Read The Digital Plague Online

Authors: Jeff Somers

Tags: #Dystopia, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Mystery, #Thriller, #Crime, #Adventure

The Digital Plague

 

To Danette

My darling, more than I deserve,
sometimes more than I can handle,
everything I need.

I

Day One:
I Knew the Mechanics of
Death Better than Anyone

I was going to have to kill a whole lot of people.

“Keep walking, Avery.”

I didn’t like how he kept calling me
Avery
in that distorted voice, like he knew me. It made me nervous. It was one thing to be sold out by someone in your own organization and sent into a fucking ambush; chances were, when you got sold on a bounty, you were just entering a startling gauntlet of upsells. Eventually you discovered the original bounty had been laid out by some Chinese gangster halfway around the fucking world. And I was big money these days: Avery Cates, cop killer.

This is what happened when you were successful in the System: you wore a target.

It was cold, a strong wind pushing a metallic smell up my nose with prejudice. I estimated ten or twelve people around me, though only two had spoken so far. Both sounded like they were using a digital morpher to mask their voices, which made me wonder if I knew the pieces of shit who’d sold me out. Anger, green and corrosive, bubbled inside me. I didn’t work with anyone I didn’t know, so a friend had sold me out, and it made me
angry.
If I’d been psionic—even a tiny, microscopic little bit—I would have been able to burn off the blindfold with my thoughts. As it was I was listening, trying to pick up clues. For when I came back and killed every last one of them.

That
Avery
stuck in my head.

I didn’t know how long I’d been unconscious—one second I’d been on Hudson Street, pale sun fighting its way through the scummy clouds, yellowed acidic snow crunching beneath my feet, and then an explosion behind my eyes, red and yellow and orange. When I came to, I was on a hover, blindfolded, my hands bound in rubber bracelets. I knew the buyers were heavy hitters because of the hover—a ride like that took money and plenty of it. That made me feel better; if I was going to be fucking sold like cargo, I at least wanted it to be serious people. People I wouldn’t feel bad about killing later.

I tried to walk steadily, but the ground was uneven and I kept tripping. The world was an endless howling wind that pressed against me, making me lean into it, panting with effort, and the icy ground beneath me crunching like tiny bird bones as I walked. I had no idea where we were; there were buildings, judging from the echoes, but no people. The suburbs of Manhattan didn’t lack for Ghost Cities, so that didn’t really narrow it down. Go an hour or so in any direction and you would find empty towns filled with collapsing buildings and riot damage. Gangs of Wilders sometimes took them over and tried to start permanent settlements, but the cops were pretty good about stamping that shit out, and so every year the countryside got bigger and those monuments to pre-Unification got smaller.

In case anyone was watching, I kept a smirk on my face. You had to keep up appearances. If my file hadn’t been cleared by Dick Marin, Director of SSF Internal Affairs and pretty much the biggest ballkicker in the System these days, I probably would have been number two on the System Security Force’s Most Wanted List, right behind the legendary—and probably dead—Cainnic Orel. You couldn’t be the SSF’s number two and get scared every time you found yourself blindfolded—it looked bad. Besides, I knew it was only a matter of time before my people found me; a transmitter chip under the skin of my right hand would lead them here. The only question was, would my people get here before I was sold off to the next outfit?

My people were mainly Belling—older than he’d been when he’d helped me on the Squalor job, but still the best Gunner I’d ever seen—and Gleason, who was just a kid but who’d proven herself to me a dozen times already. She did things the way I wanted them done, because she’d learned everything from me. They’d grab up some muscle, of course, but I didn’t care about the muscle. Belling and Gleason were pretty much my people in total.

“Stop, Avery.”

I stopped and beamed my invisible smile around. I started to say something, but my throat filled with phlegm and I had to hack up a warm mass of it onto the ground. “Stop talking to me like you know me,” I finally managed.

“We are old friends, Avery,” the voice responded. I was trying to catch the rhythms, the beats and pauses he used, see if it tugged at a memory. “Kneel, please.”

I turned slowly until I thought I was facing the voice. “Give me a hint.”

There was a scrape and the dry sound of fabric, and I flinched a second too late as something resembling a cannonball in heft and weight slammed into my stomach. I went down on my knees as requested, overbalanced, and landed face-first in sharp, iced-over snow. I lay there trying to breathe but just sort of twitching like a dying fish.

“Thank you, Avery,” the voice continued, calm and electronically blurry. “Pull him up.”

Someone was moving toward me, and then there was a fist in the fabric of my coat—a good coat, expensive—that hauled me upright. I hung there, limp, struggling to get my burning lungs back into motion.

“A hint? Avery Cates, the king of fucking New York, right? How many people have you killed?”

Fifty-four,
I thought.
Personally.

“I know you keep count, Avery. But how many have you simply destroyed, leaving them shattered, ruined? So many, right, Avery? More than you even admit to. More than you even
know
about, since some of us were simply never noticed. You couldn’t pick me out of the multitude.”

Slowly, I was able to pull a thin thread of cold air into my lungs. My head pounded with a fuzzy, painful pulse, as if an artery had burst and my brain was filling up with blood. I’d bitten my tongue when I’d gone down, and the salty rust taste of blood was making me nauseous. And then I went still and cold, because the frozen muzzle of a gun had been placed against my forehead. Revenge shriveled up inside me and faded away. I could hear birds in the air, a multitude of calls. I’d never heard so many birds in my life.

“For all these things, Avery, you deserve to die.”

Everything had changed. These weren’t swaggering assholes trying to throw a scare into me, this wasn’t just shipping a fat payday out to some bigger fish. I was used to the threat of instant, unforeseen death—every day of my life. Having it brought right up under my nose so I could smell it was shocking, though, and I froze up.

Behind my blindfold I closed my eyes.
There are better ways to die,
I thought, my heart pounding. I’d lived longer than I’d ever imagined, and I felt like I’d been tired for most of it, always scrubbing along on no sleep, scrabbling. I found a part of me, small but distinct, was suddenly happy. The wind leaned against me, making a hollow noise. The snow on my face burned slightly, and I’d be red there for a few days. The gun pressed into my skin and hurt, and I found myself leaning into it, pressing against it, like digging at a scab.

I guessed my people weren’t going to be in time.

“This is not an execution, Avery,” the voice continued. “This is an assassination. Not yours. But an assassination none the fucking less.”

I was ready for it. I would not speak. I clenched my jaws and held my eyes tightly closed, trying to clear my mind and think, but there was nothing to do. I was bound and blind and there were at least ten people around me. I knew the mechanics of death better than anyone, and I was caught in the gears. This was the System, after all; a day hadn’t gone by that I couldn’t remember death there with me, just walking along. From my father’s dirty, foul-smelling hospital room right before Unification, when there’d been separate countries and half a chance for a decent life, to this moment, death was always there. Except for the Monks, and Dick Marin. And even their batteries had to run out sometime.

Almost hidden by the wind, I heard distant hover dis-placement.

“Give me his neck,” the voice said.

A new set of hands—hard, cold hands encased in creaking leather gloves—took me by the hair and chin and bent my head painfully to the left. There was an endless moment of silence as I knelt there, held in place by two pairs of strong hands, thinking
Do it, do it, just fucking do it.
Something stabbed into my neck like a fragment of glass being dragged along my jugular, a pain that went on and on. Then something cold was being pumped into me, a cold I could feel as it traveled in my blood, like a worm wriggling in my papery veins.

I’d gritted my teeth so hard they ached. I hadn’t said a word. The fragment of glass was dragged back again and then was gone.

“Good-bye, Avery,” the voice said. “And don’t worry: when it is over, you will be punished again. He has told me how this will end. And He is never wrong.”

The two pairs of hands vanished simultaneously, and I toppled over onto my side. My neck throbbed, and although it was fading, I could still feel the cold lump moving through me, warming as it went. I thought that if it didn’t warm up enough before it hit my heart or brain I’d be dead, a shock aneurysm flooding me with black, smothering blood.

The hover displacement was louder now, and I could hear my kidnappers beating retreat. I flipped myself back up onto my knees, grit and sharp-edged stones biting through my pants into my skin, and stayed that way, the snow lightly burning my skin, my hands numb from the bracelets, listening to the heavy boots crunching in the snow and the hover getting closer, until the displacement started to beat against me, invisible fists. The ground shuddered beneath me as the hover settled home, the engines cutting off abruptly and leaving me, for a moment, with just the wind and my own ragged breathing. Blood, warm and wet, trickled down my neck and soaked into the fabric of my shirt.

I made fists with my hands as I heard the hover’s hatch snap open. I worked my mouth up and down, trying to maintain control over myself. I’d been close to death a dozen times. Hell, I’d
been
dead for a brief time in London all those years ago.

I was
angry.

“Chief?” I heard Gleason call out. She’d come a long way from a skinny kid who liked to play with knives. She’d been one of our first recruits when Belling and I had returned from London, rich, traumatized, and already marked for death by Dick Marin and his System Cops. “Chief, you okay?”

I heard their feet packing down the snow. I was shaking with the rage that had filled me, adrenaline tearing through my veins. I thought that if I wanted, I could snap the restraints with just a twitch. Whoever these fuckers were, they’d had their chance. They’d had me on my knees, hands bound, and for some reason they’d walked away. I didn’t know what they’d done to me, but I wasn’t going to forget and I wasn’t going to count my fucking blessings.

“Keep your eyes open,” I heard Belling shout, his smooth voice agitated. “Fucking amateurs.”

“Hold on,” Gleason said into my ear. I could smell her, a clean, nice smell, and felt her tugging at the rubber bracelets, and then heard the familiar
snick
of one of her blades. Gleason liked knives. Refused to carry a gun, saying that guns were for shitheads, for street soldiers downtown. She could throw a properly balanced, custom-made knife from across the room, in the dark, and kill you every single time. I remembered when Glee had been this skinny little girl, almost fucking mute. Now I couldn’t shut her up, usually.

A tug and my hands were free, the bracelets snapping away into the air. I stood and whirled, tearing the blindfold from my face. I paused for a moment, blinking in the bright, white sunlight. We were in a city, all right, standing in front of a church. Around us, the city was a deserted field of rubble, with buildings jutting up here and there like broken teeth. The ground around the church had been cleared and was a clean, uniform off-white, a sheet of frozen snow. The fucking church was enormous; broken, pitted steps rising up to a set of empty doorways. Above the doors was a gaping hole, a few ragged spikes of old stone still jutting up. The sheer weight of the thing beat at me in pulses, as if it had been eroded from softer rocks around it by acid rain and pollution.

“Where the hell are we?” I asked, struggling for breath and control. Without a word, Glee moved her shoulder under my arm and took some of my weight, her long red hair fanning out in the wind. I allowed her to without even thinking about it—anyone but Gleason I’d have twisted their arm back behind them. With Glee, I leaned down and let her help me stumble about.

“Newark, Avery,” Gleason said, looking around. “You okay?”

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