< Never Say Die
Never Say Die


Neil Carstairs

There were tigers in the street and the traffic had slowed to a crawl.

Amy was waiting in the lobby of Sheraton 5 when I arrived. She greeted me with a smile that didn't reach her eyes; I was late. Amy led me into the atrium of the hotel. High in the rafters, where the fans turned lazily to circulate the air, a monitor lizard clung to the faded wood. The receptionist who greeted us had the yellow eyes and sharp teeth of a gene-splice. She looked at Amy, then at me, and gave us a knowing smile. Amy paid for a room on her card and signed with her eye.

We took the elevator up to the 75th floor. Inside, a screen was playing a rolling news channel. Showing, yet again, the assassination of the Empress Victoria. We watched, with the same morbid fascination as the global audience, the slow-mo footage of the stealth dart as it put 500 kilojoules of sunburst into the ceremonial carriage. The replay ran six times before we reached our floor.

From the elevator, we walked to our room down two corridors lined by wall aquariums. The fish eyed us with universal disinterest as they swam through mock reefs.

Amy opened the door with her retina. In the room, a window looked out over the bay. Two navy ships were at anchor in the pure blue sea. She put the plasma screen to the same news channel we had watched in the elevator. This time they had a close up of the dart. A voice over ran through the security response. Two drones came into view, and a pink shine of laser light flashed as bodyguards saw the danger too late. The voice over was running through the how and who, but not the why. We all knew why.

Amy kicked off her shoes and lay on the bed. She wore a yellow wrap that clashed with the dark green covers. I sat next to her and let my fingers stroke the soft brown skin of her thigh.

"We know the dart came from Mumbai," she said.

"And the charge?" I asked.

"There's been a lot on the black market since the break up of the Southern Republics. Cost you about a thousand euros. The problem is not where from, but how they got it into the city."

On screen came another replay. The carriage was three hundred years old and Victoria eleven. They both took a couple of heartbeats to burn to cinders.

Amy sat up. She moved my hand from her leg.

"Tell me about the route in," she said.

"Look at the Lyrac Corporation." I kept my eyes on the plasma screen.

Amy was quiet for a moment. I knew she had enough implants to classify as a simulant. She would be contacting her employers and entering the city's security database. I waited in silence until she said, "Why?"

"Bills of lading for transport of energy globes."

"How far back would you go?"

"A year," I suggested.

She looked away into the distance. On the screen the replays had been replaced by four experts telling us what they thought of the events. Amy came back from wherever she had been and said,

"Do you know how many units have come into the city in the past year?"

I shook my head.

"Over thirteen thousand. Would they have planned that far back?"

"Further," I said.

She stood, went to the screen, and killed it. Then she turned, leaned against the wall with arms folded, and asked, "Were you involved?"


I waited for a reaction. Her left pupil began to dilate. I thought about going right. I could get through the window and onto the balcony. From there I would take my chances with the drop to street level.

"Don't," she said. "I've got air support. And one of those navy ships has this room ranged in."

I hid my nerves by going to the window. High overhead was the narrow outline of a Rapier tracing figure eights.

"If I'd been involved," I said, "would I have agreed to meet?"

"Sure," she said with a sweet smile. "Sometimes the best ways are to hide in plain sight."

I had no answer to that.

"Sit down," Amy said. There was little warmth in her voice.

I sat down. I was still alive and wanted to stay that way.

"Who did it?" Amy asked, coming off the wall to walk to the water dispenser.

"Evangelists," I said, stating the obvious.

She drew three decs of water and walked to the window. She sipped at her cup as she looked at the view. She turned to face me. With the sun at her back she looked like an angel.

"So why am I here?" I asked, eventually.

Amy came towards me. She leant forward, and the wrap slipped a little. She waited patiently as I took in the view, then said,

"We think we know who did it. We know where they are. We want you to confirm it for us."

Close up, Amy had flawless skin. Her ancestry was three-fifths Indian and two-fifths science. Within her right eye I could see the tiny ripple of data bursts that flowed from her mind to her cornea and back. The air around her was scented with spices.

"Do I know them?"

"Yes," she straightened with a smile. "They're in a bungalow near the coast. They plan to leave the city tonight. We plan to stop them."

"And I?"

"Confirm they are responsible."

"And you?"

"Terminate them."

"And if I don't help?"

"Life gets ugly."

"They may be innocent," I advised her.

"If they are, they live."

I had known Amy long enough to know that truth was her one vice.

"We go now," she said.

The fish were still swimming in the aquariums. The news channel was still rolling on the elevator screen. The gene-splice was still on reception and tigers were still holding up the traffic. We walked downhill, following a group of Latino tourists, to a public crossing point. When the lights changed we crossed the eight lanes. A tiger passed us, big paws slapping on the macadam surface.

"Even you must think there is something wrong with that," I said.

"I see nothing wrong in gifting life," Amy replied. "Imagine a world without tigers, or whales, or pandas."

"We live in one," I said. "These are not tigers; they are drones. What you are looking at is a shell. We have removed all that is natural from that beast and provided people with a simulacrum."

"What you see is the result of endeavor," Amy replied. "Our generation can live alongside these animals in a way that no other has been able to, especially since they became extinct in the wild."

We reached the sidewalk and turned left. The tiger found a patch of shade and lay wearily in it. The street here was lined with workshops and labs. You could get implants or transplants. You could be gene-spliced or gengineered. Amy pointed to a peddler selling a line of counterfeit eyeballs.

"Do you think I'd look good with pink eyes?" she asked.

"You'd look good with any color eyes," I told her.

She flashed me a smile.

"I do like you, as a person, I mean." she said. "I know we're on opposing sides, but I do like you."

Like me, but not trust me, I thought, looking up to see the Rapier as a thin needlepoint against the cloudless sky. The air was hot and sultry, thick with the heat of summer. A trolley boy approached us, selling cold drinks. Amy waved him away. We reached another intersection. She stopped. A media banner flowed over our heads, enticing us to spend our credit at Mall 47.

"This is where we part company," Amy said. "The address is 11-75 Tecorta. I'll follow you."

She held out her hand. I looked down at it for a long time, considering, and then reached to take it. Her fingers were slim and cool, her grip naturally firm. She smiled, then turned away and vanished into the crowd. I walked on until I found a rank and got a taxi. The driver was a mechanical. I turned off his conversation and sat in silence as we took the expressway under the city and then out onto the salt marshes.

There was a more visible military presence here. They had watch points at the sides of the road and pole-mounted scanners sweeping all the vehicles both outbound from and inbound to the city. On the marshes I could see skuas and egrets and herons. Further down the coast, towards the estuary, the ground was pink with flamingoes. I told the driver to stop at a viewing point and got out of the taxi. The sun was dipping down over the city, shadows streaked out to sea from buildings that reflected the rays in red and amber flashes.

I wondered who would be at the house. Amy had said I knew them. And she would be watching me now, trying to figure if I was betraying her. I let her wait. The sun got lower and the shadows longer. The heat of the day faded to the warmth of the night. Passing traffic now had its lights on. It was time to go.

Tecorta was in a district of the city rebuilt after the typhoon of '74. Bungalows lined the rising ground in ranks to take in the daytime view of coastline and ocean. The road wound back and forth in smooth loops. The driver pulled up in front of 11-75 at about the time night fell properly. Streetlights illuminated neat gardens. I credited the driver and then watched him head back to the city. I waited until the taillights of his car disappeared before walking up the narrow pathway. Storm lanterns gave off a yellow glow on the verandah, and light from inside the house shone through gray-green blinds. There was a bell push in the shape of a lizard. I pressed it, heard the faint ring inside the house and waited.

It was Jacob who opened the door. If he had been expecting anyone, it wasn't me. His eyes widened a little in shock, and then flicked past me to look at the street. Finally, he stepped back to let me in. He shut the door and slid bolts home. He went ahead, without a word, through to the dining room.

"Who was it?" I heard the question as Jacob entered the room. And then, "Oh."

Rebecca and Caleb were at the dining table, the cold remains of a meal between them. There was no other greeting. They looked at me, and I knew they were guilty. Jacob sat, a little awkwardly, next to Caleb, and I walked once around the room before taking a chair across the table from all of them.

"What do you want?" It was Rebecca who asked, she was the most nervous of the three.

"I want you to give yourselves up," I said.

Caleb snorted a half laugh.

"If we do, they'll make us disappear," he said. "If we're going to go we want it to be with a fight."

"No," I said, "I can put a call in to one of the newsgroups. They'll send a remote, and where one goes the others will follow. If you surrender then the images will be on all channels within minutes. There will have to be a trial. And all trials are broadcast. People will hear you and see you. After that you can't disappear."

"No," Caleb said. "We will be found guilty and executed. Our side of events will be discredited as it always is. A better way is to fight them."

"And you?" Jacob came into the conversation. "How did you find us?"

"They told me where you were," I said. "They're watching this place"

Rebecca glanced nervously to the windows. Jacob looked at Caleb.

"Are you taking their side?" Caleb asked me.

"I take the view of the Church," I said. "The taking of any life is wrong."

"She was an abomination," Caleb's said, his voice sharp, anger lending it strength.

"She had no right to life," Jacob said.

"Victoria was a child," I said. "She had as much right to life as you or I."

"This is our problem," Caleb said. "The Church condemns science, protests against research and experiments. Then simply accepts the results. It's hypocrisy."

"The Church sees the taking of life as murder," I repeated.

"And what about the creation of life?" Jacob's voice was sharp. "Or the re-creation of life?"

There was a moment of silence in the room. Rebecca hadn't looked up from the table. It was Jacob and Caleb I had to deal with.

"We have no support from our Church," Caleb said.

"So now we act on our own," Jacob finished.

"And we have no fear," Caleb's hands had been below the table, now one rose. He held a gun, an R45, and aimed it at my heart.

"Is this what it has come too?" I asked him sadly.

"We can only trust ourselves," Caleb said, with little hint of an apology.

I looked down at the palm of my right hand, the one that Amy had shaken. I hoped that whatever she had put there was good enough.

"Come and get me," I said.

The first blast, at the rear of the house, was a decoy. The building shook. They weren't expecting it. The muzzle of the gun wavered a fraction.

The dining table was composite plastic, light but strong. I lifted it and threw it towards them.

Caleb got off one round. The table deflected it.

Another blast, this time at the front. The window came in, I felt shards of glass pepper my arm. I got through the doorway and went left. Two rounds hit the fiberwood wall as the front door blew inwards from its hinges.

Through the smoke I saw Amy. She had two drones in front of her and two behind and a laser rifle up to her shoulder.

A stealth dart came off the ceiling. One of the drones intercepted it in a burst of energy. Amy ducked beneath the flames and slid along the wall until she was alongside the doorway to the dining room. Another dart appeared from the shadows and I closed my eyes to the fierce flash as it struck a drone. Caleb fired two shots out of the room.

"Give them a chance," I said to Amy. "Let them give themselves up."

She looked at me through the drifting smoke and shook her head, as if in answer to my question. Then she shouted, "Surrender or die!"

We heard a muffled reply, and a smart grenade came out of the room. It sensed the two of us and in the spilt second it took to decide on a primary target the third of Amy's drones eliminated it. The blast put me onto the floor. I got up, gasping for air. Amy was wiping blood from her arm.

"I guess they chose the 'or die' option," she said with cold smile.

Her last drone was floating in front of her at eye level. She looked at it, and then nodded towards the open doorway. Two meters into the room the drone detonated in a concussive blast. Amy followed it, running through the halo of dissipating light. I heard the slap of her rifle and the crack of return fire. I dug my nails into the wall, took a breath, and followed her.

Smoke filled the room, hiding the destruction. A fire was burning. The walls were pockmarked with shrapnel. Rebecca was dead, lying face down. Amy was shooting at Jacob as he held a grenade. Caleb was crawling away, blood running from his ears. Amy killed Jacob, a shot through the head and two through the heart. I saw another stealth dart drop from the ceiling. Amy was already turning, looking for Caleb. I shouted a warning. She changed direction and fired. The dart was too quick. She clipped it enough to ignite the charge of sunburst and damage the dart's guidance system. The dart angled downwards and flew into her right leg. She fell, screaming, as a white flame melted skin and charred bone.

The sunburst burnt itself out. I looked at a leg that ended in strips of blackened flesh and a stub of femur. Amy could suppress pain. I watched her do it. Her breathing eased and her mouth closed. Her eyes began to focus, but not on me. Caleb didn't see any of this. He came alongside me, his gun in hand. Amy lifted her rifle and shot him through the throat. I felt his blood splash across my face as he fell.

I went to Amy's side. The fire in the room was burning more fiercely. I could feel it on my skin and in my lungs. I pushed her rifle aside and lifted her into my arms. I took her out into the night air. I carried to the end of the garden, to where grass met roadway, and laid her so that she was leaning on me for support.

She was staring at the remains of her leg. Blood pulsed from the stump. She began to shiver.

"I should have called in backup," I heard her say.

"Why didn't you?" I brushed hair away from her face.

"I think I was trying to impress you," she said.

"There was no need to do that." I could feel the tremors in her body as shock and pain returned. There was only so much her implants could do.

"Why did you help me?" She looked up. Her face had dark pits where debris had scorched into skin.

"I like you," I said, "even though we're on opposing sides."

For a brief moment her eyes lost focus. I knew she was communicating with her employers. When they re-focused on me, I said,

"I'll pray for your soul."

"I'm not going to die," she smiled shakily. "You know that."

"I'll pray anyway," I said.

Her hand came up, fingertips stroking softly across my dog collar.

"Tomorrow," she said, "They will get my clone from its tank, upload my memory, and in seven days I will be out of rehab and back on the street."

I wanted to believe her, but my faith told me otherwise.

"Go," she said, "leave me. They're going to bomb this place."

I laid her gently onto the grass. The fire in the house had burned up through the roof. Above the crackling of the flames I could hear the sirens of the emergency services and beyond them both the roar of the Rapier as it spiraled down. The fire would give the pilot a perfect target.

I ran.

The roadway curved downhill. At its apex was a footpath, following the steepest part of the hill. Stone steps led in a tight curve around to meet up with the road again. A retaining wall grew up out of the ground to form a buttress on my right. Here I stopped. If this couldn't protect me, nothing would. I sat on one of the steps and leaned my back against the wall. I knew the procedures. The authorities didn't want any genetic materials left lying around. The bombing would make sure of that.

I didn't hear the missile coming in. I heard the strike. The ground jumped, a sun bright light briefly illuminated the night sky. The blast echoed back from the land around. It began to rain debris. A mix of topsoil and rock, burnt to cinders, fell like black snow.

I looked up at the sky and prayed for Amy's soul.


Neil Carstairs (another adherent of the minimalist school of autobiographical notes) says simply, "I was born, raised, and still live, in Worcester, England."

E-mail: ncarstairs@lineone.net

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