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Altered Carbonby Richard K. Morgan
Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah's cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting. Millsport had long since put itself to bed, but out in the Reach currents were still snagging on the shoals, and the sound came ashore to prowl the empty streets. There was a fine mist drifting in from the whirlpool, falling on the city like sheets of muslin and fogging the kitchen windows.
Chemically alert, I inventoried the hardware on the scarred wooden table
for the fiftieth time that night. Sarah's Heckler and Koch shard pistol
glinted dully at me in the low light, the butt gaping open for its clip.
It was an assassin's weapon, compact and utterly silent. The magazines
lay next to it. She had wrapped insulating tape around each one to
distinguish the ammunition: green for sleep, black for the spider-venom
load. Most of the clips were black-wrapped. Sarah had used up a lot of
green on the security guards at Gemini Biosys last night.
My own contributions were less subtle: the big silver Smith & Wesson,
and the four remaining hallucinogen grenades. The thin crimson line
around each canister seemed to sparkle slightly, as if it was about to
detach itself from the metal casing and float up to join the curlicues
of smoke ribboning off my cigarette. Shift and slide of altered
significants, the side effect of the tetrameth I'd scored that afternoon
down at the wharf. I don't usually smoke when I'm straight, but for some
reason the tet always triggers the urge.
Against the distant roar of the maelstrom I heard it. The hurrying strop
of rotor blades on the fabric of the night.
I stubbed out the cigarette, mildly unimpressed with myself, and went
through to the bedroom. Sarah was sleeping, an assembly of low-frequency
sine curves beneath the single sheet. A raven sweep of hair covered her
face and one long-fingered hand trailed over the side of the bed. As I
stood looking at her the night outside split. One of Harlan's World's
orbital guardians test-firing into the Reach. Thunder from the concussed
sky rolled in to rattle the windows. The woman in the bed stirred and
swept the hair out of her eyes. The liquid crystal gaze found me and
"What're you looking at?" Voice husky with the residue of sleep. I
smiled a little.
"Don't give me that shit. Tell me what you're looking at."
"Just looking. It's time to go."
She lifted her head and picked up the sound of the helicopter. The sleep
slid away from her face, and she sat up in bed.
"Where's the 'ware?"
It was a corps joke. I smiled the way you do when you see an old friend
and pointed to the case in the corner of the room.
"Get my gun for me."
"Yes, ma'am. Black or green?"
"Black. I trust these scumbags about as far as a clingfilm condom." In
the kitchen, I loaded up the shard pistol, cast a glance at my own
weapon and left it lying there. Instead I scooped up one of the H
grenades and took it back in my other hand. I paused in the doorway to
the bedroom and weighed the two pieces of hardware in each palm as if I
was trying to decide which was the heavier.
"A little something with your phallic substitute, ma'am?"
Sarah looked up from beneath the hanging sickle of black hair over her
fore-head. She was in the midst of pulling a pair of long woolen socks
up over the sheen of her thighs.
"Yours is the one with the long barrel, Tak."
We both heard it at the same time. A metallic double clack from the
corridor outside. Our eyes met across the room, and for a quarter second
I saw my own shock mirrored there. Then I was tossing the loaded shard
gun to her. She put up one long-fingered hand and took it out of the air
just as the whole of the bed-room wall caved in in thunder. The blast
knocked me back into a corner and onto the floor.
They must have located us in the apartment with body-heat sensors, then
mined the whole wall with limpets. Taking no chances this time. The
commando who came through the ruined wall was stocky and insect-eyed in
full gas attack rig, hefting a snub-barreled Kalashnikov in gloved
Ears ringing, still on the floor, I flung the H grenade up at him. It
was un-fused, useless in any case against the gas mask, but he didn't
have time to identify the device as it spun at him. He batted it off the
breech of his Kalashnikov and stumbled back, eyes wide behind the glass
panels of the mask.
"Fire in the hole."
Sarah was down on the floor beside the bed, arms wrapped around her head
and sheltered from the blast. She heard the shout, and in the seconds
the bluff had bought us she popped up again, shard gun outflung. Beyond
the wall I could see figures huddled against the expected grenade blast.
I heard the mosquito whine of monomolecular splinters across the room as
she put three shots into the lead commando. They shredded invisibly
through the attack suit and into the flesh beneath. He made a noise like
someone straining to lift something heavy as the spider venom sank its
claws into his nervous system. I grinned and started to get up.
Sarah was turning her aim on the figures beyond the wall when the second
commando of the night appeared braced in the kitchen doorway and hosed
her away with his assault rifle.
Still on my knees, I watched her die with chemical clarity. It all went
so slowly it was like a video playback on frame advance. The commando
kept his aim low, holding the Kalashnikov down against the
hyper-rapid-fire recoil it was famous for. The bed went first, erupting
into gouts of white goose down and ripped cloth, then Sarah, caught in
the storm as she turned. I saw one leg turned to pulp below the knee,
and then the body hit, bloody fistfuls of tissue torn out of her pale
flanks as she fell through the curtain of fire.
I reeled to my feet as the assault rifle stammered to a halt. Sarah had
rolled over on her face, as if to hide the damage the shells had done to
her, but I saw it all through veils of red anyway. I came out of the
corner without conscious thought, and the commando was too late to bring
the Kalashnikov around. I slammed into him at waist height, blocked the
gun, and knocked him back into the kitchen. The barrel of the rifle
caught on the doorjamb, and he lost his grip. I heard the weapon clatter
to the ground behind me as we hit the kitchen floor. With the speed and
strength of the tetrameth, I scrambled astride him, batted aside one
flailing arm, and seized his head in both hands. Then I smashed it
against the tiles like a coconut.
Under the mask, his eyes went suddenly unfocused. I lifted the head
again and smashed it down again, feeling the skull give soggily with the
impact. I ground down against the crunch, lifted and smashed again.
There was a roaring in my ears like the maelstrom, and somewhere I could
hear my own voice screaming obscenities.
I was going for a fourth or fifth blow when something kicked me between
the shoulder blades and splinters jumped magically out of the table leg
in front of me. I felt the sting as two of them found homes in my face.
For some reason the rage puddled abruptly out of me. I let go of the
commando's head almost gently and was lifting one puzzled hand to the
pain of the splinters in my cheek when I realized I had been shot, and
that the bullet must have torn all the way through my chest and into the
table leg. I looked down, dumbfounded, and saw the dark red stain inking
its way out over my shirt. No doubt about it. An exit hole big enough to
take a golf ball.
With the realization came the pain. It felt as if someone had run a
steel wool pipe cleaner briskly through my chest cavity. Almost
thoughtfully, I reached up, found the hole, and plugged it with my two
middle fingers. The fingertips scraped over the roughness of torn bone
in the wound, and I felt something membranous throb against one of them.
The bullet had missed my heart. I grunted and attempted to rise, but the
grunt turned into a cough and I tasted blood on my tongue.
"Don't you move, motherfucker."
The yell came out of a young throat, badly distorted with shock. I
hunched forward over my wound and looked back over my shoulder. Behind
me in the doorway, a young man in a police uniform had both hands
clasped around the pistol he had just shot me with. He was trembling
visibly. I coughed again and turned back to the table.
The Smith & Wesson was on eye level, gleaming silver, still where I had
left it less than two minutes ago. Perhaps it was that, the scant
shavings of time that had been planed off since Sarah was alive and all
was well, that drove me. Less than two minutes ago I could have picked
up the gun; I'd even thought about it, so why not now? I gritted my
teeth, pressed my fingers harder into the hole in my chest, and
staggered upright. Blood spattered warmly against the back of my throat.
I braced myself on the edge of the table with my free hand and looked
back at the cop. I could feel my lips peeling back from the clenched
teeth in something that was more a grin than a grimace.
"Don't make me do it, Kovacs."
I got myself a step closer to the table and leaned against it with my
thighs, breath whistling through my teeth and bubbling in my throat. The
Smith & Wes-son gleamed like fool's gold on the scarred wood. Out in the
Reach power lashed down from an orbital and lit the kitchen in tones of
blue. I could hear the mael-strom calling.
"I said don't--"
I closed my eyes and clawed the gun off the table.
Coming back from the dead can be rough.
In the Envoy Corps they teach you to let go before storage. Stick it in
neutral and float. It's the first lesson and the trainers drill it into
you from day one. Hard-eyed Virginia Vidaura, dancer's body poised
inside the shapeless corps coveralls as she paced in front of us in the
induction room. Don't worry about anything, she said, and you'll be
ready for it. A decade later, I met her again in a holding pen at the
New Kanagawa Justice Facility. She was going down for eighty to a
century; excessively armed robbery and organic damage. The last thing
she said to me when they walked her out of the cell was don't worry,
kid, they'll store it. Then she bent her head to light a cigarette, drew
the smoke hard into lungs she no longer gave a damn about, and set off
down the corridor as if to a tedious briefing. From the narrow angle of
vision afforded me by the cell gate, I watched the pride in that walk
and I whispered the words to myself like a mantra.
Don't worry, they'll store it. It was a superbly double-edged piece of
street wisdom. Bleak faith in the efficiency of the penal system, and a
clue to the elusive state of mind required to steer you past the rocks
of psychosis. Whatever you feel, whatever you're thinking, whatever you
are when they store you, that's what you'll be when you come out. With
states of high anxiety, that can be a problem. So you let go. Stick it
in neutral. Disengage and float.
If you have time.
I came thrashing up out of the tank, one hand plastered across my chest
searching for the wounds, the other clutching at a nonexistent weapon.
The weight hit me like a hammer, and I collapsed back into the flotation
gel. I flailed with my arms, caught one elbow painfully on the side of
the tank and gasped. Gobbets of gel poured into my mouth and down my
throat. I snapped my mouth shut and got a hold on the hatch coaming, but
the stuff was everywhere. In my eyes, burning my nose and throat, and
slippery under my fingers. The weight was forcing my grip on the hatch
loose, sitting on my chest like a high-g maneuver, pressing me down into
the gel. My body heaved violently in the confines of the tank. Flotation
gel? I was drowning.
Abruptly, there was a strong grip on my arm and I was hauled coughing
into an upright position. At about the same time I was working out there
were no wounds in my chest someone wiped a towel roughly across my face
and I could see. I decided to save that pleasure for later and
concentrated on getting the contents of the tank out of my nose and
throat. For about half a minute I stayed sitting, head down, coughing up
the gel and trying to work out why everything weighed so much.
"So much for training." It was a hard, male voice, the sort that
habitually hangs around justice facilities. "What did they teach you in
the Envoys anyway, Kovacs?"
That was when I had it. On Harlan's World, Kovacs is quite a common
name. Everyone knows how to pronounce it. This guy didn't. He was
speaking a stretched form of the Amanglic they use on the World, but
even allowing for that, he was mangling the name badly, and the ending
came out with a hard k instead of the Slavic ch.
And everything was too heavy.
The realization came through my fogged perceptions like a brick through
frosted plate glass.
Somewhere along the line, they'd taken Takeshi Kovacs (D.H.), and they'd
freighted him. And since Harlan's World was the only habitable biosphere
in the Glimmer system, that meant a stellar-range needlecast to--
I looked up. Harsh neon tubes set in a concrete roof. I was sitting in
the opened hatch of a dull metal cylinder, looking for all the world
like an ancient aviator who'd forgotten to dress before climbing aboard
his biplane. The cylinder was one of a row of about twenty backed up
against the wall, opposite a heavy steel door, which was closed. The was
chilly and the walls unpainted. Give them their due, on Harlan's World
at least the air resleeving rooms are decked out in pastel colors and
the attendants are pretty. After all you're supposed to have paid your
debt to society. The least they can do is give you a sunny start to your
Sunny wasn't in the vocabulary of the figure before me. About two meters
tall, he looked as if he'd made his living wrestling swamp panthers
before the present career opportunity presented itself. Musculature
bulged on his chest and arms like body armor, and the head above it had
hair cropped close to the skull, revealing a long scar like a lightning
strike down to the left ear. He was dressed in a loose black garment
with epaulettes and a diskette logo on the breast. His eyes matched the
garment and watched me with hardened calm. Having helped me sit up, he
had stepped back out of arm's reach, as per the manual. He'd been doing
this a long time.
I pressed one nostril closed and snorted tank gel out of the other.
"Want to tell me where I am? Itemize my rights, something like that?"
"Kovacs, right now you don't have any rights."
I looked up and saw that a grim smile had stitched itself across his
face. I shrugged and snorted the other nostril clean.
"Want to tell me where I am?"
He hesitated a moment, glanced up at the neon-barred roof as if to
ascertain the information for himself before he passed it on, and then
mirrored my shrug.
"Sure. Why not? You're in Bay City, pal. Bay City, Earth." The grimace
of a smile came back. "Home of the Human Race. Please enjoy your stay on
this most ancient of civilized worlds. Ta-dada-dah."
"Don't give up the day job," I told him soberly.
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