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Escape Velocity

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I.

The Unlawful quivered at the base of a deeply shadowed wall, his breaths quiet and ragged as he crouched lower. His effort at further concealment was wasted. Enforcer Cho Hakkai could have tracked him by the sour tang of fear-sweat cutting through the dark, stale air of the storehouse alone. The Unlawful's face glistened with it in the sickly green glow of Cho's infra-nightvision.

"Former Citizen Chen Bao, hereafter designated Unlawful CB-05968—you have been found guilty of biotampering by the governing body of the Pan-Asian sector of the New Terra Corporation. As an Unlawful, your corpus will now be repurposed for conscription in the Corporation's uranium mines. Sentencing requires you to submit to immediate re-education." The words scrolled across the periphery of the visor plate covering Cho's eyes as he spoke, but he ignored them. His attention was far better applied to watching fugitives than the verdic-prompter, and memorizing an ID string and verdict before a sentencing was simple. Missing a critical cue and suffering the consequences—that could complicate matters.

The Unlawful's breathing and heart rate sped up, and Cho sensed a sharp tension ballooning to fill the air between them. He smiled. Former Citizen Chen Bao was about to do something foolish.

"Collect-ReEd Team PA-sec-3J, the Unlawful may be preparing to run," he subvocalized. "Be ready."

"What for? They never get past you, Enforcer," said the lead Collector waiting outside. His voice was quiet as a thought, no more than a soft, unobtrusive whisper in Cho's mind.

Cho's smile curved higher. "Protocol, Lead Collector Chang. I want this by the book." He dropped his hand to the spike gun strapped to his left thigh and touched the pressure latch securing it in its holster. The latch retracted noiselessly. He left the slim, cylindrical interrupter in its holder; he wouldn't be needing it.

"Team PA-sec-3J ready, sir," Chang said. "Liang, Wen—north and east walls."

Cho could hear the other two members of the team moving around the outside of the storehouse, their footsteps quiet enough that the Unlawful wouldn't notice, but not quiet enough for his enhanced hearing. Until one of them—Wen; the noise came from the east wall, near where the Unlawful was huddled—stumbled. A small stone or piece of concrete clacked against the outside of the storehouse's decaying wall.

The Unlawful suddenly stopped breathing, and Cho tensed, focusing on the Unlawful's right arm. It whipped forward. A shard of something long and irregularly shaped, imprinted with the Unlawful's body heat, whistled through the air, heading straight for Cho's neck. He lunged forward and to the side, and the projectile sliced a thin line right above the high collar of his body armor. The pain didn't even have a chance to register. His biobots numbed the area instantly, and he could feel a gentle tingle as it began to close.

"N-no—please!" the Unlawful shrieked. He pressed desperately against the wall, trying to hide himself in it. "I didn't mean to—please! No!" The scent of dust and sweat was tinged with ammonia now. Cho wrinkled his nose. The Unlawful had lost control of his bladder and soiled himself.

"Plea—" he shrieked one last time, but Cho had already crossed the four meters separating them and knuckled him hard at three pressure points. Former Citizen Chen Bao went limp, his plea aborted and dying in his throat as Cho gripped him by the neck and jammed the spike gun under his chin. He squeezed the trigger. The twelve-centimeter needle punched through bone and muscle, sliding into brain tissue to deliver the re-education 'bots. Cho squeezed the trigger again, and the needle retracted, trailing microdroplets of blood, cerebrum, and spinal fluid. He stepped back as Chen began convulsing. The new biobots were destroying the black market 'bots and personality centers of Chen's brain as they reconfigured his neuronet. In five minutes, he'd be no more than a biological automaton, suitable for working eighteen-hour shifts in the mines. Radiation exposure wouldn't affect his ability to work until it began to noticeably break down his tissues. But that wouldn't happen for at least a decade. The mining suit technology had improved shielding now—the Corporation was getting more than its money's worth out of the miners these days.

Cho took a step back as the Unlawful flopped a hand in his direction. It reminded him vaguely of a vid of a freshly caught fish he'd once seen in a seizure of illegal materials. There were no more fish now, at least not the kind you could catch. He'd seen a few in tanks, schools of small, brilliant orange-and-gold creatures with wide, coyly furling tails, displayed in the suites of two Elites he'd once taken in for re-education—where he'd seen the vid, actually. But that had been years ago.

Unlawful CB-05968's hand flopped again, and he began choking on his own saliva. Cho nudged him onto his side with a firm shove of his boot, then wiped at his neck as he turned away. There was a tiny smear of blood on his palm, its small heat a pinkish-green that quickly faded to gray and then a cool black in his infra-nightvision. In eight hours, his skin would be fully healed, without even a thin white scar to mark where he'd been cut.

"Enforcer Cho to Team PA-sec-3J, Unlawful CB-05968 is ready for collection," he said as he stepped, blinking, out of the storehouse's dusty black shadows and into the harsh afternoon light. His infra-nightvision blipped out between blinks, and his visor automatically polarized itself, cutting out the glare. The spike gun went back in its holster, just in front of the interrupter.

"Sir," Lead Collector Chang said. Liang and a slightly subdued Wen were coming around opposite corners. Wen wouldn't look directly at him but went straight to the Collectors' vehicle and pulled out the gurney. As Wen banged it out onto the ground and started pushing it into the storehouse, the reinforced plastisteel straps hanging down from its sides flapped and flopped in a surprisingly accurate parody of the Unlawful's limbs. Cho was about to speak to him—he wanted the transcript to fully reflect Wen's transgression and his notice of it, even though the mistake hadn't interfered with the re-education—but a waiting message from Dispatch was flashing yellow in his peripheral vision. He'd amend the transcript on his way back, and then audit Wen's to make sure he included it. If Wen recorded his mistake and this was the first such incident, Cho would recommend leniency. He subvocalized a personal alert to that effect, setting it to flash in an hour if he didn't get to it before then, and climbed onto his cycle as the message scrolled across the bottom of his visor.

The Lead Enforcer had found him a new partner, effective immediately.

Well. Now he'd have plenty of time to audit the transcripts on the way back to Central Dispatch. Cho sent an acknowledgement and kicked his cycle to life. The maglifts hummed beneath him, the cycle rose a good ten centimeters from the ground, and he twisted the throttle. The storehouse fell away behind him as he sped toward District Central, already calling up his own transcript and requesting realtime access to Wen's via Syslink.

 

Enforcer Sha Gojyo sat at the small table standing dead center in the antechamber outside the Lead Enforcer's office. He swiped his finger across the bottom of a sheet of datafilm and watched the information blur as it spooled past. Occasionally he stopped the dataflow and tapped a query, studied the results, and then swiped anew. Another Enforcer—Zou Mei, it looked like—stood in the alcove discreetly tucked into the corner. Sha flicked a glance at the door in front of him, then at Zou. A flexible silver cable, sparkling where it caught the light as Zou shifted on her feet, trailed from behind her left ear to a console embedded in the alcove's wall. The tiny black Syslink interface button Zou'd been wearing in lieu of the full duty visor was pinched securely between her fingers; it would be replaced behind Zou's ear once her upload was complete and she disconnected from the hardline. Sha resisted the impulse to reach up and feel for his own button and make sure it was still there.

It was unusual that he would be here, waiting to see Lead Enforcer Hsieh while another Enforcer was uploading all her bio- and neuro-data. He wondered if it was a scheduled upload or if they were cracking down. Probably cracking down, thanks to his former partner, but he wasn't sure. He'd been pretty much off-link and thus out of the loop for a week, and not all the new protocols had filtered down over Syslink yet. He bent his head back over the datafilm and tapped in an expedited request for all the new protocols.

The door that led out into the hall slid open, and Sha stopped the dataspool to watch as a tall, dark-haired Enforcer entered the antechamber, glanced around impassively, and then moved to stand more or less at attention against the wall to the door's left. This was probably his new partner. He looked like a badass, his body language practically shouting "dangerous." Sha would have to watch himself with this one.

Sha turned back to his datafilm and subvocalized a query to Syslink, carefully not including the "badass" or anything else he was actually thinking. He was good at not getting caught, and it would be some kind of colossal irony if he screwed up now and revealed his familiarity with vocabulary found in illicit "action" vids—or whatever it was they'd been called two hundred years ago. The tech team hadn’t found anything worth disciplining him over when they'd taken him apart six days ago, practically stripping him down to synapses and nanowires as they looked for telltale glitches and black-market modifications. Sha had seen it coming—Banri had been a dumbass, not a badass—and purged the few insignificant mods he'd felt it safe to make. He preferred to rely on himself and carefully practiced, 'botless controls for suppressing and masking his bio-responses. If he'd been a Citizen, it wouldn't have been possible. But Enforcers got more freedom and better 'bots. They'd check an accused Enforcer carefully before summarily re-educating, and if you were innocent or cagey enough, you could beat the more thorough—the more intimate—scrutiny of a full bodysweep.

But if you weren't …

Enforcer Banri—now Unlawful BR-97600—had been sent to the labs. They'd try out new neurotech and 'bots on him, and if the untested tech and 'bots didn't fry his brain, when they were done they'd spike him and send him to a medifarm, where his skin, bones, and organs would be harvested for Elites or other Enforcers who needed the parts.

Sha suppressed a shudder by disguising it as a nod. Zou had disconnected and was heading for the door that led out to the main floor, nodding at Sha and the other Enforcer in turn. The other Enforcer stepped forward and inclined his head, and then resumed his position against the wall as she passed him. Sha could feel his gaze after Zou left, though, steady and growing more intense as the Enforcer continued watching him. And Sha still didn't know who he was. Syslink hadn't come up with the data for his query yet. That was unusual, and it was making him nervous somewhere deep inside, where the 'bots wouldn't find the blips in his bio-responses.

He was just about to give in and ask the other Enforcer himself when Lead Enforcer Hsieh's door slid open.

"Enforcer Cho, Enforcer Sha—enter."

Sha got up, pocketed his datafilm, and went to stand before Hsieh's desk, hands clasped and resting against the small of his back as he waited for Cho to join him. If his new partner turned out to be Enforcer Cho Hakkai … . "Badass" didn't even begin to describe him. Sha was definitely going to have to start being more careful.

He gave in to the urge to sneak glances at Cho while the Lead Enforcer logged their partnership as official, but when Hsieh triggered an access restriction code, Sha actually started paying attention.

"You've noticed the rising number of biotampering re-education calls," Hsieh said. Cho gave a quick nod; Sha's was a little slower. "The corruption has begun reaching higher," Hsieh continued. He looked at Sha—right, he meant Banri. How much did everyone else know about it? The Dispatch databanks didn't have a lot of info on it—as far as he could tell, Banri had been listed as killed while executing a sentence. The little hairs at the back of his neck rose, prickling, as Cho turned his head slightly to look at him. Cho's gaze was intense, the scrutiny of his weirdly vibrant green eyes an almost physical thing. Like Cho was trying to bore a hole in his neuronet.

Hsieh tapped the datafilm on his desk, and the unsettling feeling of being stared at was pushed aside as the vision in Sha's left eye was suddenly filled with numbers, lists, graphs, and schematics. Everything flashed by too fast to grasp immediately, but the green dot blinking steadily below the information showed that it was going into the secure Syslink databank that only authorized Enforcers could access. Good, he'd be able to call it back up as needed.

"Some of the Elites here in P-A District Central have started to expand their interests in black market biobots, tech, and illicit artifacts. The corruption has infiltrated the Enforcers' ranks. The new black market 'bots are superior to any we've seen before, and they're harder to detect. Unlawful BR-97600," Hsieh said, swiping his finger across his datafilm and bringing up an only partially redacted version of Banri's sentence, "was infected with these 'bots. We've discovered that he had been procuring test subjects for the Elites in charge of an illicit biolab." Another swipe, and a new schematic overlaid the vision in both of Sha's eyes. "The new 'bots are remarkable—they threw an almost perfect veil over his neuronet and built false data trails, including biometrics and motion tracking that allowed him to go out off-duty and persuade or forcibly remove Citizens to the Elites' manufacturing lab."

"Wait, wait—sir," Sha said, unable to help himself. He flicked his glance sideways, and the schematic disappeared. "That's not possible. 'Bots need to be in synch with Syslink to do any motion tracking. Their processors can't do data-gen, and any processor big enough to generate that kind of data would be found easily through signal disruption in a regular upload or 'net check. To throw that kind of information, they'd have to be connected to something like Syslink, and there's nowhere to hide anything that big. The signals would be too obvious."

Cho glanced at him again, and Sha couldn't figure out whether the look in his eyes was interest because Sha had made a good point or doubts that Sha was actually qualified to be an Enforcer. He had an uncomfortable feeling it might be the latter.

"The tech exists, Enforcer Sha," Hsieh said. "It was banned 165 years ago when the New Terra Corporation consolidated the globe to prevent precisely these kinds of events from happening. The First Director knew that a delicate balance between the strata of society was the only way to ensure world stability once faster-than-light space travel and extra-galactic colonization were proven to be impossible. He moved swiftly to secure economic and political power throughout the world so the various corporation-nations would no longer tear each other—or the globe—apart. And as part of the Consolidation, he wisely determined that not only would the new world-society have to carefully balanced, but that balance had to be infallible—impossible to upset. He quashed any further developments of biotech and rolled many of the improvements back."

Cho stirred. "Yes, the ability to circumvent that which keeps us honest could be catastrophic. We might even return to the darker ages of civilization where common citizens were able to do as they pleased—refrain from working and pursue lives of idleness, or even choose whether to follow the law and get away with transgressions indefinitely until finally caught by pure chance. The citizenry cannot be allowed to do as they wish; they will always choose poorly. And to prevent it, the ability to have secrets from the governing body is the first thing that must be prevented. The First Director was a wise man." Cho didn't look at him when he spoke, but Sha was pretty sure there was something damning in there, some sly insult aimed at him: Cho's voice, soft and cool and measured, had made him sound like one of the teachers Sha'd had in Crèche 34-E, for the midlevel education block. It rankled, and not just because he already knew the party line. Every Enforcer recruit knew about the importance of maintaining the social strata. But he'd never heard about the biotech being rolled back before, that there'd been better biotech at the beginning of the Consolidation. He was willing to bet that very few people suspected it, let alone knew. … And now he was one of them, whatever that meant. He carefully tucked that thought away to examine later.

"All right, I know. But who would have access to the materials and information needed to build that kind of tech? Or rebuild it, I guess," Sha asked.

"We don't know who they are, and the 'bots appear to contain a kill switch that renders them fully inert—mere nanoshells—once the Unlawfuls are caught," Hsieh said. "We can't backtrack and follow the manufacturing or programming process. But the only severe 'bot-related biocrimes have been reported here, in Pan-Asian District Central. The majority of the Governing Board suspects a group of our Elites, but we've also heard rumors of a resistance group: unregistered, 'netless individuals who may be the real power behind it all."

Sha had his eyes half on Hsieh and half on Cho, which was how he caught the minute ripple of surprise and interest that passed over Cho's profile.

"Unregistered and 'netless?" Cho repeated.

"How's that possible?" Sha wondered aloud at the same time. The population was sterile, the citizenry born in Corporation-run Nursery labs and raised in the Crèches. He'd never heard of any instances of non-Nursery births. Even before the Consolidation, thanks to growing infertility and concerns about genetic glitches and cellular biopollution, those who could reproduce were having their babies conceived and gestated in labs. The First Director had made the practice law—the Crèches were an invaluable asset to building the world-society's strata.

"They must be acquiring embryos from one of the Nursery labs," said Cho.

"That's the most likely scenario. Someone must be logging embryos as not viable, then selling them instead of destroying them. If they took one from every Nursery lab in the Pan-Asian sector twice a year, they could have over twenty-five hundred."

"Right, and if they have the tech and facilities for those illicit 'bots, throwing together and maintaining a few incubators wouldn't be hard." Sha tapped his forefinger on the butt of his interrupter, thinking. "How long does the Governing Board think this has been going on?"

Hsieh went to his datafilm again. "They're not sure."

It had to be at least a generation, probably more, for the unregistered, 'netless individuals to have reached maturity, Sha was certain. But why were the new 'bots only being introduced now? Maybe it hadn't been a generation; maybe it had been a lot less. It was possible that whoever was behind it all had a way to do something about the 'nets that every person had inserted in the middle of the gestation period. That sounded right. If they could resurrect the old, more advanced tech, it stood to reason they could also improve on it.

"It must not be long," Cho said. He didn't bother to elaborate, but Sha had reached the same conclusion quickly, and he didn't give Cho the satisfaction of asking for clarification, let alone looking in his direction.

"No," Hsieh agreed. "I think they're at the beginning of their endeavor. We need to stop it before the corruption spreads and causes serious instability. We don't know if that's their endgame, but we can't count it out. And it could be far worse than that. The New Terra Corporation saved all of civilization 165 years ago—it will not be taken apart by a handful of anarchists and other selfish malcontents." He looked up from his datafilm.

"We've chosen you because of your record," he said to Cho, "and because you most recently passed a full, rigorous bodyscan," he said to Sha. "Other unscheduled bodyscans won't clear other personnel soon enough, and the Chairman and Director want immediate movement on this. No one else is to have access to this information." Hsieh pressed his thumb to a corner of the datafilm and subvocalized something Sha's enhanced hearing couldn't catch. "You'll upload your findings every forty-eight hours via hardline, here."

The green dot blinking at the bottom left corner of his peripheral vision wavered and turned orange as Hsieh locked in their access to one of the restricted "shadow" databanks Sha'd only heard rumors about. He felt a plummeting sensation begin to build in his stomach, and he forced himself to take a long, slow breath to keep it down so his biometrics wouldn't show the blip. He knew what Hsieh was going to say next.

"Anything which jeopardizes the success of your assignment will be grounds for immediate loss of status and re-education as Citizens. Your assignment begins now."

Cho's back stiffened imperceptibly into full attention. "Sir," he said crisply.

"Sir," Sha echoed, his own spine snapping straighter. Re-education as Citizens. Right. Like they'd be allowed to keep their neuronets intact if they screwed this up. Even as Citizens, they'd remember too much. If they failed, they were as good as Unlawfuls. And—the thought made Sha take another long, slow breath—they might not be safe even if they succeeded.

In the words of the old action vids, they were screwed.

Hsieh slid his finger across his desk. The door behind them mirrored its movement, and Sha turned smartly on his heel to follow Cho out, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now.

They walked in brisk silence for a few minutes, Sha half a pace behind Cho, until Cho finally spoke.

"Before we begin our investigation, we should spend a few hours acquainting ourselves with each other's service records and styles of engagement. My methods are somewhat … unusual, though they fall within regulations, and my previous partners found they were distracted the first several times we completed a re-education. Given the significance of our assignment, I would prefer that our first operations go more smoothly."

"That's fine. I've been off-link for a week anyway, and I could use a little time sparring," Sha said, his tone neutral, unchallenging. He wasn't going to fight Cho for the upper hand in this partnership. No, he'd heard about Enforcer Cho Hakkai's "style of engagement." Cho never used the neural interrupter that the rest of them relied on to paralyze the Unlawfuls for sentencing; he used his hand-to-hand skills, the ones they were taught in training as a fallback in case the interrupters failed. Sha had heard of an interrupter failing to subdue an Unlawful only once—two months earlier, when Cho's last partner had tried and failed to paralyze the Unlawful they were sentencing. The Unlawful, they said, had some crazily advanced black-market 'bots—resistant to the interrupter's signal, and they even dulled the effects of pressure-point attacks. Cho's partner had died almost instantly with a jagged, rusty scrap of metal shoved through his neck. His 'bots couldn't deal with that kind of trauma, and he'd drowned in his own blood as Cho wrestled the Unlawful to the ground and spiked him, still fighting. Sha heard that the Unlawful still wouldn't go down, even with the re-education 'bots swimming around in his gray matter, so Cho re-inserted the spike between his eyes and scrambled his brains the old-fashioned way. "Pithing," they called it.

Badass. That hardly began to cover what Enforcer Cho Hakkai was supposedly capable of. Sha snorted. This was just his kind of luck—he'd escaped re-education after Banri's spectacular show of stupidity and greed only to be saddled with someone who was practically a living legend.

"I thought you'd be taller," he muttered. And then mentally cursed his own stupidity. It wasn't a blatant insult or an obviously questionable observation, nothing that would flag his transcripts, especially if he kept that kind of sarcasm to a minimum. But a slip like this would put Cho on his guard; he seemed to be the kind of person who was careful about those kinds of cues. And Sha was willing to bet he was more careful and observant than Lead Enforcer Hsieh or even the trained Auditors who read through their flagged and randomly selected transcripts.

Cho stopped and turned to study him, and Sha masked his expression as he forced his heart rate to remain steady. What the hell was he thinking? He'd always known that one day—probably one day soon, even—he'd stop being careful. But he didn't think it would happen today. Not right after Banri and the bodysweep.

The searching look felt like it went on forever; Cho was probably deciding whether to turn Sha in now or dispose of him in some carefully planned accident on assignment—and Sha finally let it all go. He sighed, resigned, just as Cho spoke.

"Taller? No. I'm above average height for a man from the Pan-Asian sector. As you should know, being at least three centimeters taller than I." His words were calm and uninflected, but there was a sharpness in his gaze, something keen and penetrating that was somehow less invasive than the look he'd given Sha in the Lead Enforcer's office. It made him feel like … like he was being noticed for the first time.

"Right," Sha said. He looked away and started walking again, trying to shake the sense of deepening unease that was creeping up his spine. Cho matched his stride and quickly brought them back up to the brisk pace he'd set before. They didn't speak again—didn't look at each other—until they reached the sparring gym.

Cho went to the far side of an open ring, bypassing the rack of practice visors near the door. Sha was mildly puzzled, but he took Cho's cue and entered the ring without snagging one for himself.

"You may feel more comfortable in full gear," Cho said as Sha took up a textbook fighting stance across from him.

"Nah, you already know what I look like. I don't need to hide my face. And if you're not going to have the advantage of a visor interface, I won't, either."

"All right. If you're sure," Cho said, "we should begin." And then he flew at Sha, racing across the ring so quickly that Sha barely had time to dodge. He didn't want Cho to get in close enough to flow under his guard and hit a pressure point. He was wearing his body armor, but so was Cho—even with the benefits of his own biobots' presence, his new partner could probably take him down.

He needed to even the field, just a little. He wanted more time to watch the way Cho moved, to learn to anticipate the ways he'd refined the close-quarters training. Because only a few seconds of watching Cho come at him revealed that he was something else. Not even the most enhanced Unlawful Sha had faced came up to Cho's level.

Sha shifted his hips and balanced for a flying kick, but when Cho narrowed his eyes and redistributed his own weight—probably to counter—Sha shot forward, staying grounded, and tried to plant his foot in Cho's stomach. Cho whirled away from him and then back, the heel of his hand striking Sha's chest. Sha would have overbalanced and fallen, but he'd expected something sneaky like that. Instead, he dropped down and rolled his momentum into a sweeping kick aimed at Cho's ankles. The toe of his boot glanced off Cho's heel and Cho spun to face him, but Sha was already shooting upright and backing away, arms raised protectively as he bounced on the balls of his feet.

"So what's left out of your service record that I should know?" Sha asked. He kept his voice easy, casual—he was barely breathing hard. His new partner wasn't breathing hard at all.

Cho came forward and threw a series of jabs as he said, "I don't know. What have you heard?"

Sha blocked most of the jabs and found himself giving a little ground as the last one broke through his guard to glance off his cheek. He swarmed forward with a flurry of alternating kicks and jabs of his own.

"That you have an unusual style of engagement."

Cho blocked all but two of his kicks and one of his jabs. That one connected with Cho's solar plexus. The armor kept it from having any real effect, but Cho's breath still whuffed out a little harder as Sha's stiffened fingers hit. His expression didn't change, but Sha saw a flicker in Cho's eyes. Sha drew back. He wasn't sure if he actually had the advantage or not.

"That's in my record," Cho said, hopping back a half step and pivoting suddenly to aim a kick at Sha's head.

Sha barely ducked Cho's boot as he said in his most unconcerned, conversational tone, "I heard you pithed an Unlawful two months ago. That true?"

Cho tilted his head as though studying Sha for an opening, but Sha wasn't fooled. He let his guard drop, just enough that he knew it would look natural, even to Cho, and waited.

Cho smiled. The smile was unpleasant and somehow … satisfied. "Yes."

Sha felt a spike of adrenaline jolt through him, and then he was twisting away, throwing his arms up and blocking with his knee as Cho unleashed a storm of jabs, each one aiming for a pressure point.

Sha stopped most of them through sheer desperation, but two of Cho's blows got through, hitting nerve clusters even through his armor. In the nanosecond it took for his 'bots to start countering the effects, Cho's gloved fingers were around his throat, squeezing, and Cho was looming over him, his knee jammed into Sha's stomach, the green of his eyes dark and fierce. As Cho tightened his grip, Sha felt a thrum of excitement—not just a stab of panic or adrenaline, though he felt those, too, but real excitement—rising from somewhere he couldn't place. He shoved it down and let the thread of panic loose instead, fueling his already 'bot-buoyed strength enough to bring his hands up and twist his neck away, right as Cho's other fist came up to knuckle him right in the sweet spot. He'd just been spiked. Sha swallowed convulsively, the muscles of his throat straining against Cho's strong, slender fingers. Cho held him there for another second, then let him go and stood up. His eyes were still dark, but now the fierceness was tempered by something else, something—

Cho held out his hand, and the half-formed thought swirled away as the expression in Cho's eyes grew distant and professional. Sha got up mostly on his own, eyeing Cho for any telltale twitches or micro-perceptible changes to his balance, but when he didn't see any, he took the proffered hand and let Cho pull him up the rest of the way.

"Unusual style of engagement, right," Sha said as Cho let go. He reached up to rub the spot under his chin where Cho had "spiked" him. Thanks to the 'bots, he wouldn't have to sport a bruise showing how he'd been taken down. "So do you ever use your interrupter? I mean, is it even charged?"

"No," Cho said, "I don't. I don't see the need." He was watching Sha's hand—the one rubbing under his chin—and then he looked Sha right in the eye. "But my equipment is always in perfect condition." He smiled again, another strange, sort-of-frightening smile, but this time there was something genuine behind it. It was hard to categorize and he had no idea what it meant, but Sha could still make it out under the strangeness.

"Huh. I bet," he said. He let himself smile back. "Want to go again? Best two out of three."

 

II.

Enforcer Cho Hakkai had been working with Sha Gojyo for one full month. In that time, they'd staged five raids, two of which had borne fruitful results directly related to their assignment. Unfortunately, those results hadn't yet taken them beyond confirmation they were headed in the right direction, and despite the fact he could spare them neither additional resources nor extend to them any further, more obvious access privileges, Lead Enforcer Hsieh was beginning to get impatient.

After going through thousands of terabytes of Syslink records and hours of uploaded biometric transcripts, raw and edited versions viewed side-by-side, they'd come across five Elites either in charge of Nursery labs or 'bot development who had some subtle, inexplicable anomalies in their data. Cho had picked up on some odd location glitches—well under the normal allowable issues that power surges, solar flares, atmospheric pollution, or uplink problems might cause. But when they were compared with the data from the Elites' weekly raw transcript uploads, Cho saw minute discrepancies that couldn't necessarily be attributed to the other standard causes of glitches. They were going through another load of transcripts now, looking for the next likely candidate.

"Vetting Elite transcripts by hand takes a lot longer than I thought," Sha complained. "It seems to take longer every time." Cho heard no real heat behind the words, though; the remarks sounded strictly conversational and would doubtless register in their transcripts as such. Cho had noticed at their first meeting that Sha was uncannily adept at skirting the edges of what would bring him undue attention, and it was happening more often the longer they worked together. It was one of the many characteristics out of an increasing catalog that made him intriguing.

"Their 'bots facilitate too much data-caching," Sha continued. "Give me a Citizen's week-standard of seven short transcripts any day. Or better yet, let me see the vids."

Cho didn't bother to look up from the datastream he was analyzing. He moved his finger two millimeters further up the datafilm to slow it down and replied, "We have a hundred times the transcript data-hours over vid-hours. The surveillance cameras in the Elites' housing blocks have an even less regular rotation cycle than the ones placed around Citizen housing."

"I don't care about the vids from the housing blocks. Not yet, anyway. Let me look at the ones stationed in and around the 'bot labs, where the crimes related to our investigation are most likely to happen."

"You'll be wasting our time," Cho said. He allowed disapproval to color his tone.

"Give me an hour. If I don't find anything useful, I'll stay in the dormitory tonight and get through at least two full transcripts by tomorrow."

"Three."

"Three? You know, if you have me do three, I'll have to use stimulants tomorrow night when we raid Ma Li's."

Cho paused the dataspool and glanced sideways. Sha was looking back at him, the expression in his mahogany brown eyes expectant. The color almost exactly matched the slightly redder shade of his shoulder-length hair. They were such warm, rich colors—sensuous and striking, like the glowing hues in the Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite paintings from the banned art history books sometimes recovered in raids—that they couldn’t help but draw attention and invite contact. Cho was strangely glad they were only visible when Sha wasn’t wearing his duty visor; he found the uncharacteristic urge to touch growing more insistent the longer they worked together. He wanted to see if the rich auburn strands felt cool and silky or if the brown of Sha's eyes would deepen if he gripped Sha's throat gently with his bare hand, the way it did when they sparred and Cho got the better of him.

Sha frowned. "What?"

Cho refocused his thoughts and went back to his datafilm, tapping it to restart the rapid stream of information. "Your Syslink-assisted reading rate can handle at least four transcripts overnight; three shouldn't be too taxing." He paused the dataspool and flagged a minutely anomalous bio-response before continuing, his voice mild, "Don't you plan to find something usable in the vids, anyway? You won't need to vet a single transcript if you do."

"Ah, right," Sha said, "you got me." The warm timbre of his voice suggested good humor. "I'll get started on the vids, then." Cho heard him turning away and subvocalizing, and then Sha was quiet for the next half hour, manipulating his datafilm and only shifting in his seat occasionally. Cho had just flagged his sixth anomaly for this transcript when he heard Sha sit up straighter, tap his datafilm, spool it back, and then tap it again.

"Hey, I think I've got something," Sha said as he came over to stand next to Cho's chair. "Look at this: Lo Ming, Sub-Administrator of Biotech Lab PA-14. Right before he gets into his transport, he looks around, like he's startled, and reflexively touches this spot," Sha continued, indicating the area under and a little to the left of his heart, "where you'd find an inner pocket. And look at his face as he gets in the hovercar—it's micro, but his muscles are tighter around the eyes and lips. If whatever startled him was nothing, he'd be fully relaxed once he realized there was no threat. He's hiding something, and he's nervous."

"It could be anything," Cho said, but he was already synching his datafilm with Sha's, looking for the transcript that corresponded to the chronostamp on the vid. Sha played the vid and Cho watched it, noting the micro-tightness that Sha had mentioned. It was an impressive catch; the tightness was extremely subtle. He wasn't certain he would have noticed on first glance. Of course, Lo's furtive look around and reflexive pocket check would have encouraged a second look on Cho's part, but even then, he might not have caught their full significance right away.

"What does the biotranscript show?" Sha leaned over Cho's shoulder to observe, his breath ghosting across Cho's cheek briefly before he adjusted his proximity. Cho stilled. If he'd wanted, Sha could have read the data from further away, thanks to the enhancements his 'bots afforded him when he was wearing his visor or button. But Sha didn't rely on his 'bots as often as he might, not when they weren't required.

Cho cleared his throat. "His transcript shows no change in respiration, heart rate, temperature, or muscle tension."

"We've got him," Sha said with satisfaction. "He was sloppy."

Cho nodded and swiped that transcript aside to make room for the raw, uploaded data for the same time. "Ah. Do you see this?" He quickly delineated and enlarged a section of numbers and colored lines.

"Yeah, right—everything's too perfect. I don't see any anomalies at all. Do you?" Sha glanced at him, and when Cho shook his head, he pursed his lips and stood up. The displacement of air as he moved away felt to Cho like a sigh. "He must have some advanced illicit tech to cover an adrenaline jump and drop like that. Too bad for him he doesn't have surveillance access to know when he's betrayed himself." Sha didn't sound cruelly pleased the way Cho's other partners would have, or the way Cho might himself, but he could hear the thread of satisfaction still in Sha's voice.

"Your observation skills are to be commended," Cho said. He was rewarded with the quick grin that flashed across Sha's face.

"I'm twice as fast with vid and facial expressions than biotranscripts. I'm just better at reading them, always have been."

"Then by all means, continue. I'll generate the warrant for a raid and interrogative collection on Lo tomorrow. We'll move on Ma Li tonight," Cho said. He watched from the corner of his eye as Sha sat down again and bent back over his datafilm.

He kept a surreptitious eye on Sha for the rest of their shift, particularly during the raid of Ma Li's residence, high up in the tower of Elite Housing block PA-24. As he had previously, Sha relied on his interrupter to subdue Ma, but Cho noted with approval the way he held it in a loose grip and stood so he'd be able to go for vulnerable pressure points and a swift, decisive takedown if necessary. Their month together had left its mark on Sha, and it had done so quite favorably. Cho purposely didn't consider how the influence had gone the other way. He wasn't yet ready to examine his own interests and motives in regard to Sha Gojyo, not when he was getting so close to reaching his goals. This assignment had brought possibilities that were once only ephemeral notions that much closer to reality, and he'd thought that not even for something as unexpectedly diverting—as intriguing as Sha Gojyo—was he willing to compromise.

Because he would be willing to consider compromising his goals, at least a little. His unabating interest in Sha suggested that much. Cho pulled out a drawer from the bureau in front of him and ran a quick comparative dimensions calculation. Courtesy of his visor, a diagram showing a missing depth of three centimeters overlaid what he was looking at, so Cho ran his fingers along the drawer's false bottom, looking for the release catch. But as his gloved fingertip encountered a slight depression near the back, at the very edge of his peripheral vision he saw Sha look away from a stack of illicit vids and then deftly pluck one from the middle. It vanished in the palm of his glove.

Fascinating. Either Sha Gojyo truly was the barely qualified imbecile Cho had thought him in the first minutes of their formal introduction, or there was even more to him than Cho had begun to suspect. As he turned back to the drawer and opened the false bottom to reveal several small cylinders, Cho found himself hoping it was the latter.

"Nothing but illegal vids over here," Sha called. "Unless he's encrypting info in these vid files, I'm guessing these won't help us. I'm about to check the sleeping quarters. You get anything?"

Cho looked up, and as he did so, he slid one of the little vials out from beneath two others and tucked it into his cuff. Since it had been hidden at the bottom, it wouldn't show up in his duty vid-script and was thus safe to take. And Sha hadn't noticed. He was preoccupied with either his own theft or finishing the ransack, seemingly unconcerned about anything other than getting the job done.

"Biobot storage vials, it looks like, though I'm disappointed he hid them in such an obvious place. I was hoping for more of a challenge."

"I bet."

Yes, Sha was fascinating. Cho was already watching and waiting, formulating a clearer picture of Sha's character. He'd watch just a little longer before deciding whether to turn Sha in or use this new knowledge to his advantage.

 

Sha was waiting for something bad to happen. He could feel the oppression darkening the air like one of the ever-present, pollution-stained cloudbanks that hung over P-A District Central. He'd been careless—no, he'd been stupid—and any day now, the consequences were going to find him. The only thing he couldn't figure out was why it was taking so long. But Cho catching him at the swipe, there during the Unlawful ML-88265 raid, was the only explanation for the long, searching looks and coolly intent, thoughtful expressions Cho seemed to have every time Sha caught Cho watching him.

And he was still being careless—no, stupid—now that he was in his assigned one-room dwelling on the ground level of Citizen Housing block PA-158. He'd changed out of his body armor and into his Citizen's uniform before leaving the Dispatch building, and then caught the public transport that went past his housing block's area. Once home, he heated some rice and soup, watched an hour-long propagandist program about the First Director on the vidscreen, and then pulled the bed out from its cupboard. He went through his nightly routine by rote—washing up, undressing and then pulling on a pair of sleeping pants, dimming the lights without extinguishing them entirely—and once he was safely between the sheets, he closed his eyes and breathed evenly.

The sound of his heartbeat was strong, slow, and steady as his fingers found a smooth place in the flooring and pressed down. The panel slid away to reveal the sleek, palm-sized button cradle. He had built and programmed it years ago, working on it during snatched moments. It had been difficult—an off-duty Enforcer could remove his interface button on occasion; it was one of the privileges that came with the job—but if he missed an alert or took out the button too often, he would be disciplined, his transcripts flagged for weekly audits, and his residence searched. Not to mention that the vid-script function would be turned on without his knowledge, just so they could catch him at any suspicious activities. So right before Banri was caught, Sha dismantled the cradle into its mostly innocuous component parts and scattered them around his room and a few hidey-holes outside his building. His room had been searched, but none of the cradle's parts stood out as illicit materials. Sha was grateful Cho hadn't been on that team. He was pretty sure Cho would have seen the bits of scrap wire and plastic for what they were.

Cho Hakkai. Sha suppressed the needle of adrenaline that pierced his chest when he thought about Cho, about the intensity in everything he did and how he would explode from coiled, seemingly perfect stillness to incredible energy in a microsecond. He both excited Sha and made him nervous in a way none of his illicit activities ever had.

But Sha was supposed to be falling asleep, not getting worked up. He opened the cradle and snagged the small plastic cup attached to a thin filament that was nestled inside, then fitted the cup over the button behind his left ear and gently twisted it. The button came free, the interface light winking at regular intervals, and he tucked it inside the cradle. The cradle would throw out readings which showed him as sleeping, and for the next few hours, as long as he kept his bio-responses as even as they would be in a fairly active sleep-state, he was free to do what he wanted.

The sharp, insistent knock came as Sha was replacing his bed in the cupboard. He would have frozen, but a wave of blind terror seized him and made him dump the bed back on the floor. He threw himself down on it and his hand was halfway to the cradle when the door opened, less than four seconds later—an override.

Cho entered the room. The cut of the black Citizen's uniform somehow made him look even more dangerous than when he was in full Enforcer gear. Sha could just make out the yellowish light of the street illumination behind him, but without the button in, he couldn't access any of his duty functions to see if there were other figures lurking in the night. But then, if he was about to be Collected, they might have cut his access anyway. Sha levered himself into a sitting position as the door slid closed behind Cho and locked itself, the click of the mechanism sounding all too final in the half-light.

He was in his Citizen's uniform. Sha's pulse hammered in his throat.

"Was that an authorized override?" He was glad his voice sounded steady, even if he was finding it difficult to wrestle his bio-responses into submission. If this was a covert info-Collect and Cho had a duty vid-script going, Sha was glad he wouldn't betray himself visually.

Cho didn't move. He only stood there, pinning Sha with his intense stare.

Sha swallowed. "Right. Since it's just you, I'm assuming it wasn't. So that means this isn't a Collect-ReEd." He started to get up, but Cho moved first, gliding across the space between them until he stood over Sha—loomed, really, crowding him back against the cupboard door—and glanced at the cradle. He nudged it dismissively with his foot as Sha watched, apprehension and anticipation rising in his chest.

"A cradle. How quaint."

"Low maintenance. It's less risky," Sha countered, swallowing nervously despite himself. "What— Why are you here?"

Cho gave him a wintry smile. "I saw you take something from the Unlawful ML-88265 raid. What was it?"

Sha didn't think about lying, not for more than a second. If Cho was going to turn him in, he had more than enough leverage. Sha was exposed anyway. But Cho hadn't done it yet, even though he could call in the Collectors right now.

"It's, uh, an old instructional vid on space exploration—a 'shuttle' program from three hundred years ago."

"And why did you take it?"

"I didn't know what it was when I took it! If you were watching—" And obviously he had been; had he been watching Sha that closely all this time? The realization made Sha shiver, and he stumbled on, "—you know I didn't look when I swiped it."

"And?"

"And—and what? I was going to watch it one last time tonight before I destroyed it, you know, got rid of the evidence."

That seemed to interest Cho. He leaned closer. "Watch it again, after you've seen it already? Is space exploration a particular interest of yours?" His breath washed over Sha's forehead, stirring a stray lock of hair. It tickled, and Sha's fingers itched to brush it out of the way. But he didn’t move.

"Not, um—this is the first one I've seen. I just …" Sha felt shaky. It was hard to think with Cho bending over him like that, close enough that they were almost breathing in each other's exhaled air. It was way more intimate, a lot more intense, than any of the sparring sessions they'd had. "It's got vid of the shuttle launches, how they used to get into space before they figured out we couldn't travel fast enough to make space colonization worthwhile. They used these huge rockets with, uh, all this volatile fuel burning, rumbling away beneath them, and then the shuttle starts rising up into the sky. It keeps going until it pulls away from the Earth's gravity and the planet falls away beneath it, all blue and white and glowing, and then it's just free and floating in the blackness of space. And the astronauts—you know, the people inside it?—they're free of the Earth's gravity, too. They're floating around inside the shuttle, without anything holding them down. I—" Sha looked away. "I just liked the idea of it," he said softly, and then looked back.

Cho's expression had gotten both more thoughtful and more intense, the green of his eyes more piercing. But it didn't look threatening. It looked … Cho looked like he wanted something. Like Sha had something he wanted.

"I can see why," Cho said quietly. He leaned even closer now, bending at the knees to look Sha in the eyes. "How do you circumvent the biomonitors?"

"Wh-what?" Cho was making Sha dizzy with his crazy subject changes. He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I sort of learned how to cheat when I reached midlevel education. I just tell myself not to breathe so hard or let my heart rate get too high or, uh, my muscles get too tense. It just works."

Cho looked impressed, and a thoughtful frown appeared between his eyes. He reached out and touched Sha's cheek with one warm, gloveless fingertip. "I believe they used to call that 'biofeedback.' How remarkable you are, Sha Gojyo." There was an odd warmth in his words, something Sha would have classified as "fondness" if he had to put a name to it. But there was some other emotion in there, too, something that was maybe greedy and dangerous.

He was still trying to figure it out when Cho grabbed him by the throat and jabbed a needle into his temple. Before Sha could react or even speak, he was on fire. He fought the burning, twitching sensation spreading through his limbs, but it was no use. His back wrenched itself into a deeply arched curve and his head struck the floor with a sharp, painful crack. His eyes rolled back in their sockets, and then all his muscles contracted. He curled into a fetal ball and shook intermittently from the spasms radiating out from his core. He didn't know how long he lay there, locked in a world of fire and tremors and white noise, but when his senses began to return to him, he became aware of Cho's hands stroking through his hair and across his cheek, and tracing the length of his throat.

"What the hell did you do to me?" he croaked. He wanted to push himself away, to get out of Cho's reach, but there was something soothing about the solicitous motion of Cho's hands and the soft, whispery murmur of Cho's voice.

"Hush, Gojyo," Cho said in that soft, whispery murmur. But even at this low pitch, Sha could hear steel in his tone. He shivered, and Cho ran his fingers through Sha's hair once more. Sha shivered again, this time for a different reason.

"Cho—what did you do to me?"

"You've been reconfigured. I recovered some very interesting 'bots from the raid on Unlawful ML-88265's residence, and I thought they would suit you." He caressed Sha's cheek again and slid a hand beneath him to help him sit up. Sha closed his eyes and leaned against the cupboard door, breathing heavily.

"What do you mean, 'reconfigured'?"

"Don't be deliberately dense," Cho said sharply. Some of the weird gentleness disappeared from his voice.

"I'm not trying to. Did you— am I—"

Cho rested his hand on Sha's leg and then squeezed, not ungently. Sha didn't bother to move. As alarming as this all was, the heat of Cho's palm was comforting as it soaked through the thin fabric of his sleeping pants to warm his skin.

"The biobots from Unlawful ML-88265 are very good—they have incredible, dynamic data-gen capabilities, more impressive than previously suspected. I've spent the last week modifying them for you. They'll throw a perfect veil over your neuronet and, assuming you do nothing foolish—" he squeezed Sha's leg again, using more pressure this time, "—they'll stand up to anything but the most vigorous of bodyscans. Which you've already gone through in the last six weeks."

Sha's mouth felt dry. He opened his eyes. "Illicit biobots, inside me. From you. How—um, how do you know they'll work?"

"Because they've worked for me for years. Not that anyone has ever reported me, whether Citizen or fellow Enforcer. Even Lead Enforcer Hsieh seems to be wary." Cho's expression turned faraway, almost dreamy, but there was still a hint of the feral in his eyes.

"Right," Sha muttered. Cho's attention snapped back, and Sha blinked. "So … why me?"

Cho frowned again, as though Sha was beginning to try his patience despite Cho's strange fondness. "We're alike."

Sha's eyebrows rose despite his effort to keep them from betraying him.

"You've dreamt about true autonomy, rather than the false half-life you live now, haven't you? If not before, then when you saw that vid." Cho gestured at the vidscreen. "It's fortunate you came along when you did—I would have done this on my own soon enough if you hadn't. But this," he said, sliding his hand further up Sha's leg, "this will be better. I want you to come with me, Sha Gojyo."

Sha licked his lips. He'd always thought the only way out was getting killed on assignment or, more likely, screwing up, getting caught, and getting spiked. And some days, being on the other end of the spike gun looked like it might be just that much better than pulling the trigger. At least then, he wouldn't have to be careful anymore. At least then, he'd have nothing left to lose. Assuming he had anything at all now, with only Cho's word on his new 'bots.

But wouldn't it … wouldn't it be better to go out on his own terms, doing something he wanted—something he'd chosen for himself?

"Come where?"

Cho leaned closer, putting more weight on Sha's thigh. The warmth from his hand spread higher, settling in Sha's groin. "Syslink. The Pan-Asian node is just outside District Central, deep inside the mountain." He pointed north with his other hand.

"What the hell? I don't care what you put in my skull, we'll never get in there! They'll find us out and fry us before we get within five kilometers!"

"The Unregistereds might know how. Based on the number and kinds of 'bot-related crimes we've seen, I think they're further along in their plans than anyone on the Governing Board suspects."

"What plans? Destabilizing the social strata?" Sha scoffed. "There's no way." But his pulse was racing, and there was a buzzing in his ears that he didn't think had anything to do with Cho's illicit 'bots.

Cho's eyes gleamed. "Perhaps. Perhaps not—not with the direction they seem to be going. But with whatever knowledge they have and our own access, we might have a chance."

Sha swallowed heavily. "Are you with them? The Unregistereds, or the Elites working with them." He shifted uncomfortably as the heel of Cho's hand dug into his leg.

"No." Cho's eyebrow rose in a way that conveyed amusement mixed with mild irritation. "I'm not interested in the social strata or anything but winning my way free from Syslink. Permanently. And I'm not affiliated with the Unregistereds. I'm affiliated with no one." His hand drifted higher up Sha's leg, until it was almost touching his hip. "No one but you," he added thoughtfully, leaning closer. "And I'm sure you'll be worth it. Won't you."

"I—" Sha began. The heat from his groin had spread everywhere, making him feel feverish. He was terrified and exhilarated by the idea of it all: of breaking free from Syslink, of being touched by Cho Hakkai. He reached down and took Cho's hand, bringing it to his lips. His heart was beating so hard and fast he beginning to shake from it—he didn't care if this was Cho's price; he wanted it anyway. He thought he might have wanted it since they first sparred. Sha sucked two of Cho's fingers into his mouth, feeling a surge of desire rush through him as Cho's eyes went wide and he let out a soft gasp.

He wondered what would happen if he goaded Cho into letting go completely.

Sha bit down gently, and Cho closed his eyes, drawing in a long, shuddering breath. When he opened them, the irises were a thin green ring around the deep black of his pupils, and he had a growing bulge at the front of his pants. Sha reached for it, but Cho took him by the wrist, squeezing firmly, and dragged him sideways until he was lying flat across his bed. Then he draped himself over Sha and ground the hard heat of his bulge against Sha's hip, pressing against Sha's erection. Sha bit his lips to stifle his moan.

"I want to know everything about you, Sha Gojyo," Cho whispered against his neck. He nipped the skin beneath Sha's jaw, his teeth so sharp they immediately sank into flesh and drew blood. Sha groaned and thrust his hips up as the bite went numb and began to close—the new 'bots; without Syslink, his Corporation 'bots wouldn't respond to an injury, however minor. Sha tried to reach for Cho with his free hand, but Cho captured that one, too, and pinned both of his wrists against the bed. He kept firm pressure against Sha's wrists with one hand and reached for the waistband of Sha's sleeping pants with the other. He tugged the pants down, and Sha kicked them off the rest of the way before Cho had his hand on his cock. The touch of Cho's fingers, hot and sure, made him gasp. He couldn't control the way his hips jerked upward to press into Cho's palm, though, as Cho teased him: biting at his throat and chest and stroking him gently at first, and then with more friction, then gently once again, bringing him higher and higher, and then letting him drift frustratingly down. Cho watched, his expression hungry as Sha strained against him, trying to find relief from the tension building inside him.

"Cho—Hakkai, c'mon," Sha gasped. He tried to pull his wrists free, but Cho leaned more weight on them. The bones felt almost like they were being crushed, and the look Cho gave him made the muscles in his chest shiver. "C'mon, you gotta—"

Cho reached inside his pocket and pulled out a small bottle. He flicked the lid open and squeezed a viscous liquid onto the damp, sweaty skin of Sha's stomach. It was cool, and Sha flinched away from it. Cho smeared it across his palm and then wrapped his fingers back around Sha's cock. He stroked fast, squeezing just hard enough, and Sha threw his head back, panting, as the tension inside him spiraled upward. Cho licked the sensitive skin beneath his ear and ran the tip of his thumb over the head of Sha's cock, and Sha shouted. His fingers scrabbled to clutch at Cho's hand, looking for something to grab on to as the urgency within him reached its peak and crashed through him.

He was dazed by the force of his orgasm, boneless and still shivering from the strength of it, when he felt a cool, slick fingertip press inside him. A small stab of alarm shot down his spine, but he ignored it and tried to relax. He hadn't done this since his first year of Enforcer training. Casual couplings weren't discouraged, especially among the Citizenry; it was a good way for individuals to keep tabs on each other and report suspicious behavior in their partners, but with his Enforcer duties and awareness that the vid-scripts could be running without his knowledge, Sha hadn't taken the chance for much beyond hand- and blowjobs over the last several years. But if anything could make Cho lose himself ... Sha forced himself to relax further and allow the invasion.

By the time Cho had a third finger inside him, Sha was feeling the strangely tight, burning stretch he remembered, and his half-softened erection was deflating the rest of the way when Cho replaced his fingers with his cock.

"Oh, Gojyo," Cho sighed. His arms trembled as he started to thrust. Sha reached up to hold on to Cho's biceps, his hands still tingling from Cho's grip. His wrists had fading pink fingermarks on them. Cho was looking into Sha's face like he was trying to memorize everything about him, every flinch and gasp and moan he let out whenever occasional jolts of pleasure zinged through him. It made him feel vulnerable, like he had been completely exposed, but it also kindled something deep inside him—something that rose to meet the raw, naked hunger he saw in Cho's eyes.

Sha didn't think he was going to come again, not before Cho did, but he sank into the sensations, his cock thickening and growing heavier as Cho fucked him. He dug his nails into Cho's arms when Cho paused, breathing hard, and pulled at him, urging him on. Cho reached down to run his finger along the stretched, sensitive skin of Sha's anus and Sha gasped, his hips jerking up, his muscles clenching tight around Cho's cock. Cho groaned, pistoning his hips forward, and then stiffened as he came with a low, desperate noise. He hovered above Sha, his chest heaving, his expression as unguarded and open as Sha felt, and then he collapsed. Sha grunted softly as Cho landed, then raised his arms and draped them over Cho's hot, sweat-slick back.

He lay there quietly with Cho on top of him for a few minutes as the last remnants of pleasure ebbed away, reaching up after a moment to brush his fingers through Cho's hair. It was soft and sweaty, and it smelled nice. Cho sighed against Sha's neck and stirred, pulling away. Sha felt suddenly chilled and strange without Cho's weight on him or inside him, but he didn't want to move. His muscles were pleasantly fatigued despite the 'bots, and the edges of everything in and around him seemed nicely rounded and blurry.

They lay next to each other without speaking for several minutes longer, Cho's hand heavy where it rested low on Sha's sticky stomach. He was even beginning to drowse when Cho took his hand away.

"There will be some disorientation when you put the button back in," he said, sitting up. His voice had a warmly satisfied timbre that made Sha want to grin. "The new 'bots will synch with your Syslink 'bots and enslave them. It takes a few hours for them to learn your personal bio-response patterns, but these are intelligent. They learn on their own, without programming from Syslink, and I've urged them to study the raw transcripts currently in your Syslink-bots' cache to prevent any suspicious micro-anomalies."

Sha's mind was still a little fuzzy as he rolled over onto his side and propped himself up with his elbow to face Cho. "Wait, what?"

"Your new 'bots," Cho replied, the warm satisfaction in his voice cooling not at all even though his expression had started to go stern. "They can seamlessly shadow your pre-existing 'bots, but they can also intercept Syslink's signal and throw out a perfect veil. In a few hours, they'll know your neuronet as well as their own systems, and they'll be able to anticipate when and how to generate false bio-responses. They can also tell you when Syslink is exploiting your duty settings without your knowing."

"So, like, when there's a stealth vid-script running?"

"Yes. And if they need to, they can generate false vid, but I recommend you don't make that a necessity."

"Hell, no," Sha said. "I wouldn't rely on 'bots for anything, if I could. Is that what yours are doing right now?" He picked up a corner of the rumpled sheet from his bed and scrubbed it unselfconsciously over his stomach, wiping away the drying semen there.

"No," Cho said. Somehow, though he'd left his pants on during the whole thing, he'd managed to get his shirt off between making Sha come and fucking him, and now he pulled it back on. He stood to fasten his pants and brush tiny creases from them. He looked fresh and perfectly composed, like he hadn't just held Sha down and screwed him into the mattress.

Except for the bit of color in his cheeks and the shine to his eyes. Apparently he couldn't brush those away and hide them—at least, not right now. Sha fumbled over the edge of his now-wrecked bed and caught up his sleeping pants. He stood up and pulled them on. Cho's eyes followed him every step of the way.

"You're going?" It was the smartest thing for him to do, but Sha couldn't help asking. Cho was creepy and intense and made Sha feel … What? Seen. Yeah, that was right. He made Sha feel real, like he counted. Like he was more than just Enforcer Sha, waiting to mess up so badly he got himself erased.

Cho adjusted his shirt cuffs and quietly cleared his throat. "I should. I believe this Housing block is due for its surveillance rotation soon, and the 'bots aren't equipped to circumvent that," he said. He went to the door, and Sha followed him.

"Wait, I still have questions," Sha said, reaching out to stop him. "How do you know about all this, about modifying 'bots and everything else, if you're not with the Unregistereds?"

"Appearances to the contrary, I've never been good at being told what to do. I've always preferred to do things my own way, inasmuch as it's possible." Cho gave a smile that showed his teeth and made his eyes glitter, and then the smile fell away, replaced by a softer, more neutral expression. It looked almost natural, like it was Cho's real face and not the Enforcer's mask he wore every day. "Put in your button before you go to sleep. Give your 'bots time to learn you and your neuronet, and let them do it when they don't have to compensate without knowing you yet." His voice was stern, an Enforcer's voice, but it still had a hint of something real in it, now that Sha knew what to listen for.

"It's safer that way," Sha said.

"Yes. Get some rest. I'm going to put in the warrant for an interview with the Administrator tomorrow, and we'll have to move quickly to act on it if it comes through."

"The Administrator." Sha scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "That's—huh. It's getting a lot more serious; you know he's probably involved. There's no way he can't suspect something now, not with four of the six Elites we've taken down being under his direct supervision. I mean, maybe he knows something about it. But he's also gotta have some kind of protection or … or whatever." Sha flapped his hand vaguely. "Or the rest of the Governing Board would have made him disappear or something. Like that other one, what was his name—Administrator Koumyou?—that one, six years ago. I don't believe for a minute it was an accident. Accidents don't happen to Admins, not unless someone wants them to." Sha sighed. "What the hell have we gotten into?"

"We'll find a way out. If there aren't any clues at the Administrator's, we'll go deeper into the transcripts of the Elites working under him. We'll go on reconnaissance of our own when it seems to be safest." Cho's eyes shone with a peculiar intensity when he said we, and Sha found it to be both frightening and comforting. It was a weird mixture, two emotions that shouldn't go together at all, but he'd been getting used to it for the last five weeks or so.

"Right. Of course we will," Sha said. He smiled weakly but sincerely and stepped out of sight as Cho opened the door and left. When it had closed behind him, Sha went back to his wrecked bed. It smelled invitingly of sex and Cho as he pulled up the covers and forcibly relaxed into his pillow. The button cradle was on its side, wedged between the mattress and the wall. He barely had to stretch out his hand to open it, retrieve his button, and push it into place when he finally started drifting off to sleep.

 

III.

"The Administrator will see you now," Elite Huang said. She wore glasses, an odd affectation for someone whose vision would have been automatically corrected by her high-end 'bots. She looked over the thin black rims and haughtily gestured for them to rise. Ah, that would explain why she wore them. Cho pressed his lips together and stood. He was unimpressed. Thus far, nothing in the Administrator's housing compound had impressed him much. The security perimeter was far better than Elite Housing standard, but Cho was certain he could find a weakness with enough time. And the Administrator's receiving room, like the rest of the compound, was appointed rather haphazardly and tastelessly, showing none of the elegant arrangement or minimalist decoration that was allowed to Elites, who occupied the stratum directly below him.

Cho and Sha followed Huang down a short, brightly lit corridor to the Administrator's office. Cho thought it strange that the office would be set back, toward the middle of the building, where there were no windows looking out on the grounds. Elites often liked to flaunt their privileges. And while the expanse of manicured lawn and the few blooms planted in beds outside the walls weren't beautiful by what he knew of historical standards, they were a far cry from the unrelieved gray concrete and the omnipresent red, white, and black signs that served as landscape in District Central's interior. Either the Administrator was merely a puppet of someone else on the Governing board—not impossible, even if it seemed unlikely—or he was hiding something with this façade of carelessness and disinterest.

They reached the door at the end of the corridor. It slid open and Huang ushered them in. As they crossed the threshold, Cho felt a faint vibration pass through his body, and his vision quivered for a microsecond. Next to him, Sha stopped and stood stock-still. A sharp sense of unease skittered down Cho's spine.

"That will be all, Huang. You may return to collect Dispatch's pets when I call you," said an oily voice.

Administrator Ukoku Sanzo, member of the Pan-Asian Sector Governing Board and the man in charge of overseeing all its biolabs, had a sallow complexion, obsidian black eyes, and a smarmy, predatory air that immediately set Cho's teeth on edge. The smile that stretched across Ukoku's face as they stood at attention before him looked more like a leer, and it grew wider when he saw Cho's reaction.

Cho began to subvocalize an order to boost the vid-script resolution for analysis of the Administrator's office and to facilitate later study, but the steady green dot of his Syslink connection blipped to blue—his illicit 'bots were the only ones working, and they were standing down their higher functions without his orders. Based on his reaction, Sha seemed to be suffering a similar problem. From the corner of his eye, Cho saw him shift his stance, turning away from the Administrator slightly to conceal the way his right hand crept toward his interrupter.

"Don't bother, Enforcers," Ukoku drawled. "Oops, it looks like Syslink is ignoring you for now, and anyway, an interrupter wouldn't work on me." He stood up from behind his desk and traced his finger over its smooth, glassy top. A complicated display glowed for a moment, and then was banished by a showy, practiced flick of his fingers. "And it looks to me like you have something you shouldn't, running around in your neuronets. How interesting!"

He directed an appraising, acquisitive look at them both. As it lingered on Sha, Cho felt the burning red heat of a murderous rage rising within him. It threatened to break loose and goad him into doing something irresponsible, irreparable, and probably fatal. His eyes glinting with a malicious glee, Ukoku Sanzo curved his lips in a grin that Cho recognized as very like his own cruel smiles—the ones reserved for Unlawfuls about to do something incredibly foolish. He suppressed his anger with a considerable effort of will as Sha looked askance at him, the micro-tightness of his jaw betraying his apprehension.

"Where did you get those, Enforcer Sha?" Ukoku asked. He came around his desk and leaned back against its edge, arms crossed loosely over his chest. "They look like something retrieved in a raid almost two weeks ago. But—" He twisted to the side slightly, keeping one eye on them, and tapped at the desk again; the schematics that appeared on its surface were reflected in his glasses until the desk went dark once more. "Ah, they're better than the ones from Unlawful ML-88265. Yours," he said, looking at Cho, "have the same programming but different nanoshells. Your work?"

Cho said nothing. He merely smiled back, showing all of his teeth. They would have to be very, very cautious here. The Administrator wanted something from them. Something they wouldn't want to give.

"They yours? The original version," said Sha, his voice perfectly even. None of the tension that Cho could sense radiating from him was audible, and Cho felt a fierce, proprietary stab of satisfaction. They wouldn't give the Administrator the gratification of seeing them off-balance.

"Actually, no." Ukoku made an exaggerated face of disappointment, but something hard and furious lurked beneath his frown. "I know who made them, though, and I'd love to see him again. That's where you come in," he said, pointing a finger at a spot right between Cho's eyes. He reached back behind himself and, in tandem with an entirely new display of lines and text that appeared under Ukoku's fingertips, Cho found his visor plate filled with information.

"His name is Genjyo Sanzo, the protégé of a colleague of mine, Administrator Koumyou. Koumyou pulled little Genjyo," Ukoku said, mouth twisting into a sneer at the name, "from a Crèche when he was only ten, and instead of being properly grateful that he was being groomed to take over for an Administrator someday, Genjyo used his position and privileges to begin corrupting neuronets and 'bots."

The information blurred and spooled, and then it stopped on a picture of a handsome young man with bright, sun-blond hair and wary, drooping violet eyes. Sha made a soft hunh of interest. Cho flicked his glance sideways, but the picture remained. His lips thinned and his fingers twitched minutely in irritation.

"Genjyo was a precocious boy, and by the time he turned twenty, he had somehow discovered how to create new 'bots—the very same 'bots at least one of you is enjoying," Ukoku continued. His gaze lingered on Sha for a second too long, and the irritation climbed up from Cho's fingers to lodge in his chest, hot and heavy. He allowed himself to smile a little—the smile that promised inevitable, bloody retribution—and stood up straighter, knowing the movement would draw Ukoku's attention. Ukoku only raised his eyebrows in amusement and continued.

"I began to suspect that Koumyou's dear little Genjyo was involved in something very, very bad, but when I tried to get Koumyou to see reason, he laughed. A year later, when I had enough evidence, Koumyou wasn't laughing anymore." Ukoku's voice grew soft and dangerous. "He sent Genjyo away—I don't know how or where, but the little worm was gone when the Enforcers and I arrived to Collect and Re-educate him. And Koumyou …" The picture in front of Cho's eyes blurred and spooled again, and this time a vid played across his visor. Another handsome man, this one older, with silvering blond hair and hazel eyes, flopped and convulsed on a rich, plush burgundy carpet. His hands and heels clawed at it, leaving dark lines where the pile was disturbed by his seizures, and then he spasmed one last time and lay utterly still. His hazel eyes looked dull and lifeless.

"Koumyou took the spike meant for Genjyo. He took it right out of the Enforcer's hands and used it on himself so we'd never know where to look for his precious, precious protégé." The bitterness in Ukoku's voice was so strong Cho could taste it like acrid dust on his tongue.

Sha shifted uneasily. "So what do you want from us? If nobody knew where this Genjyo was back then, how are we supposed to find him now?"

Ukoku fixed him with a keen black stare. "You'll find him by following his trail back to his hidey-hole, just as you've been doing. I'll admit it, I've let a few of my Elites have a bit of rope to hang themselves with, to draw the little bastard out." Ukoku gave a halfhearted moue of mock regret. "But he's cautious, and I haven't gotten anywhere by baiting the trap for him. That's why you're here."

Cho let out a laugh. It sounded polite, like he'd just gotten the punch line of a mediocre joke, but its edges were brittle. Ukoku grinned, looking genuinely delighted at having managed to get a quantifiable rise out of him.

Sha shifted uneasily again. "We followed the evidence here," he began, and then he closed his mouth abruptly. It hadn't taken him long to catch up.

They'd played right into the Administrator's hands. It was clear Ukoku had allowed the discrepancies of his employees' records to be discovered, leaving just enough to pique their interest and get them invested in the leads he allowed them to find.

"Look," Ukoku said, his voice going from oily to strangely charming and unsettling. "I know what's in store for you when you finish this assignment, whether you're successful or not. If you're smart as you think you are, you do, too." He shaped his hand in a parody of a spike gun and propped up his chin with it, fingertip digging into the soft flesh there. Cho couldn't see Sha's eyes, but based on his body language, he was staring intently at the Administrator. The tension coming from him now was readiness, though, not anxiety. Cho's estimation of him went up a notch, and he felt another surge of proprietary satisfaction break through the cold anger that had taken hold of him.

The finger gun dropped to the desktop and Ukoku drummed out a nonsensical rhythm. He appeared to be waiting, and Cho was certain he knew why.

"But you have the influence to protect us," Cho said. His voice was flat, uninflected.

"Indeed I do," Ukoku said cheerfully, "indeed I do." The heartiness of his tone didn't show in his eyes or his face. "If—"

"—we perform to your satisfaction," Cho finished for him. "We find Genjyo Sanzo and bring him to you. Or do we follow the proper channels and bring him in for interrogation?"

"Just find him. Once the little bastard's caught, he won't make it to an interrogation. If I know him at all, his 'bots will shred his 'net before he allows himself to be compromised."

"What if he doesn't, though?" asked Sha.

Ukoku's sallow cheeks flushed with excitement, and his eyes glinted cruelly behind his glasses. "Bring him here, of course. I know it's not protocol, but Director Gyokumen is an intimate friend of mine—Administrators and Elites can have friends, you know," he added conspiratorially. "And some of us actually work together instead of informing on each other. If you succeed, I can guarantee you promotions to Elite status and my personal, very beneficial, very intimate friendship." Ukoku licked his lips lasciviously and waggled his eyebrows. Despite his acute desire to destroy this Genjyo Sanzo, he clearly enjoyed having them in his power. The realization made Cho even angrier, and he visualized taking a spike to the Administrator's stomach and unzipping the skin and muscle there so his entrails spilled out. The image was extremely satisfying.

"And if we refuse," said Cho. He already knew the answer, and it was obvious the Administrator knew they understood, but Cho wanted to hear it.

"I have all the evidence I need to sentence you to a medifarm, and if you manage to purge your wonderful little homemade 'bots, I'll slip you some newer, less reliable ones right before an upload or," he said, shrugging, "a full, unscheduled bodyscan. Unscheduled as far as you know, that is." Ukoku crossed his arms over his chest and waited, still leering at them.

Cho opened his mouth to respond, the muscles of his neck tight with resentment, but Sha jumped in before he made a sound.

"All right," Sha said quickly, "we'll do it." He wouldn't look over at Cho. "How do we—do you want regular reports? Do we come back here, or—?"

"Oh, that won't be necessary," Ukoku said with a magnanimous wave of his hand. "I've been following your investigation all along, and I'll continue to do so. Don't worry—" His voice dropped to an exaggerated hush. "—nobody knows. Not Lead Enforcer Hsieh, not my little pet Huang, and not even the Director." He smiled again, and this time, the curve of his mouth was distinctly paternal. Cho imagined ripping out the Administrator's throat with his bare hands and watching the smile contort into a bubbling, distorted scream. He wouldn't mind the arterial spray too much, he decided. The mess would be worth it.

"And as a show of good faith, I'll even tell you what your 'bots have been recording all this time," Ukoku continued. The paternal smile remained fixed on his face. "We've just had a very boring conversation about my wayward Elites. I've expressed the appropriate shock and concern, and made a very stern note to see that the Auditors in charge of the biolabs' transcripts are duly and appropriately punished for their laxity. There's a new class graduating from the Auditing program soon, so their Administrator would have to clear a few spots, anyway. I'm sure she'll thank me for saving her the trouble, don’t you agree? The transcript of that conversation should be available on your datafilms by the time you leave the compound, and your duty vid-scripts will show the same. After all, even though I'm entitled to have you go audio-only, I have nothing to hide."

He tapped something on his desk, and the door slid open. "Huang will show you out," he said. "I'll be watching you. 'Bye, now," he sing-songed as he waved them away. Cho led the way back to the compound's main exit, ignoring Huang completely, and they got on their hovercycles without speaking. Neither of them said a thing the whole way back to Dispatch.

 

The first thing Sha did once the Admin's compound faded to an indistinct smudge behind them was access their transcripts. They were eerily perfect, showing all the bio-responses he could expect to have during a high-profile interview. When they got back to Dispatch, he followed Cho to a private workstation and watched the vid-scripts. They followed the other transcripts seamlessly. The idea that Ukoku had so much clandestine power and could practically flaunt it—it made his palms go clammy despite his attempt to keep his bio-responses even.

And Sha had said they'd work for him.

They were so, so screwed. That awareness played at the back of his mind for the rest of the shift, running itself in an endless loop that got bigger and more insistent as the hours wore on. And running with it was the unnerving feeling of being stuck between his partner's tight, creepy smiles and the Administrator's menacingly cheerful, equally creepy grins. The two men shared a similar energy, and Sha found himself weirdly keyed up by it. The Admin was disturbingly magnetic, kind of like Cho, actually. But as messed up as it was, he felt like he could trust Cho, who really saw him. And yeah, Cho looked at him like he wanted to crawl in his skin with him, to know and maybe even possess him from the inside out, but Sha didn't mind. It was better than the alternative, and for once in his life, he felt like he belonged. Like he meant something. Cho made him feel like that.

Administrator Ukoku saw him, too. But he looked at Sha like he wanted to take him apart, to open Sha up and spread the insides around, then poke them with spike and see what twitched. It scared him. For the first time, Sha thought he knew what fear—real, genuine fear—felt like. It was a hundred times worse than the nerve-racking anxiety of potential discovery by the Auditors. Eventually, their inquiries would end in a quick spiking and oblivion. If Ukoku got hold of him, Sha knew, it would never end. Ukoku would break him down to nothing, put him back together, and do it all over again. Forever.

"Sha."

He straightened up as though his spine was connected to Cho's voice with an invisible wire. "Final authorization of the day's transcripts complete," he said as Cho stood. Even with the turmoil spinning around in his skull, Sha knew he looked and sounded normal. One unsettling afternoon, regardless of the stakes, wouldn't throw off a lifetime of blending in.

Datafilm powered down and stowed, he followed Cho to the changing room, where they took off their body armor and then buttoned and zipped themselves into their Citizens' uniforms. Cho tugged his collar up so it rested flush against his neck. Sha tried not to stare too obviously at the strip of pale skin bracketed by the deep black of the uniform collar and the deeper black of Cho's hair. He'd bet anything surveillance was running in here.

"Uploads at eight hundred hours tomorrow," Cho said quietly. Sha inhaled long and slow, calming the flutter that wanted to erupt in his stomach.

"Eight hundred, right." All the day's transcripts checked out, but Sha didn't think Administrator Ukoku would let them off that easily. Considering how effortlessly he'd hijacked their signals and downloaded his own 'scripts to their 'bots, there was no guarantee he hadn't done anything else.

Sha dropped his interrupter and spike gun in the canister hanging inside his locker. He had just finished securing them when Cho reached inside and brushed against his wrist. He tapped it twice, in discreet, feather-light contact, before touching the interrupter and saying, "Is this charged? We have a Collect-ReEd tomorrow. Zou and Ho were overbooked."

"Charged it yesterday," Sha answered. Two—either Cho would be showing up at his housing two hours after Sha got there, or Sha should expect him at oh-two-hundred. Sha was pretty sure it would be oh-two-hundred. Two hours couldn't be enough time to run the diagnostic he expected Cho would use on his own 'bots before coming to check on Sha's.

Cho nodded and left. Sha stayed behind for another minute, checking his visor. It could use a quick cleaning. The slight charge that repelled dust and debris wasn't perfect, and since he'd touched it with an ungloved hand, there was a partial fingerprint just at the bottom left corner of the dark, curved plate that covered him from hairline to upper lip when the visor was on. The print didn't come off with a quick wipe of his sleeve. That was all right. He could take care of it tomorrow, while Cho was uploading. And if they didn't make it past their uploads, nobody would notice that his visor was a little smudged. Sha closed his locker and headed for the exit.

The walk to the public transport was always boring, and Sha rarely paid attention to the people around him. Someday he might have to chase them down and spike them, and for some reason he didn't want to recognize their faces if that was the case. Not that he cared—he didn't know anybody, not really, except for maybe Cho now—but sometimes he woke up from dreams where the Unlawfuls looked like Banri or people he'd known from the Crèche. Some of them were terrified, barely recognizing him through their fear. Others stared at him accusingly even after the re-ed 'bots had chewed through their 'nets and they were supposed to be drooling automatons.

An icy breeze cut across the street, and Sha ducked around a corner to escape it. His 'bots could raise his bodytemp to compensate, but then he'd stand out from the other Citizens hurrying to get indoors or out of the wind's path. He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and squinted as someone scampered past him, bumping his shoulder even though Sha wasn't taking up a lot of space.

For a second, Sha froze, wondering if it could be an agent for Ukoku and if he was somehow compromised now, somehow infected. But no. It was a kid—final education-level age with light brown hair and golden brown eyes. He turned to look at Sha and smiled apologetically, walking backwards for a few steps before he turned back around and hurried to the end of the street. He had no business being out right now. He should be with his ed group, finishing up the day's lessons for the program that would enable him to enter working society and do his part to maintain the strata, strengthening the Corporation. Someone was going to be in trouble. An anomaly like this would trigger a deep audit, and depending on what the Auditors found, Sha might find himself interviewing or Collecting the kid's instructors, or even the kid himself. Sha looked down at the pavement and kept walking.

The rest of his trip home was uneventful, and two hours after he got there, Cho hadn't shown. Sha wasn't surprised. He still had a few hours before Cho came knocking, so he busied himself with his normal evening routine. But when he went to hang up his coat, something in the breast pocket made it stick out a little—a tiny bulge that flattened and then bulged out again after he smoothed it down. He looked away from the pocket like he hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. Whatever was in there must have been dropped in by the kid when he bumped into Sha's shoulder. Sha wanted to take it out and examine it, but he couldn't take the chance. While he thought Ukoku wouldn't screw him over right away and disable his biobots' ability to detect stealth vid-script activation, he wasn't willing to risk everything to test that theory. He would wait for Cho.

Sha finished his routine and settled down in front of his vidscreen for a while, then gave up and got out his bed. He wouldn't be able to sleep, not with all the questions whirling around in his head, but it would signal his 'bots to generate a false biotranscript for a sleep cycle. Unless he got an alert or subvocalized an override, the sleep-script would run until he fell asleep for real and woke up at the designated time in the morning. His personal alert was sent to flash at oh-six-hundred hours. He wouldn't get much sleep, if any, but the 'bots should compensate for it. He hoped.

Oh-two-hundred came in the middle of his third effort to recall every detail of the shuttle vid. He was trying to recapture the sense of wonder he'd felt when first watched it, but the soft knock on his door interrupted him just as he was finally getting close. Sha got up as Cho slipped in through the door and locked it behind him.

"Sleep-script?" Cho said quietly. He crossed the floor to stand in front of Sha. Sha nodded. "Me, too," Cho answered. "Keep still. This won't take long."

He pulled a thin cable from beneath his sleeve and inserted a tiny silver connector in Sha's button. Cho rested his hand on Sha's shoulder, holding him in place, but his attention wasn't on Sha. He had a small, thin screen in the palm of his other hand. Numbers and graphs flickered across its surface, and after about ten minutes, a final graph popped up and flashed. Angry lines appeared on Cho's brow, and he took his hand from Sha's shoulder to key a command on the screen. A minute later, he took the connector out and rolled up the cable. It fitted into a slot underneath the screen, and the whole device went back up Cho's sleeve.

"What was it?" Sha asked. His hands felt cold. Ukoku had done something to his 'bots.

"Nothing serious," Cho said. He took his coat off and draped it neatly over the back of Sha's couch, his movements crisp, precise, and a little angry. "It wouldn't show up in our transcripts, and nobody but a very skilled Auditor or a conscientious Enforcer would notice, but the Administrator planted an extra tracking program."

"Uh, that's good, right?" Sha took a half step back. Cho's mood was slightly off, and it was kind of scary.

"No." Cho's gaze snapped up, and now Sha could see just how furious he really was. It was a cold fury, one he knew Cho had been keeping in check since they'd first entered Ukoku's office. "He wanted us to know he was serious—as if the 'scripts he planted didn't show that plainly enough." Cho's voice was icy. "He left the tracker so it would be difficult to find, but not impossible. I think he could have infected us with an untraceable program if he'd wanted to."

Sha swallowed. "How do we know he didn't?"

"We don't. It's unlikely, but there's a chance he could be watching us now. The way he was watching us earlier today," Cho said. His eyes had a fierce light in them, one Sha recognized from when he'd given Sha the illicit 'bots. He unbuttoned his shirt and draped it over his coat, stepped out of his shoes, and then began unfastening his pants. "I didn't like the way he was looking at you," he said dangerously.

"Uh, no. I didn't, either," Sha said. The wall was at his back, and he felt his heart pounding in his ears. He was getting hard from the way Cho was watching him, and he didn't try to move away when Cho ran a hand across his cheek and down his neck. He let out a shaky breath when Cho gripped his throat, his touch almost tender.

Sha closed his eyes as Cho squeezed and pushed him back against the wall. He could still breathe, though he had to strain a little. The second time Cho fucked him, two days ago, had been just as intense as the first. But this was different, Sha realized. More threatening, more serious. Cho was going to do it like the Administrator was watching. Sha's cock throbbed with the blaze of heat that flashed through him, and he let out a strangled groan as Cho squeezed harder and gently forced him to his knees.

"Wait there. Don't move," Cho said. Sha complied, balling his hands into fists on his thighs as he watched Cho twist his shirt into a rope. A thrill of excitement and apprehension made the air in his lungs catch, and then he was angling his neck without being told to make it easier for Cho to slip the cloth rope over his head and begin winding it tight.

Sha's breaths grew labored as Cho parted his lips with cool, slender fingers. The tip of his cock followed, wet and bitter salt on Sha's tongue.

"Take it," Cho whispered. He twisted the shirt more tightly yet, and Sha's breath stopped for a second before Cho released some of the tension. He almost didn't recognize the choked moan that broke from him as his own. He swallowed around Cho's erection, taking him in deeper as he steadied himself with his hands on Cho's ass. Cho made a soft, contented sound and canted his hips forward, fucking Sha's mouth with long, slow thrusts. As his rhythm sped up, the shirt twisted tighter, until Sha was getting barely any air at all. Bright, winking spots traced dizzying patterns across his vision, and he dug his nails into the taut skin of Cho's ass. Cho caressed his cheek and let the shirt fall from his hand as he withdrew from Sha's mouth. Sha collapsed forward on his hands, panting hard.

"Turn around," Cho said quietly. His throat and neck pleasantly tender, Sha obeyed. He felt Cho settle on the bed behind him and yank down his sleeping pants, and then he dropped his head to the mattress and groaned into it as Cho pushed inside him, slick and heavy. Sha's muscles protested, but he shoved back with his hips, impaling himself before Cho could thrust all the way in. Cho's hands curled over his hips with bruising force, blunt nails digging into the delicate skin. Sha would have warm, rosy scratches there for a little while, until the 'bots smoothed them away. Cho pulled away and thrust in again. It hurt, but it was somehow exquisite, the pain bleeding into a deep, red-hot ache that made Sha pant a broken gasp for more and bite down on his arm as Cho fucked him even harder.

"Touch yourself, Gojyo," Cho said, his voice strained and husky. Sha clutched at the sheets and cried out, wracked with bone-wrenching shudders as he came without lifting a hand, and Cho thrust once more, his nails pressing bloody crescents into Sha's skin as his orgasm overtook him.

Everything went numb as Cho pulled out a moment later, shaking, and Sha was grateful for the illicit 'bots—he'd never make it through the morning without them. He wanted to collapse onto the bed and maybe pass out, but he couldn't. He forced himself into a relaxed kneeling position and faced Cho, who was watching him carefully, his face flushed from their exertions.

"What is it?" asked Cho, his voice still rough. Sha cleared his throat.

"Something happened on my way back here. This kid bumped into me when I was walking to the public transport, and when I hung up my coat, I noticed something in my pocket. The kid must've put it there." Sha grabbed a handful of sheet and wiped himself down as he spoke. He would have liked a shower, but if he got flagged, his water usage wouldn't match up with his biotranscript for tonight. He could wait the few hours until six. "I didn't want to look at it until you got here and checked me out. In case there was something wrong with my 'bots."

Cho looked intrigued. The high color was fading from his cheeks, and the shine of his eyes was tempered by interest now, not just hunger. "What do you think it is?"

"No idea." Sha got up on unsteady legs and went to fish the object out of his coat pocket. It turned out to be a scrap of defunct datafilm, curled in on itself. Sha handed it to Cho, who smoothed it out on his bare, sweaty thigh. His fingers smudged the writing on it—numbers written in an old-fashioned ink of some sort.

"Coordinates?" Sha poked the datafilm.

"Yes, and a time," Cho agreed. "A meeting, I presume."

"Huh."

"Did you recognize the messenger who left you this?"

Sha scratched his arm where the 'bots were plumping out the indentations left by his teeth. "No. He didn't look familiar, but I don't really look at faces, you know? I don't even know what the Citizens on this floor look like." He shrugged ruefully as Cho turned the datafilm over.

"The meeting is for tonight, just before midnight," Cho said, frowning thoughtfully. "On the northern outskirts."

"Yeah." Sha waited, but Cho only stroked the curl of datafilm with his ink-stained index finger. "So, we're going to have to go through Syslink to find out who he is, aren't we? We can't hide the search."

"No," Cho said. He crumpled the scrap in his palm. "I'll dispose of this on my way back to my Housing block. You didn't have your duty vid-script running by any chance, did you?"

Sha shook his head. "It happened in sector 3K—just east of Dispatch's sector. Regular surveillance should have been running, though, right?"

"Yes, especially with the concern over corrupted Enforcers," Cho said with twist of his lips. Sha grinned back. "If he was behaving strangely, we should be able to pick him out easily. He might have been flagged already if there are Auditors monitoring the vid-scripts around Dispatch."

"That'd be good. I won't have to come up with a story if that's the case."

Cho cleaned himself with a corner of sheet and stood up, then slipped the message into his coat pocket and began getting dressed. He gave Sha a long, undecipherable look when he left, and Sha lay awake the rest of the night, thinking about everything and nothing all together. He might have dozed a little at dawn, but his eyes were open when his morning alert buzzed through his head.

His trip back to Dispatch in the morning was normal, without an unusual pedestrian or short, brown-haired Citizen in sight. The surreal normality continued through his upload and protected search for the kid, who he found after a relatively short query. They were in luck—a camera had caught him on the street right before he turned to follow Sha out of the wind and around the corner of the Broadcasting building.

And he was unregistered.

"Cho," Sha said urgently as he ran the ident-search on his datafilm again. Cho leaned over his shoulder to enlarge the picture and the flashing unregistered where the ID string should be.

"Message the Lead Enforcer," Cho said quietly.

"Right, I've got it," Sha answered. He turned aside and subvocalized a request to see Hsieh. A response to go straight to the Lead Enforcer's office started flashing in their peripheral vision almost before he finished making the request. They didn't even have to wait in the antechamber—the door slid open as soon as they reached the table, and Hsieh was beckoning them inside as they drew even with it.

"Sir," Sha began as Hsieh looked at them expectantly. "I think we found an Unregistered."

Hsieh glanced down at his desktop and watched as the surveillance vid played at Cho's subvocalized command. His lips parted in disbelief or excitement as he spooled it back and watched it again, paying keen attention to the missing ID string under the kid's image.

"How did you find him?" Hsieh asked.

Sha resisted the urge to flick a glance at Cho or take a calming breath before he spoke. "He's final education-level age—too young to be out without his Crèche or program Supervisor—and his body language was strange. He didn't act like anyone else out in that sector."

Hsieh spooled the vid back again and let it play through once more, his eyebrows rising. "Yes, I see," he said.

"Our next step is to run a secure search through all the archived surveillance footage for the last three to six months—however much processing time you're willing to authorize," Cho said crisply. Without Auditors being allowed to run through the surveillance vid designated as part of their investigation, a portion of Syslink's datastream would have to be repurposed for the analysis. It might take as long as a full day. "We want to see if we can discover patterns to his appearances or if this is his first foray into District Central."

Hsieh pursed his lips, considering. "I'll authorize a six-month analysis. Be ready to present an action plan within an hour of the results," he said.

Sha glanced at Cho. His profile looked pleased; Hsieh's authorization would give them at least a day, maybe even thirty-six hours. And since they were going to be coming up with an action plan, the chances of a stealth vid-script activation were low—there was no way Hsieh would risk jeopardizing their assignment now by generating a vid-script that would have to be vetted by Auditors. Not when they were finally making some real headway he would eventually claim full credit for—right before a loss of status and re-education for himself and Cho, Sha suspected.

"Thank you, sir," Cho said.

"Sir," Sha echoed. Hsieh dismissed them and bent back over his desktop, probably replaying the dataspool one more time.

Sha looked over at Cho, who said nothing and whose expression gave nothing away. Sha knew, though. He'd be meeting Cho at the Unregistered's coordinates tonight. He wasn't sure what they would find, but they'd be ready for it, whatever it was.

 

IV.

The Collect-ReEd of two building maintenance laborers that afternoon drifted far from the routine: just as they were about to deliver the verdicts, a third Citizen burst through a false wall and threw a fist-sized, ovoid object into the middle of the room. Cho's visor display terminated the verdic-prompt in mid-scroll and flashed a warning.

"Delayed-det frag device!" shouted Collector Liang. He spun himself around the doorjamb and out the door as Lead Collector Chang and Collector Wen took cover from their positions outside the room.

Sha was nearest the device, two steps away from one of the Citizens they were Collecting. As the Citizen made for the doorway, Sha snagged him by the collar and kicked the backs of his knees, then twisted the Citizen's head to the side sharply. He tossed the body onto the device and grabbed the second Citizen, rapidly making for the door with the struggling second Citizen between him and the body.

Cho was closest to the unidentified Citizen who'd tossed the bomb. He had her subdued and was dragging her back, using her as a shield, when Sha threw the body on the device. It detonated two seconds later, and the room filled with the gritty, acrid smell of charred flesh, blood, and spent explosives. Cho remained relatively unscathed—the Citizen limp in his arms took the brunt of the gore and the shrapnel with enough velocity to pierce the first Citizen's body.

"Impressive move, Enforcer," he said. He let his Citizen drop and stood over her, watching carefully for any signs of returning consciousness, as he subvocalized an update to Dispatch. Message sent, he continued to watch while he waited for her ID string and an expedited verdict to come through.

Sha had the spike gun tucked under his Citizen's chin. He squeezed the trigger, waited a beat, and then squeezed it again before letting the Citizen fall to the floor and stepping out of the way when he began to thrash and flail. As the re-education bots shredded his neuronet, Unlawful HL-22565's limbs drew bizarre designs through the blood and shrapnel on the floor: a final message, to … everyone and no one, Cho supposed.

"Team PA-sec-3J, Unlawful HL-22565 is ready," said Sha. He nudged the Unlawful out of the way with his boot and went to examine the ruined remains of what would have become Unlawful LL-07411.

With Liang and Wen following close behind him, Lead Collector Chang finally came into the room. He couldn't fully conceal his disgust as he took in the carnage. "Enforcer, what—"

Cho ignored the Collect-ReEd team and turned away as the expedited verdict came through, the sentence scrolling across his visor plate. Sha could answer Chang's tedious questions about cleaning up the mess. He knelt down and freed his spike gun from its holster. "Former Citizen Xiao Ling, hereafter designated Unlawful XL-64036," he said, running flawlessly through the whole verdict without pause before he spiked her.

"I don't think she could hear you," Sha observed from behind him a minute later. "It's not like she was interrupted."

"Protocol, Enforcer Sha," Cho said. He stood up and holstered his spike gun, then headed outside. "Let's get back to Dispatch. The transcripts for this Collect-ReEd are going to need a closer audit before the end of our shift, and I don’t want to waste any time."

"The Auditors who flagged this pair for the ReEd might have missed something," Sha said a moment later as they climbed onto their hovercycles. His voice sounded matter-of-fact over the Syslink connection in Cho's ear as the maglifts hummed to life and the cycles rose to cruising height. "I wouldn't want to be them right now."

Cho shared the sentiment, but he wasn't about to admit it. "Call up your transcript. We'll audit these on the way back, and then re-audit the info that was sent to Dispatch when we get there." He twisted the throttle on his cycle and let the rushing howl of the wind fall into the background, immersing himself in the script-audit during the whole trip back.

Further audits back at Dispatch revealed that the Auditors had indeed missed a key connection between Unlawful LL-07411 and Unlawful XL-64036. They had begun taking the same public transport at semi-regular intervals after their 'bots logged their proximity during a special building project fifteen months ago. Even though the Collect-ReEd was designated for Unlawful LL-07411 and his co-worker, Unlawful HL-22565, the Auditors should have checked into other connections more carefully before triggering a warrant and sentencing for either of them. Cho recorded his final observations and signed out for the day's duty shift with some antipathy toward the unknown Auditors. He had little patience for shoddy work.

It looked like he and Sha, not Administrator Ukoku, would be responsible for clearing spaces in the Auditors' ranks. And just in time for the new graduates of the Auditing program. Cho allowed himself a mental smirk even as the thought of the Administrator made his skin itch with irritation.

Sha gave him an interrogative look as they passed each other on the way to the exit; his satisfaction must still be apparent—to Sha, at least. Cho brushed his fingertips over his mouth, an absentminded-looking gesture that signaled they would talk later. Much later. They would meet at twenty-three-thirty, a kilometer south of the coordinates left by the Unregistered, and proceed to the designated meeting place together. Sha tipped his chin upward slightly in response and turned left as they exited the building. Cho turned right, toward the public transport that would take him to his Housing block.

The ride was short, but Cho had enough time to plan the rest of his evening before the meeting. He still had diagnostics to run on his biobots and a new program or two to devise.

His dinner of a nutritionally complete, reconstituted soup wasn't ideal, but it was quick. It allowed him to retrieve his tools from their hiding space under the bathroom tiles and begin working almost immediately. And immersing himself in the problem and getting the better of the Administrator for perhaps the third time in thirty-six hours helped soothe the faint, nagging irritation that had stuck with him since leaving Dispatch.

The Administrator had gotten under his skin in a way nobody else had previously. He had done it quickly and gotten almost as deep as Sha had. It was partially because of Sha, he knew, because of his unexpected and uncharacteristically profound attachment to Sha—his hunger for him and for knowing everything about him.

He wanted to be everything that was real to Sha. And he didn't want anyone else to see Sha for what he truly was—particularly someone as repulsive as the Administrator. Those secrets would be only for him.

The tiny screen in his hand chimed softly and flashed green. The new programming was complete. Cho disconnected the screen from his button and picked up the small syringe on the table in front of him. The first few times he'd inserted the needle into his button to collect a few of his 'bots, he'd needed a mirror to get it right, and later he'd been able to do it by touch. Now he inserted the needle by instinct. He waited sixty seconds before twisting the collection reservoir closed and withdrawing the syringe. The digital readout along its side showed a seed number of one hundred and twelve enhanced, reprogrammed 'bots. That would be enough to reprogram all of Sha's 'bots without any traumatic reconfiguring at their rendezvous.

Cho looked up at the clock hanging above his small kitchen-station's sink. It was time to go. As he hid his tools back beneath the tiles, he called up a readout of his biobots' current functions one last time, just to check that they had begun generating a sleep-script and would mask his location as soon as he stepped outside. In the event that he somehow caught an alert or a stealth vid-script was activated, his 'bots would show his bio-responses and optical feedback as that of deep sleep.

Leaving the Housing block was always a risk; the surveillance schedule for the streets was random, and only a chosen few—none of them Enforcers—had access to that information in advance. As massive as Syslink's Pan-Asian node was, to record vid everywhere, twenty-four/seven, would have been an unnecessary, unprofitable drain on its processors. The Corporation had other ways of making certain its citizenry stayed honest.

Cho kept his head down and his hands in his pockets as he walked. He kept to the shadows where he could. The walk took him nearly an hour, but he arrived before Sha. He took a long, looping approach to the site to look for possible observers. The area scanned clear. His infra-nightvision didn't pick up anyone else.

A few minutes later, Sha approached. He came from a direction incongruous with his Housing block, and Cho realized he, too, had taken a less direct route.

"Are you ready?" Sha asked quietly.

"In a moment," Cho said. He pulled the syringe from his pocket and uncapped the needle. Sha's eyes widened by a micro-millimeter, and he went very still. Cho could see the tension in his muscles: he wanted to back away, but he wouldn't let himself do it.

"Hey," he said. "Are those, uh—"

Cho pursed his lips. "We don't have time for this. These have improved programming—it's only a seed amount, and the upgrades are minor compared to what I gave you last time. You'll feel nothing," he said, impatient. "Turn around."

Sha gave him a hard look and then spun slowly on his heel. He reached up to pull his hair back from his button, but Cho brushed him away. He ran his fingers through Sha's hair, warm and soft like sun-kissed silk, and slid the needle in. He depressed the trigger on the syringe, and Sha shivered under his fingertips as the 'bots infiltrated his 'net and began reprogramming the 'bots already there.

"It's not too bad, is it?" Cho let his fingers trail down the back of Sha's neck.

Sha shivered again. "No." His voice was hushed, a little strained. Cho would have liked nothing more than to drag Sha back into the shadows, but they were running out of time.

"Let's go," he said. He pocketed the syringe and started jogging in the direction of the datafilm scrap's coordinates. They were outside the more populated areas now, and surveillance was usually completed by teams with tracking wands and plastisteel, meter-square sniffer drones. Getting caught on vid was unlikely.

They got half a kilometer before Cho's enhanced hearing caught the sound of something moving in a run-down building ahead of them and to their left. Sha heard it, too, by the way his gaze flicked in that direction before moving to Cho. Cho slowed down, and Sha slowed with him. They walked a few final steps and stopped, waiting, all senses dialed to their highest resolution.

A whisper-soft footfall came from behind them, and they whirled around. Sha, Cho noticed, turned himself so he was mostly covering Cho's back but would still be able to see the short silhouette detach itself from the deep shadows they'd just passed. Surprised, intrigued, and annoyed all at once, Cho wondered how this person didn’t show up in their infra-nightvision.

"Hello," the silhouette said. His voice sounded young and a little husky. "I'm Goku. I'm here to take you to Sanzo." He came a little closer.

"Hey," Sha said. "It's you—the kid who bumped into me yesterday. The Unregistered."

"Yeah," said the Unregistered. "I'm free, the way people used to be—the way we're s'posed to be." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "C'mon. Sanzo's waiting, and he's not real patient."

Cho didn't move, and Sha followed his cue. "We have questions," Cho said. "How did you find us? And how do you know we won't turn you in?"

The Unregistered rolled his eyes, and his body language betrayed a mild but growing exasperation. "Sanzo'll explain everything, but you can't turn us in. After tonight, you'll never find us again unless we want you to; we're not stupid. And you're smack in the middle of a giant veil, anyway. Even if you turned on a vid-script, which I know you wouldn't, it couldn't work. We'd block it."

Next to him, Sha twitched. "I didn't feel anything," he said doubtfully. "At the Administrator's, I—"

"Hey, shut up." The Unregistered scowled in disgust. "Sanzo's a better programmer than that creepy old Admin any day. Now, c'mon! We don't have long." He turned around and headed back into the shadows, looking over his shoulder to make certain they followed.

The Unregistered led them down through a cleverly concealed trapdoor cut into the concrete floor of an abandoned industrial building. Its seams were completely hidden by a strange nano-cohered, putty-like material that responded when the Unregistered spoke. "Don't bother trying to make it work for you," he said over his shoulder as he climbed down the ladder beneath the floor. "It's got voice recognition, and it only recognizes me an' Sanzo an' Shuuei. Doing a voice-alt with your 'bots won't fool it, either."

Cho frowned, but he saw no reason to disbelieve the statement. They followed the Unregistered down a long subterranean passage lit by bright white circles set in the walls—old-fashioned LEDs, he thought. He would have liked to stop and examine one in more detail, but the Unregistered was moving at a good clip. After several minutes, they emerged in a large chamber. A few people were carrying reinforced crates and canisters and disappearing into another passageway, but one was standing against the far wall, his arms crossed and his face arranged into a scowl.

"Tch. You're late," he said as he pushed himself away from the wall and strode closer, an angry tension visible in his limbs and spine. He was tall and thin, with bright blond hair and drooping violet eyes.

"Genjyo Sanzo," Cho said. He raised an eyebrow, unimpressed by the confrontational body language. Even with a veil and some control over their 'bots, Cho was certain he could hold his own against this Unlawful.

"Huh. He's prettier in person," Sha muttered. Genjyo clearly heard him because he stiffened.

"Shut up, you Corpo-tool!" said the Unregistered. "Just listen, okay?"

"We don't have much time, so try not to ask any stupid questions," Genjyo said. He glared at Sha, who bristled a little.

"Without any context, we can't really tell which questions are 'stupid,'" Cho said reasonably. He gave Genjyo a hard smile, and the Unregistered shuffled backwards a few steps. Genjyo didn't seem to be fazed at all. "For instance, is asking why he," Cho pointed at the Unregistered, "didn't show up in my infra-nightvision a 'stupid' question? Does it have something to do with the veil over this area, or is it a different tech entirely?"

"It's a smart, transparent bodypaint. It masks body heat," the Unregistered said helpfully, and then bit his lip. Genjyo turned an angry look at him.

"Goku, go help with the moving. Now." He waited as the Unregistered moved to the stack of crates and began shifting them around. "All right. Here's the deal," he continued, fixing them with a baleful glare. "I know that bastard Ukoku wants to use you to find me. He's been trying to draw me out, and when he couldn't, he decided to rely on you. But he's just as stupid as you are. I've been watching him longer than he's been watching you."

Cho raised an eyebrow, but inside, he was beginning to feel the first bubbling stirrings of ire. Slightly behind and to the left of him, the Unregistered's foot caught on the corner of a crate as he started hurrying away, and it popped open. Something inside clinked, and the Unregistered froze.

"Goddammit, Goku!" Genjyo snarled. "Those are the micro fusion bombs! Do you want to erase us all from existence?" Cho felt a frisson of adrenaline rip down his back and through his chest. He didn't move, but his mind was working furiously.

"Get out of here—go find Shuuei. Tell everyone else to stay out until I call for them," Genjyo said harshly.

"Okay, Sanzo," the Unregistered said, subdued. He hurried out with an apologetic duck of his head. Next to Cho, Sha was still as death, though his face betrayed nothing.

"Fucking idiot," Genjyo muttered. "Anyway, I can offer you a better deal than you'll get with Ukoku."

"Is that right?" asked Sha. He sounded bored, but Cho could still feel the tension in him despite their meter-wide separation.

"Yeah, that's right," Genjyo said. "Fifteen years ago, Koumyou Sanzo, my mentor, took me from a Crèche. He taught me how to reprogram 'bots and how to plant spy worms in the private sub-nodes of his colleagues' Syslink databanks. He smuggled Goku out of a Nursery lab when he was still an embryo and grew him without a neuronet, to see what would happen if we return to what we were before the Consolidation. But most importantly, he came up with a plan to destroy Syslink and take down New Terra."

"That's insane and impossible," Sha said, disbelief and not a little awe at Genjyo's audacity in his expression. It was almost the same reaction he'd given Cho when Cho had suggested they could break free from Syslink's influence.

"No, it's not," Cho said quietly. "It's just difficult enough that it's almost impossible."

"We're hitting the node here first. If it works, the other nodes will go down across the globe."

"It sounds like you have everything under control," Cho said. And are far more organized than the Governing Board suspects. He kept his voice bland, free of inflection. "What significance could our help possibly have?"

"We can't get at the secure sectors or uplink stations in the more populated areas of District Central. And to infect them, we need to get seed 'bots into the mainframes. We've tried introducing new programming other ways, but it doesn't take." Genjyo's scowl grew more furious. "That's the only thing the First Director got right. We've even tried piggy-backing 'bots on Citizens and a few Elites. They don't have the kind of access behind the major code-filtering firewalls that you do right now. We need that access for this to work, or we'll never get close enough to the mountain to melt the main node into slag."

Sha shifted. "I thought, uh, Banri was one of yours."

"No." Genjyo looked disgusted. "He was a flunky for an Elite connected to Ukoku. Ukoku found some of our 'bots and spread them around to get my attention and get someone assigned to finding me. And he didn't have the access we need. You two—"

"Sanzo," said someone from the other corridor. A tall, broad man with dark hair walked up to Genjyo, a datafilm held loosely in his hand. He murmured something in Genjyo's ear as Cho studied the schematic on the datafilm. He couldn't turn on a vid-script; Genjyo's veil was preventing it. But he could enhance his recall, and with the sharper vision his 'bots were allowing him, deciphering the lines wasn't difficult. It was careless of Genjyo's underlings, really, to let slip so many important details.

A sudden certainty crab-walked through Cho's mind. He was grudgingly impressed even through his irritation. Genjyo had figured them out without knowing much about them beyond what was in their records and whatever information the Administrator had access to. He was taking a risk, but even if he'd chosen poorly, he would still profit.

"Get them moving, Shuuei," Genjyo said finally. "We're clearing out and sealing off the access points within the hour."

The Shuuei person turned and left without sparing a backward glance. Cho waited.

"I'm not asking you to do anything you're not already doing," Genjyo said. "There's no more risk to you if you agree to do it. There might be less. That bastard Ukoku won't keep his word. You won't get promoted if you do what he asks."

"We're not that stupid," Sha said. Genjyo's expression showed he wasn't convinced.

"The risk isn't the point," Cho replied.

"Yeah, we're not doing any of this for him. And we're not going to do it for you, either."

Cho nodded in agreement. "Perhaps in a different place or a different time, we might have worked together. But not now."

"In that case," Genjyo said, signaling, "you can fuck off and die or get spiked for your trouble."

"Oh, don't worry," Sha said with a rude smile. "I'm sure we'll manage."

"I'm here, Sanzo." The Unregistered came jogging out of the corridor across the room. He went to stand in front of Genjyo. "Should I get the 'bots ready?" He shot a glance at Cho and Sha, and then looked back at Genjyo. Cho was a little impressed with his commitment to the drama. But then, maybe he really believed Genjyo would have convinced them.

"No. Get them out of my sight, and then come straight back here. We've got to move the rest of this stuff before we close down. And no, you're not helping! Shuuei'll take care of it." He turned away and made for the corridor opposite where Sha and Cho were standing.

The Unregistered looked at them with disappointment in his wide, clear eyes. Sha looked away, and Cho caught his eye. Cover me, he mouthed, lips barely moving. He flicked his glance over to the micro fusion bombs. Sha's eyebrows went way up, but he made sure he followed the Unregistered with a little more noise than was necessary. He was careful to keep himself between the Unregistered and Cho. Cho surreptitiously looked over his shoulder as he passed by the crate, but the chamber and presumably the corridor behind them were empty now. He slipped his fingers into the small gap left in the lid when the crate was kicked. Five smooth, thin cylinders rolled into his palm in less than a second, and then he was falling in step, one and a half paces behind Sha. He placed the cylinders in his pocket and followed the Unregistered back to the trapdoor where they'd entered. The Unregistered led the way up the ladder and spoke softly to the putty sealing them in. It peeled away easily at his touch, and then they were back out in the cool, dark Pan-Asian night.

"You can find your way from here, right?" he asked. There was an earnestness to him that Cho found somehow appealing. Earnestness wasn't something Citizens or any other members of the Corporation possessed.

"Yeah, thanks," Sha said. There was a nervous energy coming off him. Cho said nothing, and the Unregistered disappeared back down into the ground. The trapdoor banged behind him with a very final sound, and its seams melted into the concrete as the smart putty sealed it completely.

Cho and Sha walked for two kilometers without saying anything, passing by their original rendezvous point. Sha began to fidget about half a kilometer past it, and then he finally stopped and turned to Cho, pointedly not looking at Cho's pocket.

"That Genjyo guy doesn't seem like an altruist. Was he really dumb enough to think we'd care?"

"He isn't. He has a grudge against the Administrator and the Governing board for what happened to his mentor. Freeing the world from Syslink and the Corporation is just a side effect of getting his revenge. And no." Cho fingered the canisters in his pocket. They were very slender and felt delicate, much the size and shape of the cigarettes people had smoked over two hundred years ago. "He might have hoped we'd assist him, but he didn't expect it. In fact, I'm certain he planned for us to do exactly what we did. The Unregistered's sincerity almost helped to sell it, but it's difficult to believe he would leave the micro fusion bombs in the room during our conversation, let alone make it so easy for us to take some. That, along with the glimpse I got of the tunnels leading to the Syslink node … He must have a contingency plan in place to take advantage of whatever we do."

"Risky," Sha said.

"If we fail, he may have to start all over. But if we succeed—"

"He has his revolution," Sha finished. He hunched his shoulders. "This is screwed up. Used by the Corp, by LE Hsieh, by the Admin—by the revolutionary, even."

"The Corporation doesn’t use us as well as it might. And the Administrator," here Cho sneered a little, "hasn't managed much, either. Even Genjyo can't foresee what we might do. When we act, it won't be when or what they're hoping for. We'll see to that." Cho withdrew his hand from his pocket and touched Sha's wrist where it was exposed by the cuff of his coat.

Sha gave him a crooked grin. "I'll see you in six hours," he said.

Cho watched him until he rounded a corner and then started walking in the opposite direction. He didn't head back toward his Housing block, though. He walked deeper into the maze of derelict buildings around him. The micro fusion bombs clicked against each other in his pocket, despite the smoothness of his gait. Cho cushioned them with his fingers as he slipped around a corner and crouched down. He'd found this place years ago during a routine surveillance sweep, before he'd become a fully-fledged Enforcer.

A discreet lock, scratched and rusted with age, was set a few centimeters off the ground, recessed into a beat-up corrugated metal door. Cho keyed the lock, and the door slid aside on a well-oiled track. His 'bots, now free of Genjyo's veil, increased the contrast of his infra-nightvision as he ducked through the opening and into the storage room. Hidden among dozens of dusty old boxes and metal drums were four strongboxes. Cho was careful to come here only once every eighteen months or so, and always right after a recon sweep, if he could. He would leave the micro fusion bombs here with the rest of his stash until they were needed.

Circumstances would doubtless require that he come back very soon.

 

Around sixty hours had passed since their meeting with Genjyo Sanzo and the kid. Sha was feeling strangely alert, jittering with a nervous anticipation, like there was an electrical charge building in the air and he had to be ready to dodge when the lightning hit. And he knew it wasn't just him. Cho was more watchful, more wary—more careful and precise in his work, and on edge in his own creepy way. It made it harder for Sha to keep himself together on the inside, though he was functioning perfectly on the outside.

"Nice job, Enforcers," said Collector Chen as she wheeled a gurney past them. Sha decided he liked Collect-ReEd Team PA-sec-7M. Chen, Zhang, and Hu were more efficient at their jobs than Team PA-sec-3J. Lead Collector Hu ran a tighter team, and they weren't as … present during a Collect-ReEd. They faded into the background the way a good trio of Collectors should. This Collect-ReEd had gone off without a hitch. Sha turned to Cho as Chen disappeared into the abandoned building.

"What's next? Audit and then back to Dispatch for more research?" It hadn't been more than a few days since they'd brought the Unregistered to Hsieh's attention, but he was already starting to lean on them for more results—immediately. Sha got the feeling that if Hsieh could invent an Unregistered for them to track down, he would.

"Yes, that seems—" Cho began as an alert flashed across Sha's visor. He couldn't see Cho's eyes through the polarized faceplate, but he could hear Cho subvocalizing the command to play the message. Sha accessed his own alert and froze.

Administrator Ukoku had gone to Dispatch. He was waiting there, in the Lead Enforcer's office.

"The esteemed Administrator has come across some information that he wishes to share with you." Hsieh looked and sounded disgruntled in the playback. "He insists that it's vital you receive this information at once and in person. You're recalled immediately. I want a full audit—you're not leaving until I have every byte of data accounted for, for the past hundred and twenty hours." The message flickered, and the vid cut out.

The Administrator was at Dispatch, and Hsieh was obviously feeling threatened and like his authority was being challenged. Had the Administrator somehow found out about the meeting with Genjyo? He must have known the second they'd brought the Unregistered to Hsieh's attention, and even if he didn't know about the meeting, Sha was sure he'd intuited it. He must suspect that they'd met Genjyo by now and hadn't brought him in—that they hadn't done anything to further their investigation.

The bottom dropped out of his stomach and a second's panic clawed at the back of this throat, but then he took a deep breath: this was it. No more waiting, no more watching, no more being watched. One way or another, they were done with it all.

He pushed up his visor and looked at Cho. Cho's visor was up, too. He caught Sha's eye and gave him a tight, fierce smile.

"Follow me," said Cho. He straddled his hovercycle and kicked the starter. It hummed, a rising pitch that mimicked its rise from the ground. Sha leapt onto his own cycle and twisted the throttle, and they sped away from the Collect-ReEd site, back toward Dispatch. Crumbling buildings and pitted streets smeared into a grayish blur around them as they picked up speed. They'd covered a dozen kilometers back in the direction of Dispatch and Sha was getting anxious when Cho whipped his cycle around a corner and powered it down in front of a rusty, dented metal door.

Cho pulled off his visor and motioned for Sha to do the same. "Leave your button out," he said as Sha reached for it out of habit.

"It'll trigger a tracking alert," Sha said nervously, "if it hasn't already."

"We've got thirty seconds," Cho said. He bent down and did something to a battered old lock. The door slid open, and he ducked inside. Five seconds later, he came out with a fairly large strongbox. He keyed the combination locks, and the lid retracted.

"Put this on your visor interface hookup," Cho said briskly, handing Sha a palm-sized box. He picked up his own visor and demonstrated.

"Data-gen 'bots, right?" Sha asked, fitting the box inside his visor. A small hole in one of its corners clicked softly as he pressed it against the interface hookup. "But they're not—"

Cho frowned at him as he pulled a pair of syringes from the box. He tossed one to Sha, who nearly fumbled it despite his enhanced reflexes.

"They're keyed to your biometrics," Cho answered absently. He inserted his syringe into the small connector site where his button would normally go. "I collected a few the other night when I updated your 'bot-programming, and then I left them here with the micro fusion bombs. I was certain we'd be needing them soon." He glanced at the syringe still in Sha's hand. "Put that in. Let it collect for two minutes to make sure you get all the Syslink 'bots. They can track us without buttons or the visors if we're still carrying them."

Sha managed to put the syringe in after a few clumsy attempts at jabbing it into his scalp. As he stood there, feeling nervous and a little stupid, he watched Cho clamp their visors to his hovercycle. Cho disappeared back through the doorway for half a minute and then came back out carrying yet another small box, which he attached to the hovercycle's chassis. He ran a finger over the tiny screen embedded in its top. The screen lit up, and Cho keyed in some coordinates. The hovercycle started itself and sped away, leaving a few rocking pebbles and a tiny cloud of dust in its wake.

As Sha watched it go, the nervousness abated a little. "How much time will that buy us?"

"Half an hour? An hour? It depends on whether it's picked up on vid or by another team, or whether it makes it all the way back without getting noticed." Cho glanced in the direction the hovercycle had gone and then turned back to Sha. "Do you know how to use a plasma rifle?"

"A plasma rifle?" Sha suddenly felt giddy. "How did you get a plasma rifle? Those don't fit up a sleeve." He'd never seen a real plasma rifle outside an action vid—they'd featured heavily in the Takeover Wars leading up to the Consolidation, but once the New Terra Corp had won, virtually all projectile weapons had been destroyed. He pulled the syringe out of his connector and handed it to Cho, who tossed both it and his through the dark doorway. "What else've you got in there?"

"One or two circuit-breakers that should help us get into Syslink's older access tunnels, the micro fusion bombs and a remote detonator," Cho said, "and some anti-radiation meds. The bombs have a blast radius of a hundred and fifty meters each, so depending on where we are when they go off—"

"If the mountain doesn't fall down on us first," Sha said.

"Yes." Cho went back through the doorway one last time and came out with a pair of plasma rifles and two extra power packs. He handed one of each to Sha.

"This is the power toggle, right?" Sha said, pointing to a small switch just above the trigger. "And the power release for ejecting the spent pack and putting in the new one, yeah, all right. And this …" Sha turned the rifle over on its side. The carbo-steel made a soft scratching noise against his gloves as he located the shot-setting slide. "Single-pulse to multi-pulse bursts." He grinned. "It's just like in the action vids."

Cho gave him a brief smile, one that softened the hardness in and around his eyes. It was replaced by a serious expression as he pressed something that looked like a Syslink interface button into Sha's palm. "Put this in. It's a two-way link that will allow us to communicate as though we were wearing our visors." He secured a power pack to his belt, then handed the second plasma rifle to Sha as he climbed on the remaining hovercycle. "It might be better if you carry these on our way there."

Sha slung the rifles over his shoulders and climbed on behind him. He rested his hands on Cho's waist. "How long've you been planning this?"

"A while. But I think—we have a much better chance together than I would have had alone," Cho said. He glanced over his shoulder as he kicked the hovercycle and twisted the throttle. His eyes were incredibly green in the hazy afternoon light.

"Yeah. Me, too," Sha said into the back of Cho's neck as they sped away from Cho's cache. They headed north, toward Syslink.

Cho took them through a network of tangled old streets and alleyways, through tumbled-down buildings and the twisted skeletons of hundred-years-old skyscrapers. Now and again Sha thought he glimpsed a sniffer drone, though they were moving too fast for him to be certain. But he didn't see any other people—no Collection teams, Unlawfuls, or even Genjyo or the Unregistered. He figured Genjyo must know by now that the Admin was on to them, and he'd probably know that they were going to run for it. Sha wondered what Genjyo and the kid were going to do.

Whatever. It wasn't his problem. In a couple of hours, he might not even have problems anymore. Sha looked over Cho's shoulder as the hovercycle slowed and saw that they were coming to a wide expanse of fairly clear ground. There was mostly just low rubble here, nothing taller than a meter or so in the ten or eleven kilometers leading to the base of Syslink's mountain.

"It's only a kilometer more to the ingress point," Cho said. "I'm not sure what's in the tunnels—a surveillance system, perhaps, and an automated security system. My circuit-breakers might get us past those, but I can't be sure."

"Any personnel inside, do you think?"

"I don't know. There must be some maintenance teams, but whether they're on a schedule or permanently stationed here, I couldn't say."

Sha thought about it. "Would the Director and the Governing Boards trust anyone around Syslink for very long?" He doubted it. He wouldn't be surprised if the maintenance personnel got status demotions and re-education 'bots shortly after completing a routine check.

"Perhaps not," Cho said thoughtfully. "Perhaps they rely mostly on automation. I don't remember any mention of a maintenance schedule on the datafilm that Genjyo so kindly allowed me to observe."

"We should go on foot the rest of the way," Sha said. "Depending on what they have for perimeter security, that might be best."

"Yes," Cho agreed. He let the hovercycle settle on the roughly pebbled ground. Sha swung himself off and held out a plasma rifle as Cho climbed off, too. "The datafilm intimated that this is an older tunnel. I don't recall seeing vid of this area or coming out here for sweeps when I was finishing up my training."

"Me, neither," said Sha. "I don't think that means anything, though." He shrugged his shoulders and settled his plasma rifle more comfortably across his back. "Lead the way."

They took off at a steady, loping run, zig-zagging over the uneven ground and using the few half-standing walls for cover to check for possible vid-feeds, tripwires, or anything else that might be lurking in the seeming no-man's-land. They picked up faint energy signatures from a vid-feed with their 'bots, but it was west of their location. When they finally reached the place where Cho said the tunnel entrance lay, Sha was pretty confident they hadn't been seen.

They approached the broken-down building carefully. The door was at the bottom of a crumbled stairwell, half-blocked by chunks of concrete and shredded steel. Sha was grateful for Cho's illicit biobots—getting the door clear was difficult, even with their 'bot-enhanced strength. When they'd finally cleared the bottom of the stairwell sufficiently to open the door wide enough for them to slip inside, Cho produced a circuit-breaker from his spike gun holster. He plugged it into the battered combo-lock.

"Is there current in there?" Sha asked. His 'bots didn't register any, so he was skeptical. "I can find something to use as a pry bar if I need to."

Cho tilted the circuit-breaker and swiped his finger across the miniscule screen. A flurry of numbers spooled across it. "That would be useful, yes. This door isn't connected to any power source."

As Cho disconnected from the lock, Sha vaulted over the shifted rubble and looked for a sturdy piece of metal—to pop the lock from the door or pry the door from its hinges. He found a promising bar of steel partly encased in concrete and raised it over his head. He brought it down on the edge of the stairwell and turned his face away as the concrete shattered.

"Thank you," Cho said, taking it. He shoved a thin edge of the steel between the door and its jamb, just under the lock, and twisted it violently. The door buckled slightly, and Cho was able to shove the steel in further and twist it again, this time with a much more satisfying result. The lock disengaged, and the door opened when Cho grabbed it with both hands and pulled. The air that wafted out was dry and stale. Sha coughed a little as the taste of old oxygen coated the inside of his mouth.

"Do you think this actually leads anywhere important?"

"It should. It might be a very old tunnel," Cho said, stepping into the darkness. "I don't see any lights or any current flowing. Hand me my rifle, and take this." He stretched his hand back toward Sha. A large, pale capsule seemed to float in the palm of his gloved hand. "You need to take it at least an hour before exposure for it to be effective."

Sha took the anti-radiation pill and dry-swallowed it, trying not to cough again as dust and grit scoured his throat on its way down. "Let's hope we're far enough away for it to make a difference," he muttered. Cho didn't say anything. "Here's your rifle."

The tunnel stretched before them, as dark as deep, starless space and straight for at least two hundred and fifty meters. Sha looked at Cho's profile, sharp and perfect in his infra-nightvision.

"If Genjyo's information was right, we have a nine-kilometer trek ahead of us. Let's go," Cho said. He began to run, setting an easy pace that would eat up the meters quickly. Sha followed, listening to the sound of their mingled breaths as they matched each other's strides and exhalations in the darkness. In just over twenty minutes, they reached the end of the tunnel. It was blocked by a slab of concrete.

"Was that in Genjyo's info?" Sha asked. He wasn't breathing too heavily, thanks to the 'bots.

"No," Cho said, frowning. "I have a few small explosives with me, but I don't know how thick this wall is or what the tunnel opens on."

"We could try the plasma rifles." Sha tried not to grin. This wasn't an action vid, and they weren't in training. They were screwed. But still … "They might not be as loud as an explosive, and the plasma might eat through just the concrete. I've never fired one before, anyway. No time like the present to get calibrated, right?"

Cho glanced at him, then back at the tunnel's end. "All right," he said eventually. "It's worth a try. I don't think the plasma will use up all the oxygen in here." They backed up a hundred meters, and then Sha lifted his rifle and flipped the power toggle. A subsonic hum began to build, vibrating in his bones, and the carbo-steel grew warm even through his gloves. Sha checked to make sure the plasma rifle was set to single-pulse bursts and squeezed the trigger gently. A streak of incandescent blue-white energy flew from the muzzle as the rifle kicked back against Sha's shoulder. Waves of heat sizzled in the pulse's wake, dancing crazily in Sha's infra-nightvision.

"Huh," said Sha, rifle still tucked snugly against his shoulder. And then the plasma hit the concrete dead center with a low, hissing boom and began to eat through the wall. Its color and heat bled away quickly, but in three seconds it had eaten through enough that they could get out into the light on the other side. "That was—hey. Yeah." Excitement shot through him. He knew he was grinning stupidly and they were probably going to die in the next ten minutes, but he didn't care.

Cho squeezed his shoulder. "Let's move. Do you hear that? We've triggered an alarm," he said. He ran back down the tunnel and dove through the ragged hole, coming up on his feet and whirling out of the way as Sha landed behind him. Sha could hear a faintly throbbing siren wailing in the distance.

"Where do we plant the micro fusion bombs?" Sha asked. He dialed his hearing up to the maximum, purposely ignoring the thudding of his heart and Cho's as he tilted his head to the side, trying to catch anything that would help them. A low electric thrum was coming through the wall directly opposite where they'd made their plasma hole.

"I don't—wait. An interface console, over there." Cho sprinted twenty meters down the brightly lit corridor and connected his circuit-breaker to it. Sha hurried to catch up to him, but he trusted Cho to figure it out while kept an eye out for any movement.

"There's a door leading to an inner corridor just around a corner, fifty meters from here," Cho said, pointing to his right. "The doors on the other side of that corridor lead to Syslink's processors." A diagram glowed brightly on the circuit-breaker's small screen, and Sha quickly captured its image.

"Okay, how do we take it down?" he asked. He heard the thudding of very distant feet coming from the direction Cho had pointed. "And do it fast?"

"We, ah—there." Cho highlighted a section of the diagram, and it expanded. "This is its central processor. It looks like it's heavily shielded, but I don't think we need to get that close. If we can get one of the bombs within a hundred or so meters of it on two or more sides, that should be enough to knock it out, if not outright destroy it. At the very least, we'll interrupt its ability to communicate with the satellites and other nodes. The Pan-Asian Syslink node will be effectively destroyed." Cho pulled the circuit breaker free from the console and tucked it into a pocket, and then reached into another pocket. He handed Sha three cylinders, two small and slender, and one larger, with a hinged top.

Sha dropped them in his own pocket and swung his plasma rifle up again. Three people wearing Enforcer gear who moved faster and more fluidly than Enforcers—Better 'bots, Sha thought fleetingly—charged down the corridor. Sha aimed for the center of the group, then to the left and right, bracing for the recoil and squeezing the trigger three times in rapid succession. The plasma pulses cut through body armor, flesh, and bone like they were no denser than air.

"Come on," Sha said. They ran along opposite sides of the corridor, Sha a few meters ahead of Cho. "How do I arm the bombs?"

"They're already linked to the detonator." Cho dropped to his knees in front of the door that led into the inner corridor and keyed his circuit-breaker. The door beeped angrily, and the lock refused to go green. Cho scratched a sequence across the breaker's screen, and the lock turned over with a grudging clack. "Get inside."

Sha ducked through the door, staying low, and cleared either side of the corridor. Nobody waited for them, but the strange humming of Syslink's processors was a little overwhelming. He had to dial down his hearing and felt almost naked as the ambient noise subsided.

"I can try hacking into the locks and sealing all the doors," Cho began doubtfully. Sha shook his head.

"Waste of time. They'll just crack 'em back open. It'll take Syslink a microsecond if they repurpose even the smallest processor. Let's just do this."

"All right," Cho said. He looked Sha full in the face, his eyes dark and intense, like he was trying to memorize the way Sha knew he must look at that moment: sweaty and dirt-streaked and a little wild-eyed. "Once you've flipped the lid on the detonator, the sequence is a counter-clockwise twist—one full turn—and two depressions of the button. There's no delay."

Sha reached into his pocket and pulled out the larger cylinder. He held it out to Cho. "You take it," he said.

Cho glanced away. "No," he said. "We should get moving."

"All right," Sha said. He slipped the detonator back in his pocket and grabbed Cho's hand before he could leave. He squeezed it tightly, holding him in place. "Where do we meet up?"

"Wherever's closest to each other and as far away from the bombs as possible," Cho said. A wry smile flashed across his face, then softened into something genuine for a second before falling away entirely. He squeezed Sha's hand back, then tugged it gently from Sha's grip. Sha watched him sprint down the corridor, rifle unslung and held at the ready, and then he ran in the other direction.

Sha didn't have one of Cho's circuit-breakers, so when he got to a door that led into the network of processors, he backed down the corridor a ways, aimed carefully, and let a plasma pulse melt through the lock and half of the wall panel connected to the jamb. As he slid into the new corridor, though, something small and incredibly hot whizzed past his cheek. He could feel a blister rising beneath his eye, and then the skin went numb as his 'bots worked to repair the burn. He threw himself back from a second round: tiny plasma pulses, more precise than the larger pulses thrown out by his rifle. They were a more intelligent weapon to use around delicate machinery. Sha squinted and looked all around the space in front of him, edging forward a centimeter at a time until he saw a tiny movement up by the ceiling. He shot at it, and a muffled whump shook the corridor around him as the miniature auto-cannon's power pack exploded. Burning plasma ate through the ceiling and floor, and then rapidly cooled into a puddle of hard, slick slag. Another alarm cranked up and started wailing somewhere behind him.

"Cho," he subvocalized. "They've got small-pulse auto-cannons mounted in the ceiling. Be careful."

"Ah, yes," Cho replied calmly. "I believe I've just found one. They also have interrupter beams spaced at regular intervals, but they won't work on our 'bots. They might try different settings, but the 'bots should hold up for a while. Still—"

"Hurry. Got it." Sha got back to his feet and started heading away from the door he'd just come through. Stretched out in front of him was a vast forest of smooth, branchless trees made of wires and circuits, all connected to one another and bundled in inert cylinders set with screens and winking lights. Each cylinder was at least ten meters in diameter and thirty-five meters tall. Sha jogged toward the center of the mass, looking left and right as he passed openings. He caught a flash of black out of the corner of his eye, and he spun to his left and brought up his right hand. The plasma rifle caught the tall woman a glancing blow across her cheek and knocked her backward, but not before she jammed something impossibly sharp into his side. Sha gasped as the blade sank through his armor like it was cloth and lodged itself under his bottom-most rib.

"Sha?" Cho's voice cut through the pain, and Sha brought the rifle across her throat. He leaned on it with all his weight and felt her trachea and esophagus crumple like old datafilm. The short knife burned when he pulled it out. Sha hissed softly at the pain of it.

"Be careful," he gasped. "The Enforcers—they have knives that cut through armor." He pressed his palm against the wound, which was finally tingling and going numb now that the blade was gone.

"How bad is it?"

"It's closing. It should be fine." Sha kept his hand clamped against his side and started to run again. "Have you—did you plant anything yet?"

"One. I'm on my way to do the second one. You?"

"Almost ready to drop the first one," Sha said. He took his hand away from his side, relieved to see that his glove wasn't soaked in blood. He couldn't feel anything soaking the material beneath his armor, so supposed his 'bots were doing their job. Sha paused and pulled up a readout of the distance he'd covered since entering the processor forest. When he compared it to the glimpse of the diagram he'd gotten from Cho, it looked good. The first micro fusion bomb went into a processor to his left.

He was moving quickly to the right again when he heard a grunt and a cough in his ear. Sha spun around, rifle raised, before he realized it came from Cho.

"Cho," he subvocalized. He heard another grunt and two more odd coughs, then a high-pitched, wheezing sigh—the sound of someone trying desperately to catch their breath when their lungs wouldn't cooperate. "Cho!" Sha wanted to turn around and help, but he knew it was useless. Even if he used his 'bots to synch their locations, he wouldn’t reach Cho in time if he was in that much trouble. And—

Over the desperate wheeze in his ears and the hum of the processors in his bones, Sha heard the soft tak of a boot glancing off metal. He dropped into a crouch and then whirled into a sweeping kick as an Enforcer leapt at him. The plasma rifle got knocked aside, but Sha ignored it. He went straight for pressure points, blocking the other Enforcer's blows and slipping in past his guard three times. Sparring with Cho had paid off. In spades. The other man was momentarily paralyzed. Sha ripped the Enforcer's visor off and slammed the heel of his hand upward, driving his septum into his brain. The Enforcer flopped forward, dead.

"Cho?" Sha subvocalized, picking up the plasma rifle and heading for his next drop-off point.

"I'm here," Cho said. He sounded a bit dazed but otherwise all right. A wave of relief rolled through Sha, leaving him a little weak at the knees for a few steps. "You were right about the knives."

"Are you all right?" Sha was nearly there. He put on a burst of speed, dodging around processors and keeping his eyes and ears wide open but finding no trace of any other Enforcers.

"Yes. The knife nicked my lung, but the 'bots have everything under control. Sha—"

"Hang on," Sha said. He left the second bomb high up in a processor in front of him and subvocalized a command to synch his 'bots with Cho's. Cho was two and a half kilometers away. If he cut through close to the center and didn't run into any other Enforcers, even with the obstacle of the processors all around him, he could be there in four minutes. "Did you drop them all?"

"Two," Cho answered. He still sounded kind of dazed.

"All right. Leave the other one where you are. Is there a door near your position?"

"Yes."

Sha held the plasma rifle across his chest like a talisman and ran, dodging between and around the processors by reflex. "Head for it. I'll be right there." He heard another Enforcer running ahead and to the right, trying to intercept him. He was heavy on his feet compared to Cho—compared to Sha, even. Sha didn't bother taking him out quietly. He hit him dead center with a plasma pulse and kept running. The body reeled into a cylinder, which sparked and spat before going dark behind him. He caught up to Cho five minutes later. For a second, he wasn't sure it was Cho—no rifle—but then he recognized the way the other Enforcer moved and realized he wasn't wearing a visor.

"It's me," he said, reaching out and grabbing Cho by the arm as Cho whirled around, ready. "Come on, we're going." Cho was breathing hard, taking short, shallow breaths as they ran. They got slightly better after a minute, and then Cho shoved him out of the way, hard, as two figures in black rushed him from either side. Sha rolled with a punch that knocked him aside. He used the momentum to swivel around and kick the Enforcer's knee. It snapped sickeningly and the Enforcer went down. Sha stomped on his neck, crushing his throat, and then kicked his chin, snapping his neck for good measure. Behind him, he could hear Cho panting.

"She's down," he said hoarsely.

"How far—" Sha started to ask, and then followed Cho's gaze, which had narrowed and was darting from left to right.

"They're closing in," Cho said. "We have to—"

"We’ve gotta blow this place—right," Sha said, speaking over him. "Are we far enough from the bombs?"

Cho's lips moved slightly as he queried his 'bots, and he frowned. "Possibly. If we detonate them now and the shockwaves don't kill us or bring the mountain down, Syslink's central processor and satellite uplink will be destroyed. The Enforcers won't have access to their 'bots. We will." His eyes gleamed, and his mouth curved up at the corners in a wide, sharp smile.

"All right." Sha dropped the plasma rifle and reached into his pocket. For a second, it felt like the detonator was bitingly cold, freezing him to the bone—and then blazingly hot, searing the flesh from his fingertips. He nearly fumbled it as he flipped the lid open and twisted the trigger counter-clockwise: one full turn. He looked at Cho, who began to laugh, and his own lips stretched in an answering grin as he hit the button twice.

 


End