.”

Tommy shook his head after a moment’s thought. “No.”

“Jesus, Tommy,” the Witch sighed, “where were you when they downloaded eighth-grade science.”

“I guess I wasn’t around much.”

The Witch took another sip of her drink, giving him the kind of look he had been getting most of his life.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She reached out to pat his hand. “I know it’s been tough coming from the streets.”

Tommy shrugged, looking out onto the concourse. Two hologram actors were out front of the theater. He changed the subject by asking, “What’s the job?”

“Usual. I need the Danks girl viraled.” The Witch reached out again and this time, as her fingers brushed the back of his hands, Tommy felt a burst of heat as his wiring fluxed into life. The Witch’s download unwrapped itself into a packet that set up residence in the access processor patched into his skull. Within the time it took Tommy to feel the data burst, his wiring was dormant again. The Witch finished her cappuccino and waved a credit chip in the direction of the drone.

“Get her as she leaves the shop,” the Witch said to Tommy as she stood to leave. “I have a team waiting to follow up.”

“Usual terms?” Tommy asked.

“Of course.” The Witch was gone as swiftly as she had arrived, merging into the crowd who had gathered to watch the holo-actors. Tommy could hear music through the window of the coffee shop as they performed one of the songs from the show. He finished his Americano and paid the drone with a one-time chip. The two blondes were getting ready to leave. Tommy slid out of his booth and took the long way round to be behind them as they went out of the door. The crowd on the concourse held them up for a moment, giving Tommy the chance to close in.

“Suki?” He said the name with enough query to make one of the girls turn.

“Yes?” She frowned, waiting for her recognition software to report in.

“You don’t know me– ” Tommy tried his best smile — “I work with…”

Tommy got next to her, putting himself between Suki and her friend. He laid his hand on her arm. She wore a short-sleeve silk blouse patterned with Japanese art. She looked down at his hand in surprise, mouth forming a question before the Witch’s packet unleashed itself through the filaments in Tommy’s fingertips.

Tommy knew Suki Danks must be rich, otherwise why would the Witch target her? And being rich meant that Suki had state-of-the-art defense systems. The problem with state-of-the-art defenses was that they were usually 24 hours behind state-of-the-art assault software.

Whatever the Witch had passed to him was good, straight out of the box and ready to rock its way into Suki’s flexiware. Her eyes rose to stare at him. She couldn’t speak, overwhelmed by the attack. Tommy was already walking into the crowd. He heard Suki’s friend calling her name, the voice rising in panic as realization set in that something was wrong.

Tommy looked back after a dozen paces. Suki was half slumped against the window of Rosemarie’s. The crowd had formed a ring around the girl and no one wanted to go near her, too frightened of infection from whatever malware was inside her.

The theater’s server was alert to the problem and the holo-actors moved close to the girl. Tommy hesitated, uncertain as to what to do. The Witch had said she had a follow-up team in place, but if the server intervened then all this would be wasted. The holo-actors vanished and a security sphere flicked into existence around the girl. Tommy saw a shadow on the surface of the sphere, just a brief glimpse but enough to make him smile.

Clever, he thought. The Witch had subverted the theater’s server and was using it to mask her attack on Suki Danks. Tommy walked on, reassured.

He got a taxi-pod, paid with another of the one-time chips he always carried and went up three levels. Tommy took the concourse two blocks east to another taxi bay and went up another level and across two blocks. He crossed north using a ribbon bridge, always nervous as the clouds rolled beneath his feet. There weren’t many pedestrians, just enough to keep him feeling secure as another face in the crowd.

Two young people, one male and one female, were standing at the end of the bridge. They wore dark gray business suits and looked as if they were waiting for someone.

They were waiting for Tommy.

The guy blocked his route as the girl went around behind Tommy, and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end as she scanned him.

“You’ve got a lot of identities streaming through your core,” the girl said. “Who are you?”

Tommy was ready to run, steeling himself for the first burst of speed when the guy said, “His name’s Tommy Schnurr. He was born nineteen years ago in a mission hospital on the Lowest East Side and he’s going to be happy to talk to us, aren’t you Tommy?”

Tommy was paralyzed. Not by the girl and her scanning that made the wiring in his spine flare with heat, but by the guy and his self-satisfied smile.

“Who are you?” Tommy asked.

“Right now,” the guy said, “we’re the only friends you’ve got.”

The girl came back to stand beside her companion. Next to each other they looked like brother and sister, same blonde hair, same clear complexions, same blue eyes. The girl’s body was lithe beneath her suit and the guy had the kind of androgynous looks that would get him admirers in both sexes.

They’re clones, Tommy realized; and that made them seriously illegal.

“I’m Mara and he’s Cade,” the girl said, indicating her partner. “And we are all going to take a trip.”

As she finished speaking, a night-black pod spiraled down to a halt alongside them. A door swung open and Mara gestured for Tommy to get in. The interior was as dark as the exterior, giving Tommy no clues as to the ultimate owner. Tommy slid across the padded seating as Mara and Cade joined him, Mara sitting beside Tommy and Cade sitting opposite. The door closed, sealing them from the outside world and Tommy felt the pod begin to move.

That was when Cade drew a MAC6 assault pistol and put the muzzle against Tommy’s left knee and the realization suddenly hit Tommy exactly who Suki Danks was.

His face must have registered something because Mara said, “We want you to give us the person who set you onto Suki Danks.”

“I…” Tommy tried to think of a good line in denial but Mara just held up a hand.

“Tommy,” she said, “do you know what was in the packet that you downloaded onto Suki?”

“I didn’t down– ”

“Tommy, don’t treat us like idiots.” Mara was still talking pleasantly. “Suki is a girl who always wants the latest in implants and cell wiring, but there’s a danger with all of that technology if a worm or virus enters because of the effect to the host. The shock to the human system can put the victim into a catatonic state, maybe causing cardiac arrest or embolism. You could be looking at a murder charge if you’re not lucky.”

The pod was still moving. Tommy could feel his stomach rising into his chest as the pod dropped rapidly. Mara frowned and exchanged a glance with Cade.

“Are we supposed to be going down?” she asked.

The pod suddenly came to a halt. There was silence for a moment, before a muffled thump came through the wall of the pod and the door swung open. There was darkness in the doorway, the cold damp darkness of street level, lit only by yellow soda lights and the distant wash-down from the lower-mid-town.

Tommy heard the grate of metal on asphalt and the squat shape of a Primary Enforcement Unit stepped into view. The PEU was old, most of the paintwork was worn away and two cracks showed in the upper carapace, but the lower left limb still worked as it extended forward and pointed a riot gun into the pod.

Cade lifted the MAC6 from Tommy’s knee. Tommy could see what Cade was thinking and so could Mara.

“No!” She spoke sharply, voice spiked by fear.

Cade didn’t listen; he continued turning towards the PEU, lifting the muzzle of the MAC6 in a way that even a washed-out piece of garbage like the PEU”s motion software could spot, analyze, and react to.

The riot gun fired once: a loud, flat blast that stunned Tommy’s ears. The spray of blood and skin from Cade’s chest splattered the interior of the pod, Tommy, and Mara in the same sticky, stinking film.

The riot gun auto-loaded and angled to aim at Mara. She put her hands up without a sound.

Tommy’s ears were still ringing but he had the presence of mind to slide away from the clone girl and closer to the doorway. The PEU didn’t move, so Tommy edged his way out onto the street. He looked back in. Mara’s eyes were wide, waiting to die.

She didn’t. The PEU shuffled back and the pod door slid shut before the pod itself was lifted upwards on the hyper-thread that Conrad Danks had developed a century or more before. The pod whistled as it disappeared uptown, moving faster than was legal. Tommy saw it one last time, glinting in a shaft of sunlight that cut through the cloud and latticework of the midtown and uptown “scrapers. He was still looking up when the PEU clanked and rattled off down the street.

Tommy was left alone long enough to start wiping Cade’s blood from his face when the Witch came out of a shadowed doorway.

“Is that thing gonna crash?” Tommy jerked his thumb up to where the pod with Mara had vanished.

“I thought about it,” the Witch said, “but not this time. I want to follow the girl, see where she’s goes.”

“Yeah.” Tommy wiped his hands on his clothes and came away with more blood. “I’d like to know where she came from.”

The Witch didn’t answer his question, she just gestured at him to follow and he went without another word into the same doorway she had stepped from.

There was a sound of music, muted by thick doors made of reinforced steel, and the smell of cooking made stale by uncirculated air. Tommy stepped into a dive bar, feeling the eyes of the three dozen drunks, two dancers, and one bartender inspect him as he stayed in the footsteps of the Witch until she reached a booth cut into the back wall of the room.

Tommy couldn’t see the dancers once he was sat down, but he could still hear the slap of their feet on the stage and the slide of their bodies on the poles. It made him wish he could swap places with the Witch. The Witch signaled the bartender and he came over with two glasses and a bottle of yellow liquor. The Witch poured for Tommy and didn’t speak until the barman went back behind his bar.

“Drink up, Tommy, I guess you need it after that.”

“Who were they?” Tommy drained his glass in one go and then hissed as the liquid scorched its way down his throat.

The Witch didn’t smile. “I don’t know.”

Tommy stared. As long as he had known her, and it was a good ten years now, the Witch had never failed to be on top of everything she did. It was the one thing that Tommy admired her for, calm under pressure, always prepared, never surprised.

He let her fill his glass up again.

“They knew who I was,” he said.

The Witch shrugged. “Identities come and go, Tommy.”

“No.” Tommy shook his head. “I mean they really knew who I was. They knew my real name. They knew my real name and when and where I was born.”

The Witch pursed her lips and sat back against the padding of the booth’s wall.

“How did they know that?”

Tommy guessed she was asking herself and not him. A little frown marred the smooth skin of her forehead and he could tell from the faraway look in her eyes that she was off somewhere trawling the datahouses for information.

“Interesting,” she said. “What did they do to you?”

“Nothing, other than the girl had a fleshwired scanner that roasted me.”

“They didn’t touch you?”

“Not until we were in the pod, and only then with the gun.”

“DNA,” the Witch said without explanation. “When were you born, Tommy?”

“In seventy-two I think. Least that’s what the records say.”

“DNA registration of newborns was brought in back in forty-four and then made compulsory for all citizens in fifty-one but the law was repealed seven years later because of abuses.” She was talking half to herself and half to Tommy. Tommy wasn’t worried; like he had told her back up in the coffee shop he had missed most of his education downloads so he always had something to learn.

“You touched Suki Danks,” the Witch continued, “you had to so that you could transfer the viral. You would have left the faintest of traces. Sweat maybe, or just a few skin cells, enough that after I released her from the security sphere Suki would still have it on her.”

“But didn’t you say that the DNA law was repealed?” Tommy saw one of the dancers for a brief moment as she came down to some lucky guy and planted her naked butt into his lap.

“So what?” The Witch almost laughed. “DNA sampling could have easily continued in secret even to the present day.”

The dancer got moving again, drawing Tommy’s eyes to her thin frame so that he lost the thread of what the Witch said next until she prompted him.

“Unless,” the Witch said softly.

“What?”

“No.” She shook her head, as if that would clear the thought. “That’s impossible.”

“What’s impossible?” Tommy wished he understood what she was talking about.

The Witch gave him an almost reassuring smile.

“I need you to go back uptown. I’ve got a trace on the girl…”

“Mara,” Tommy supplied her name, “the clone girl.”

“She was a clone?” The Witch frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, pretty much so.” Tommy thought back and then nodded to himself.

“That explains something.” The Witch bit her lower lip in thought.

“What?” Tommy asked again.

The Witch reached out and ran the tip of one finger across Tommy’s clothing, she studied the blood that was gathered and then rubbed it slowly between finger and thumb.

“I’ll packet you the details when you’re uptown,” she said. “But you need to go now. Get yourself new clothes, smarter than the ones you have on now, and get yourself a haircut too, something fashionable.”

“Is it safe?” Tommy asked.

“Of course it is. Don’t you trust me?”

Tommy hesitated. He did trust her after all these years, but the smell of Cade’s blood was a reminder that Tommy had almost been on the wrong end of a stream of bullets. He looked into the Witch’s hazel eyes and saw the same things he had been seeing for years: love and compassion.

“I trust you.” He smiled. “But that was scary.”

“I know.” She gave him a reassuring smile and a pat on the shoulder. “If you go now I can get some plans in place.”

Tommy slid out of the booth as the music stopped and a smattering of claps came from the audience. The dancing girls sloped off stage as Tommy made his way out of the bar.

It was still cold and damp on the street, like it had been all his life and for plenty of decades before. Tommy walked quickly, shoulders hunched and hands in pockets. He was on Argyle Street and made his way south towards the river, where a cage elevator gave free rides to Level Three. He rode up on his own, watching the street narrow, the lamps becoming pin pricks in the dark.

He looked up through the latticework of the cage and saw the brightening of the sky. Tommy had always wanted to live up here, to have his own apartment in one of the “scrapers, to look out over the bustling ribbon bridges. If you went higher up, to where the mega-rich folks lived, he knew that there were rivers in the air. Meandering troughs, suspended from super-high stanchions that had earth banks and gravel beds and gave a home to fish and waterfowl.

Tommy smiled to himself; he had money in the bank that the Witch looked after for him, and one day he would get it all and buy himself a home up there.

The cage ground to a halt, and Tommy went out onto Level Three and headed towards Liberty Street. It was run-down now, showing signs of age and no investment.

Tommy knew of a barbershop two doors down from a charity place that sold used clothes. He figured he could get something reasonable to change into and save money at the same time. He browsed the racks of the charity shop for fifteen minutes until he put together a combination of slacks, shirt, and jacket that made him look pretty good as he stood in front of a mirror.

His old clothes went into a disposal chute two minutes before he went into the barbershop. The old man who did the cutting shrugged when Tommy asked for something fashionable. What Tommy got was a buzz cut on back and sides and a half inch flat top held in place by glitter gel.

He left the barbershop feeling even better and hopped a ride on a public pod taking Route Fourteen up to Level Sixty.

It was busier in lower-mid-town and warmer too. Tommy could feel the sunshine on his back as he strolled along the bridges and walkways. It was springtime, and the City was already putting out hanging baskets full of colorful flowers. He stopped to buy a water bottle off a kid on a pedal-cycle and then felt the hum of an incoming packet.

Tommy leaned on the clear fencing of the deck, looking out over the drop to Level Forty, as his software unwrapped the Witch’s packet. She had encrypted it and when the message displayed on his retina he saw why.

She told him to go up to Level One-Twenty; that’s where Mara had ended up in the offices of a law firm. The Witch couldn’t see through their shielding to what was going on inside. That was now Tommy’s job.

She’d got the full floor plans of the firm off the Cityscape datahouse. Tommy studied them as something else the Witch had encrypted slowly installed itself into him.

He thought about One-Twenty; that was high enough that he would need another jacket, probably a self-warmer, and maybe a bottle of air just in case.

When the install was done, the Witch’s packet self-deleted and the one-time address she had sent it from vanished as if it had never existed, and Tommy headed towards the public pod-bays.

* * *

An hour later, chill in the thin air, Tommy walked across a swaying ribbon bridge towards the block section that housed the offices of Yaylor & Craige. To his left, in the open space between the bridge and the “scrapers, a fountain was suspended, throwing water in a series of arcs that turned to ice crystals before they fell into pools that glistened diamond-bright in the clear sunshine. He moved on from the fountain, studying the frontage of the offices, all glass and steel with artwork on display in the foyer.

Tommy took a deep breath, straightened his back and stepped through the revolving doors. He was carrying a big bunch of flowers he had bought a couple of levels down and walked up to the receptionist with a confident smile.

“Hello,” he said, “I’m here to see Mara.”

The receptionist was a gray-haired woman whose demeanor was about as warm as a dead fish. She looked from Tommy to the flowers and back again.

“Mara?”

“Yes, Mara.” Tommy felt his confidence slip a little under the woman’s unforgiving gaze.

“I don’t recognize the name.” The receptionist half turned away, like she was dismissing him. “Are you sure you have the correct building?”

“This is Yaylor and Craige?” Tommy pointed at the meter-high names that swam with holographic intensity across the floor of the foyer.

“It is.”

Tommy held out the flowers. “These are for Mara.”

The woman sighed and touched a fingertip to her left temple. Somewhere in the building her query got a response. Tommy watched her lips tighten even more until they practically disappeared.

“Wait here,” she said, bluntly.

Tommy drifted away from her desk; he had already seen a touchscreen tucked into a wall. There was a display of the Y&C corporate logo and a menu of items for anyone interested in browsing about the company.

Casually, Tommy touched the screen. The Witch’s latest packet made his fingertips hum as it passed from flesh to machine. The display jumped, just a minor flicker, and Tommy waited to see if there was a response, an alarm or defense shut down from the office processor.

He was still waiting when approaching footsteps made him turn. It wasn’t Mara; it was some hulk of a security guy who pointed at the revolving doors.

“Out,” the guy said.

Tommy didn’t want to go too easily, but he didn’t want to hang around either with the packet planted. He gestured with the flowers.

“I bought these for Mara,” he said. “I’d like her to at least…”

The guy reached out, turned Tommy, and propelled him towards the doors. Tommy stumbled in, just about avoiding getting squashed as the guard followed in the next section, pushing hard so that Tommy had no choice but to go out into fresh air. The guard came out as well.

“Keep going.”

Tommy walked backwards for the first half dozen paces. The security guy put his hands on his hips and glared like he was expecting Tommy to run. Tommy was still watching when he saw the change in the guard’s expression, a frown of concern followed by a look of bewilderment. The guard turned, looking up at the office frontage as if there was going to be an answer written there. Tommy knew it was time to go when the guy turned and stared hard at him.

“You.” Spoken swiftly and savagely.

Tommy ran. He was half monitoring the Cityscape like he always did and the flare of alarms that spiked the local net almost made him stumble. Servers were shutting down, others going offline. Taxi pods that had been spiraling past the bridge veered in to emergency stops. The fountain stopped spraying water. A siren, a real honest to God siren, sounded out a mournful shriek from a couple of levels below. Tommy heard and sensed it all as he ran, and through the maelstrom of warnings the Witch flashed him a packet.

The guard was big but he was also fast, a real sprinter where Tommy was more long distance. He was gaining when Tommy was halfway across the bridge, his feet pounding a staccato beat on the peristeel construct. Tommy looked over his shoulder and saw the savage smile on the guy’s face.

Tommy threw the flowers at him; the bunch was pretty big, the stems bound together by plastic wraps. It wasn’t quite a baton but was enough to hit the guy across the eyes. Yellow, pink, and mauve petals sprayed out like confetti at a wedding, half blinding the guard for a couple of seconds.

Tommy changed direction, heading straight for the fencing. He went over, holding the top rail in both hands, and landed with his toes on the narrow ledge airside. Below him a couple of pods hung stationary, below them a third pod rose slowly, as if it was uncertain about its surrounding and below that — way, way below — was the dirty smudge of the streets no bigger than charcoal line on a sketch.

The guard swore, clear-eyed now, and reached under his arm for a hidden gun. Tommy looked at the moving pod, fifteen meters down and three out. He heard another shout, a female voice, and looked back the way he had come to see Mara running across the bridge with a bunch of other suits.

Tommy jumped. He hung in the air, in joy and terror at the freedom and the height, and then fell down to the pod. The roof was all curved and slippery, the cable a finger-wide band of hyper-thread that Tommy wrapped his arms around as the pod began to fall like a stone, almost out of control.

The Witch sent another packet. Tommy, get set for a hard landing.

His legs joined his arms around the cable. He looked up and saw the suits looking down at him and Mara climbing over the fencing. One of the stationary pods moved to her. She climbed into it as the doors opened and the pod came down after his. The wind was whistling past, filling his ears with sound. He thought he heard a scream as his pod went past another bridge, someone pointing to him clinging on like a limpet to rock. His mouth was dry and his limbs were starting to shake when the pod twisted, the overhead matrix changeover taking him from downbound to northbound in a heartbeat. The pod spun and he felt himself sliding again, still a hundred levels up. Tommy closed his eyes as a banner flashed by, then the harlequin blur of shop fronts as the pod swung in to Mall Four-Forty.

The landing was hard, a splintering sound of pod-bay meeting pod. Alarm bells rang out and Tommy fell from roof to concourse with a hard smack.

We haven’t got much time, the Witch sent. Lose yourself in the mall. I’m trying to close down monitoring points.

Tommy got to his feet, legs like jelly and the subject of attention from everyone in sight. He feigned nonchalance and walked away without looking back or up. The first store he passed sold clothing off the rack so he went inside and paid for a new set that he put on in the changing room, leaving the old ones rolled up and pushed under some benching. He found a men’s room and washed off the glitter gel before he strolled back through the store.

Mara was waiting for him halfway to the exit, looking at a transparent silk blouse like she was a prospective buyer. When she saw Tommy she smiled brightly.

“Tommy, fancy meeting you here!” she said. “Do you think I would look good in this?”

She held the blouse against her upper body and Tommy stopped walking as his imagination went into overdrive. Mara grinned at the look on his face and put the blouse back on the rack.

“There’s a restaurant on the third floor, let’s go get a drink.”

Tommy trailed miserably after her. He could see she had support in the shape of half a dozen guys who formed a loose perimeter around them. There was no point in trying to run again. They took a moving stairway down to the restaurant and Mara paid for their drinks using a platinum credit chip.

When they were seated, far enough away from other customers that they could talk openly, Mara said, “That was some trick you pulled back there.”

“Trick?” Tommy frowned.

“Jumping onto the pod like that. To get away from us.”

“Oh.” Tommy shrugged. “We used to do it when I was a kid, come up from the streets and pod ride.”

He knew Mara would have known that if she wasn’t tank-grown. Her memories and personality were implanted, and she would have only received what her mentors thought was important, but it would be nothing like real knowledge and memories.

“Anyway,” Mara said, “it didn’t do you any good. We still tracked you all the way here.”

Tommy didn’t say anything, waiting for her to tell him why and also more importantly how.

“That was nice of you to bring flowers for me.”

“I thought you might have been upset at what happened down on the street.”

“I was more upset at what you left behind. We’re still trying to lock down our system to clear it out. What was it?”

“I don’t know,” Tommy said.

Mara sighed. “You see, that’s what’s sad in all this. You come to our office and risk your life to lay malware through our interface and you don’t know what it was or why you did it.”

“I did it to get paid,” Tommy said.

“Is that why you do this? For money? Did you earn enough to throw yourself off a bridge?”

“I don’t know yet, I haven’t seen the transfer, and anyway, I’m already a rich man,” Tommy said, proudly.

“Are you? Is that why you live in a three-room apartment with a shared bathroom down the hall?”

“How d’you know where I live?” he asked in surprise.

“We know everything about you. We’ve had a team searching the place for evidence to who your controller is.”

“My controller?”

“Yes, the person paying you, the person sending you on these missions where your life is at risk. It’s not right, Tommy, and we want to stop it.”

Tommy clamped his mouth tight shut, suddenly realizing he was in danger of saying too much. Mara was very pretty and he had never been this close to a pretty girl before, let alone one who talked to him like he was on the same level.

“So, even though you are trying to harm us, I went back to my office and told my people that you were nothing more than a poor grunt. They wanted to terminate you as soon as possible, but I said no, give the kid a chance, let me talk to him.”

“A grunt?”

“Yeah.” Mara sat back in her chair. “We’re in the middle of a war, Tommy, and you don’t even know it. Neither do all the people in this restaurant and in this city. They’re happy if they have a roof over their heads and a deck under their feet. They’re happy if there is food on the table and entertainment on the c-channel. You and I, we’re the same. If this was a game of chess we’d be pawns.”

Tommy was confused now, his head was starting to hurt with all the talking and all the scanning that Mara and her comrades were doing. He couldn’t get in touch with the Witch, he couldn’t reach the Cityscape to find out what a grunt was, and Mara was still talking as her clone friends filled up the tables around them.

“Well,” Mara said, a little more quietly, “when I said we were the same I wasn’t quite right. I know what I am. I was grown in a tank, but my controllers have been honest with me, told me what I am and why I am. You, Tommy? What are you? You said you were rich, but where’s your money?”

“In an account,” he whispered.

“So why don’t you spend it? Get out of that box you live in. Move uptown. Live the dream.”

Tommy knew why. The Witch said that amount of money was dangerous; he could easily lose control and spend it all too quickly, so she had countersign on the account and made sure it was properly invested for his future.

But always his future was one more job and one more paycheck.

He knew Mara was watching him closely, and could see the glistening of tears in his eyes. She reached out across the table and took hold of his hand. He let her hold it for a moment, enjoying the feeling of her soft skin on his.

“I think you’re trying to trick me,” he said, pulling his hand away.

Mara showed some disappointment, but not much, as if she had expected this.

“Fine, it’s your call.” She stood, signaling to her colleagues. They all began to move away, leaving only Mara with Tommy. She was drumming her fingers on the tabletop, staring down at him. She reached into a pocket and slid a memory slice across the table to him.

“Take care,” she said and left him there, with his cold coffee and restless feet, her words bouncing around inside his head.

He looked at the memory slice and carefully put his thumb onto it. The download took a heartbeat and he learned more in that instant than the last nineteen years had taught him. His life was on there, from birth to now, all laid bare like a corpse on a morgue table.

Tommy got up and walked out. Mara was gone, heading uptown in an anonymous pod. He found a quiet place to lean on a column, like he was waiting for somebody when what he was waiting for was inspiration. He had the matrix in his head now. What Mara had been talking about and what he had been doing for the Witch.

A packet arrived as he stood there; there was no sender address, no sender identity.

Pod coming. Get in.

He thought it would be either Mara or the Witch. The pod was a commercial-hire one, flashed with digital logos advertising a skin regeneration clinic. He got in and waited to find out if it was going uptown or downtown.

The pod was swept aloft, turned and positioned in the traffic queue. He felt it drop, and in some way he was disappointed that that meant it wasn’t Mara. The time it took to descend told him he was going all the way down to the streets. He let Mara’s download work away inside him, ferreting information, compressing it and transmitting in encrypted bursts. He let it happen and didn’t think about the consequences.

When the pod stopped and the door swung open he took his time getting out. He was at the junction of Venner and Casterpole, just across from the old Tobacco Warehouse. A fine mist hung on the air, carrying the stench of rotting garbage from the river. The Witch appeared, coming out of the warehouse.

“You did well,” she said.

“I did?” Tommy heard his voice go up in surprise.

“Yes. I’m proud of you.”

Tommy felt uncertain. All the years the Witch had been looking after him, like a surrogate mother, her praise had always been hard-earned.

“I wish I knew what I had done,” he said with a forced smile.

“You put the enemy back six months, maybe more, when you walked into their offices.”

“Mara talked to me.” Tommy heard the words come out of his mouth even though he hadn’t planned on saying them.

“I know.” The Witch looked as if she was expecting him to say something else.

“She said some stuff, like there was a war, like if it was a game of chess I’d be a pawn. Is that what I am? A pawn.”

“You’re not a pawn, Tommy,” the Witch said. “If this was a game of chess you would be a knight.”

“I would?” Tommy almost grinned.

The Witch looked up and what she saw made her sigh.

“No,” she shook her head, “you wouldn’t.”

Tommy felt his skin crawl on the back of his neck.

“What else did she tell you?” the Witch asked.

“She showed me the AI map, Cityscape and everything. She showed me who my mother is.”

The Witch looked so sad that Tommy almost thought that Mara had been lying. She looked up again and Tommy looked up too, following her gaze, to see a dozen or more pods coming down. Mara had traced him and he had let her because the Witch was on the wrong side of the war.

“So you chose,” the Witch said. “You betrayed me. But this is just one battle, and the harm won’t be as bad as the work you did earlier.”

“They let me in,” Tommy said. “It was all a fake. She showed me.”

The Witch was watching the pods land with interest. “They let you in, but now we know who they are, and what they are and we can act against them. Who controls the city, Tommy?”

“No one,” he said.

“Wrong,” she said with a smile. “You know it’s Cityscape who controls the city. That’s who controls me, and through me controlled you from the moment you were recruited.”

“I’ve never been recruited,” Tommy said, even though he knew it was true. Mara’s slice had shown how an eight-year-old Tommy had taken an evaluation without knowing it and scored high on emotional dependency and ease of influence. The Witch was sent to befriend him, become his mentor. The Witch and Cityscape made Tommy think that he was making profit from crime because his psyche took pleasure from that.

“Cityscape is trying to control the people,” Tommy said. “It doesn’t want freedom and success.”

“Is that what Mara told you?” the Witch asked.

“She showed me,” Tommy said, unable to meet her eyes, staring at the damp ground. “She showed how you don’t exist and that means you’re tank-grown, just like her.”

The Witch sighed. Pods were spiraling down, a dozen or more and Tommy knew who was inside. He began to shiver, knowing the Witch was waiting for him to speak, to admit his betrayal.

“Oh, Tommy,” she reached out to stroke his cheek like a mother disappointed with her child.

Tommy knew he shouldn’t have let her touch him. It was the briefest of contacts, her skin cool, and the dataware she laid in him red hot.

Tommy felt himself lock down. An instant paralysis that rooted him to the spot as the Witch turned and walked away towards the warehouse. His frozen body stopped him calling out to her. He would have begged the Witch to come and save him. He hadn’t chosen Mara, it wasn’t as simple as that. He hadn’t chosen at all. And now all he knew was confusion because the Witch had just abandoned him.

Tommy could move his eyes, and when he did he saw the pods disgorging their passengers. Black-clad figures that spread out across the street, weapons held ready. Inside Tommy, the Witch’s packet was doing its work. He felt his processors go offline, the data stores self-erasing. Patches of his memory began to disappear as the wiring that lay upon his skeleton began to fry. Everything was on a self-destruct cycle; his life was deleting in terrabytes and overheating in microseconds.

The Witch was gone, leaving him behind as the gunmen swept up to the warehouse. They wouldn’t find her. Tommy kind of knew that at some point in his life he had once used the warehouse as a transit point to get away from a street gang. But that memory was going, overwritten by a bunch of garbage about birth patterns in the Brazilian megalopolis.

Mara appeared before him, cradling an assault rifle. He could see she knew what was happening to him.

His muscles were beginning to burn now, blood boil and fat melt. He saw the pity in Mara’s eyes and that made a tear form but before it could spill onto his cheek it turned to steam.

Mara hesitated, distracted by the sound of gunfire from the warehouse as the gunmen stormed it. She looked as if she was about to leave him, but she was just looking around because what she did next was draw a pistol and aim at Tommy.

And Tommy knew in that moment the only truly compassionate thing that any person had ever done for him in his life was put a bullet between his eyes.


Neil Carstairs lives in Worcester, England, with his wife, two children and dog. He writes as the mood (and very occasionally the inspiration) takes him. His work has appeared on the web and in print and links can be found at neilcarstairs.blogspot.com.

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