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Hammeredby Elizabeth Bear
0307 hours, Wednesday 29 August, 2062
Abandoned North End
I never sleep if I can help it.
So when somebody starts trying to kick down my door at 0300 hours on a rank hot summer night, it isn't quite the surprise for me that it might be for some people. When the noise starts, I'm sitting on a gouged orange plastic chair in my shop. I drop my old-fashioned paperback book, stand, and draw my sidearm before sidling across oil-stained concrete to flick the monitor on. Smart relays in the gun click on in recognition of my palm print, too quietly for normal ears to hear. The air thickens in my lungs; my heartbeat slows ominously.
And then I curse out loud and go open up the big blue steel door, holding the safetied pistol casually in my meat hand while the metal one turns the knob.
"You wanna pound the damn door down?" I accuse, and then I get a good look at the purple-faced kid dying in Razorface's arms and I'm all somebody's sergeant, somebody's mother. Not that the two are all that different.
"Ah, shit, Face. This kid is hammered. What do you expect me to do with this?"
Face shoves past me, skirting a dangling engine block and a neat pile of sheet metal, two of his "boys"--teenage hoods--trailing like ducklings. He doesn't answer immediately. Even as I take his name loudly in vain, Razorface carries the baby gangster gently around the scarred steel lab table that holds up my hot plate. He lays the kid on my cot in the corner of the shop, wrinkling the taut brown blanket. Razorface, Razorface. Gets his name from a triple row of stainless steel choppers. Skin black as velvet and shoulders wide as a football star's. The old kind of football, yeah.
I know the kid: maybe fourteen, maybe twelve. His name is Mercedes. He's rigid, trying to suck air and failing. Anaphylactic shock. Besides that, dark red viscous blood oozes out of his nose, and his skin looks like pounded meat. The nosebleed and the wide-open capillary color of his face are dead giveaways, but I give him the once-over anyway. Then I grab my kit and lug it over, dropping to my knees on the cold damp concrete beside the cot. Bones and metal creak. The room reeks of Razorface's sweaty leather, the kid's blood, diesel fuel. Once it would have made me gag. I ain't what I used to be.
"Can you fix him, Maker?"
Face's boys stand twitching just inside the doorway.
I fumble in my kit, finding epinephrine, the long needle. Even as I fill a syringe I know the answer. "Nah, Face. There's no fucking way." But I have to try. 'Cause Face is one of mine, and the kid is one of his.
I don't look at the punks. "Will one of you two be so fucking kind as to lock the goddamned door?"
"Derek," Razorface says, "do it," and the taller of the two shoots him a sullen-jawed look and stalks
I know already, from the color of Merc's skin, but I need to ask--so I turn my grim expression on Razorface.
"What'd he OD on?" Please God let me be wrong.
They can break you of religion, but they can't break you of praying.
Face holds out a twist of pills, and a chill snakes up my spine. I reach out with my metal hand and take the packet away from him, squeezing the ends to pop the slit. "Putain de marde!" Yellow pills, small as saccharine tablets, with a fine red line across the diameter. Rigathalonin. Hyperex.
We used to call it the Hammer.
How did a two-bit piece of street trash get his hands on something like this? And just what on God's gray earth do you think I can do for a kid who chewed down a handful of Hammers, Face? But I don't say that. I say, "How long ago? When did he take them?"
Face answers. "An hour ago. About an hour ago," and the taller gangster starts to whine.
I glare up at Whiny. "Shut up. How many of these did he take? Anybody see?" Nothing that I can manage--that anybody can manage--is going to make a difference for this kid. If Merc's central nervous system isn't already so much soft-serve, I'm not a card-carrying member of the Teamster's Union.
"One," Whiny says. I curse him for a liar, but the other one--Dopey? Doc?--backs him up. Allergic reaction? Merci Dieu. I drive the needle into his flesh, through cartilage, into the spasming muscle of the heart.
He quits twitching and his eyes fly open, but there's nobody home. I've seen it before. The funny purple color will drain out of his face in a couple of hours, and he'll be just like any other vegetable. I should have let him kick it when I could. Kinder than letting him live.
You're a hard woman, Jenny Casey. Yeah, well, I come by it honestly. "Shit," I whisper. "Another kid. Shit."
I wipe cold sweat from my face, flesh hand trembling with the aftershock. I'll be sick for hours. The only thing worse than the aftermath of a plunge into combat-time is stepping up to the edge and then backing off.
All right. Time to make coffee. And throw Razorface's gangsters out onto the street so I can pat him on the shoulder, with nobody else to see.
Later, I wash my face in the stained steel sink and dry it on a clean rag. I catch myself staring into my own eyes, reflected in the unbreakable mirror hanging on my wall. I look chewed. Hell, you can barely tell I'm a girl. Not exactly girlish anymore, Jenny.
Hah. I won't be fifty for a month.
You wouldn't think I'd spend a lot of time staring in mirrors, but I never got used to that face. I used to stand there and study it every morning when I brushed my teeth, trying to figure out what the rest of the world saw. Vain as a cat of my glamorous good looks, don't you know?
Stained torn sleeveless shirt and cami pants over a frame like rawhide boiled and wired to bone. An eagle's nose--how come you never broke that witch's nose, Jenny?--the skin tone and the cheekbones proclaim my three mostly Mohawk grandparents. Shiny pink burn scars. A prosthetic eye on the left half of the face.
Oh, yeah. And the arm. The left arm. From just below the shoulder it's dull, scratched steel--a clicking horror of a twenty-year-old Canadian Army prosthesis.
"Marde." I glance over at Face, who hands me another cup of coffee. After turning back to the steel table, I pour bourbon into it. Shaking my head, I set mug and bottle aside. My arm clicking, I hoist my butt onto the counter edge.
"Where'd he get it?" I hook the orange chair closer with my right foot and plant it on the seat, my bad leg propped on the back. Hell of a stinking summer night, and it's raining again. The tin roof leaks in three places; rain drums melodiously into the buckets I've set underneath. I run wet fingers through white-stippled hair. It won't lie flat. Too much sweat and grime, and I need a shower, so it's a good thing the rain's filling the rooftop tanks.
The left side of my body aches like the aftermath of a nasty electrical jolt.
Face rolls big shoulders, lifting his coffee cup to his mouth. The ceramic clinks against his prosthetic teeth, and then he eases his body down into another old chair. It creaks under his weight as he swings his feet up onto the counter beside me, leaning back. Regarding me impassively, he shrugs again--a giant, shaven-headed figure with an ear and a nose full of gold and a mouth full of knife-edged, gleaming steel. The palms of his hands are pink and soft where he rolls them over the warmth of the mug; the rest of him shines dark and hard as some exotic wood. A little more than two-thirds my age, maybe. Getting old for a gangster, Face.
"Shit, Maker. I got to do me some asking about that."
I nod, pursing my lips. The scars on my cheek pull the expression out of shape. Face's gaze is level as I finish the spiked coffee in a long, searing swallow. The thermostat reads 27¡C. I shiver. It's too damn cold in here. "Hand me that sweater."
He rises and does it wordlessly, and then refills my cup without my asking. "You drink less coffee, maybe eat something once in a while, you wouldn't be so damn cold all the time."
It's not being skinny makes me shiver, Face. It's a real old problem, but they give it a longer name every war.
"All right," I mumble. "So what do you want to do about it?" He knows I don't mean the cold.
Face turns his attention to the corpse-silent child on my narrow bed. "You think the shit was bad?"
I bite my lip. "I hope he was allergic. Otherwise--" I can't finish. I wonder how many of those little plastic twists are out in the neighborhoods. I rake my hand through stiff hair and shake my head. Hyperex is not a street drug. It is produced by two licensed pharmaceutical companies under contract for the U.S. armed forces and--chiefly--for the C.A. It's classified. And complicated.
The chances of a street-level knockoff are slim, and I don't think a multinational would touch it.
"What the hell else could it be?" I wave my left hand at the twist on the table. The light glitters on the scratches and dents marking my prosthesis. He doesn't answer.
After setting my cup aside, I raise my arm to pull the sweater up to my shoulder. It snags on the hydraulics of the arm and I have to wiggle the thread loose. Cette putain de machine. Face doesn't stare at the puckered line of scar a few centimeters below the proximal end of my humerus. Did I mention that I like that man? I pause to comment, "Half a dozen tabs in there. You want to try one out, eh?"
Then I drag the black sweater over my head, twisting the sleeves around so the canvas elbow patches are where they should be, mothball-scented cotton-wool warm on my right arm only. The left one aches--phantom pain. My body trying to tell me something's wrong with a hand I lost a quarter century back.
Long slow shake of that massive head, bulldog muscle rippling along the column of his neck. "I don't want this shit on my street, Maker." A deep frown. I hand him the bottle of bourbon by my elbow, and he adds a healthy dose to his cup along with a double spoonful of creamer and enough sugar to make me queasy. What is it about big macho men that they have to ruin perfectly good coffee?
I'm shaking less. I nearly triggered earlier, and the reaction won't wear off for a while yet, but the booze and the caffeine double-teaming my system help to smooth things. I raise my own cup to my lips, inhale alcohol fumes and the good rich smell of the roasted beans. Fortified, I brace myself and go down deep, after the memories I usually leave to rot. Old blood, that. Old, bad blood.
Two more breaths and I'm as ready to talk about it as I'll ever be. "I've never seen anybody do that off a single hit, Face. We'd get guys once in a while, who'd been strung out and on the front line for weeks, who'd push it too far and do the froth-and-foam. But not off a tablet. The Hammer's not like that." I glance over at Mercedes, who is resting quietly on my cot. "Poor stupid kid."
"He's cooked, ain't he?"
I nod slowly, tasting bile, and reach for the bourbon. Razorface hands it to me without even looking and I kick the chair away and hop down, holster creaking, wincing as weight hits my left knee and hip. There's a lot of ceramic in there.
I gulp a quarter mug. It burns going down. Nothing in the world ever tasted quite so good. Jean-Michel. Katya. Nell. Oh, God. Nell.
I fight my face under control and turn back to him, thrusting the bourbon his way. "Drink to your dead, Face?"
Face's lips skin back from his shark smile as he waves the bottle away. Thick, sensitive lips, with the gray edge of an armor weave visible along the inside rim where they should have been pink with blood. I don't like to think about his sex life. "I'm gonna find that dealer, Maker."
"What about Merc?"
Face looks at the kid. "His momma will take care of him."
"Better to put a bullet in his head."
He looks at me, expressionless.
"What's his mother going to do with him? Better to tell her he's dead. He isn't coming back from this."
Another slow roll of his shoulders. "Shit, Maker. I don't know if I can do that." He's one of my boys, one of my kids, his eyes tell me. I wonder if Mercedes is Face's son. I wonder if he knows. Half the bastards in Hartford are his, likely as not.
"I can," I offer. His eyes flicker from mine down to the piece strapped to my thigh, and then back. The muscles in his face tense and go slack.
"No," he says after a moment. "He's mine."
He hands me back my mug and scoops Mercedes into his arms, letting me hold the door. I lock up after they go, and watch on the monitors as his back recedes into the blood-warm predawn drizzle, leaving me alone with my thoughts and most of a bottle.
That bottle looks back at me for long seconds before I take it and climb into the front seat of a half-restored gasoline convertible, getting comfortable for a long night of thinking.
Lake Simcoe Military Prison
Boyne Valley, Ontario
Friday 1 September, 2062
Dr. Elspeth Dunsany folded her prison coveralls for the last time and set them on the shelf above her bunk. Denim jeans and a peach-colored button-down shirt felt strange against her skin, and the colors were garish after over a decade of unrelieved blue and gray and khaki. She had no mirror, but she was willing to bet that the pastel shirt made her dark bronze complexion look brassy. She wondered what it would be like, to look at walls that were not gray, to taste different air.
"Hurry up, Doc," the guard by the barred door ordered, not unsympathetically.
The prisoner looked up at her guard and grinned. A single lock of once-black hair curled out of Elspeth's ponytail and hung down before merry eyes. "Officer Fox. You've been keeping me here for twelve years. Now you can't wait to get me out."
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