Maxim_undoneUnder the soft glow of the work lamp, I labored through the night on a set of earbuds, picking them apart with a simple multi-tool. The earbuds were from the LMO I killed in the alley days ago. Makabe had earlier shown me the communications feeds that ran through the systems in the maintenance room. I wanted to modify the earbuds and tune them to a signal I could hide among the other feeds. I almost had it working. Makabe interrupted.

He came to me with a grave look on his face and dropped his data scroll on the worktable. The flexible scroll unraveled, stiffened, and flickered to life with a bright red headline.

“This announcement was broadcast across all systems in the rings,” he said in a raspy voice. “Read it.”

I put the partially-reassembled earbuds down on the table and pushed the small work lamp away. I looked at the data scroll. Underneath a red, flashing headline was a short statement. I read it aloud.

“Bellingshausen security patrols are looking for an intruder in the outer rings wanted for acts of terrorism and an attack on a patrol unit that killed a special operations lead. He is violent and unpredictable. The public is at risk.”

I pushed the data scroll back across the table to Makabe. He raised an eyebrow.

“Alarms have finally sounded from the Central Ring Complex,” he said.

“Sounds like frustration and panic,” I replied.

“Yes,” he groaned, lowering himself into the seat across from me. “No time for irrational acts.”

“How’s that?”

“An LMO security patrol has been unleashed to hunt you down in the streets and the underground. All eyes are looking for you.”

I was prepared for this eventuality. “It was only a matter of time before the LMOs retaliated,” I said. “I expected as much.”

Makabe appeared disturbed by my lack of alarm. “They are on a hunting mission to find the one who killed Q’Roth in the city streets.”

“It’s a ploy – nothing more.”

Makabe screwed up his face. “It’s terror for terror, the beginning of the end for these foolish games,” he shouted. “They want to reclaim their prize and they will not rest until they see you in the clutches of their interrogation team. They are frustrated. There will be violence.”

Makabe was right. I was a wanted man. The LMOs would use the opportunity to take their frustrations out on the city. But by creating a panic among the citizens, they would also ensure that there was no place to hide. I had to face it head-on. I had to go into the heart of it.

“I want to go in, see this for myself,” I said, rising from the worktable.

Makabe let out a huff. “You are either fearless or stupid,” he said with a chuckle and a disapproving shake of his head. “You are putting yourself directly into their hands. If you do not fall to them in the marketplace, you will certainly bring them back with you.”

“I’ll find my way in and I’ll find my way out,” I replied gruffly.

Makabe rubbed his weathered face with his hands. He pushed himself back in his chair and let out a deep breath. “Only a fool… ” he began.

“Wrong,” I interrupted, as I tucked my blade into the sleeve of the coat. “I am not the kind of man to hide here in this place. I will not shrink away, Makabe. People are being terrorized for my actions.”

I turned away to grab my coat. Makabe leapt from his chair with a shout. “Stupid haafu!”

I turned back slowly and glared in disbelief at the old man. My expression gave him a start.

“You…” he started, his voice tainted by a slight tremble. “You dishonor your upbringing.”

“Why would you say that?” I asked sternly.

“Here, in this place, you are inexperienced, untrained. I can accept this. But proper Japanese youth have been taught to seek the respect and the advice of elders.”

I did not reply at first. I leaned in close and stared at the old man. He remained quiet but unbowed.

“Then you would do well to listen to me,” I said in a firm voice.

Makabe’s brow furrowed. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. I fastened the front of the coat, slipped the multi-tool in the pocket, and let myself out the door into the blasting wind and ice.

The lamps over the city streets had once again turned hauntingly crimson. I moved from building to building, with eyes upward, cautiously watching the sky for patrol units in Skua hover crafts above. In the distance, I heard their distinctly mechanical, pulsing sound. They were moving away. The cold wind cut through my clothing and lashed at my exposed skin. I took cover in an alley and flattened myself against a wall.

My hands shivering, I pulled Makabe’s map from my coat pocket. The display on the map flickered, brightened, and rotated to center on my location and heading. Against the background of streets and buildings, I saw the entrance and exit points that Makabe had highlighted for just this kind of surreptitious movement in and out of the underground areas below the city streets.

I chose a mechanical room that had a ventilation intake and an access ladder visible from the street. I punched Makabe’s maintenance access code into the panel to the side of the door and entered. The room was dark and smelled damp. I pulled a small torch from my pocket and flicked on the light. The room was a tight snarl of hot steam pipes and ventilation ductwork. Leaking steam filled the air with the smell of rust and mildew. A sweat broke out under my heavy coat. In the center of the floor was the down hatch that Makabe’s map had identified. I spun the operating wheel and the hatch came up with a hiss. Tucking the map back into my coat, I let myself down and followed the central ladder system to the substructure below.

Once again, I entered the Bellingshausen underground – dim lights, damp walls, human smells. Throngs of people milled about the stalls, begging and bartering for everything, anything.

A stimulant peddler wrestled with a crush of humans at his stall. He swapped injectors for food, water rations, and favors. People clawed and shouted and begged. Enforcers – probably gang members – beat them back from the stalls when there was no more left to trade.

All too familiar. In my own time, I had personally witnessed the vaccination shortage riots that broke out across Southeast Asia in the mid-2030s. I was astounded and horrified in the same. I kept out of it and maintained a low profile. I wandered and watched for a while, sticking to the shadows feigning a slow, slumping walk. I kept my hood down and my eyes up. I passed easily for one of their own. I was just another ghost wandering through the tunnels and passageways. I was no one. I was invisible.

The dim interior lights shifted from yellow to a cautionary red hue. Alarms rang out with a guttural blat, blat, blat noise that made the skin crawl. An LMO security patrol, black-clad and bearing anti-riot weapons, scrambled through a swarm of human citizens in front of me. I stood back in the darkness, flat against the wall. Boots splashed through the wet and the muck underneath. Truncheons swung back and forth, clearing a path through frightened citizens. Over the grunts and the snorts, shouts rang out. “Search them out. Over there! Consult your data feed. Identify and round them up.”

Them? Aren’t they looking for me?

Three LMO sentries took their positions across the corridor from my place in the shadows. Bright view screens on forearm cuffs lit up their faces. Transgenics. Living modified organisms… fishheads. In all my years, I’ve never grown accustomed to their green sinewy skin, wide mouths, and large, black, unblinking eyes. A few other sentries stopped to consult the data with the other three. The screens swarmed with data, illuminating their ghastly faces. A red pulse indicated a target direction. An intermittent ping began. Heads snapped up and forward. They pointed into a group of individuals, barked commands and waved around their weapons.

Patrol groups swarmed around groups of humans, separating them from the rest. I pressed my back hard against the wall. There was light between the guards and me. They could not see through the light into the darkness beyond. They were close, very close. I was one with the wall. I could see their eyes, hear them breathing. My knife slid from the sleeve of my coat. My fingers wrapped around the hilt.

Two sentries stood over a cowering man. One of them consulted his forearm cuff. “This is one of them,” he said. “He goes with us.”

“I did nothing,” shouted the man, looking up at the sentries. “What did I do?”

A senior LMO stepped forward and raised a charged staff over the man’s head. The knob end crackled and sputtered with electricity. “Shut up, you outer ring filth!” he shouted. He grabbed the frightened man by the collar and jerked him savagely to his feet. “I’ll ask the questions around here,” he growled. “Don’t make me personally drag your body from here.”

The man bowed his head in terror. His body shook. My grip on the knife tightened, but I did not move.

The senior sentry with the staff ordered the man secured with wrist cuffs. The security patrol crew escorted the man hurriedly from the location. The man complied. Smart move… for now.

The patrol unit pushed past, moving quickly through the crowds. I leaned in far enough to brush a shoulder with one of the escorting patrols.

“Watch it, scumbag,” he growled. “We can take you out of here too.”

I backed up and they moved on, eyeing onlookers with vile scrutiny. The crowds parted to the periphery and allowed the patrol to push past without a glance in their direction.

I kept my head down and shuffled with a crowd further down the corridor. The threat was far from eliminated with this one arrest. The security patrols moved quickly and decisively from one location to another, asking questions, making demands, hunting citizens.

I followed the flow until the passageway narrowed and the crowd began to fold back on itself. A river of panicked humans began pushing past, heading the opposite direction. Expecting that something was happening further up, I pushed through the crowd, walking with a steady clip. I rounded a corner and entered a dark, unfinished section of the market. I splashed through the water pooled up in the center of the floor. The sound echoed off the walls. The noise made me wince. I moved quietly to the edge near the wall and felt my way along the corridor. Condensation dripped from the ceiling and spattered my face. I stepped around a few wooden and metal beams that held up crumbling sections of the structure.

Ahead, I saw a flickering light coming from around a corner to the right. I heard an angry electrical sizzling and popping. A voice shouted over the noise. I quickened my pace.

The light grew brighter as I approached the final turn. I crept quietly to the edge and and peered past the corner. A withered Asian man stood against a rocky outcropping in the shadow of a massive LMO sentry. His eyes were tightly closed. He was in agony. The LMO wore a pair of charged gloves, standard issue for riot police in 2186. But they were never used for this kind of senseless torture. The man was weak, defenseless.

When the gloves were fully charged, the sentry raised an open, glowing palm and struck the man across the face, casting a shower of sparks over his body and down to the floor below. The man’s back arched then collapsed as the energy dissipated. He moaned feebly. A few more of those and he would be dead for sure.

The LMO shouted over his communications link. “Patrol leader, this is Khorl. Come in.”

There was no response. The sentry was too dumb to realize that the electrical discharge was disrupting the signal to the earbuds. He was cut off from his team… alone. I slipped around the corner, moving in slowly and quietly, hoping the sentry wouldn’t sense my approach until I was close. My fingers wrapped tightly around the knife.

“Patrol leader, this is Khorl. Respond.”

The gloves sparked and snapped as they charged up again. He reached out and struck his victim once more. The man shuddered violently and slid to the ground in a pool of filthy water. The next strike would kill him. I stepped closer and raised my blade to eye level.

“Patrol leader… ” The LMO broke off and spun around. His large black eyes went wide with surprise and rage. “You!” he shouted, thrusting his gloved hand out toward me.

The double-layer electrode coil in the palm of the glove glowed brightly as it charged. The LMO leapt forward, swinging his open palm at my head.

I side-stepped and threw my body weight behind my shoulder, knocking his arm away. The LMO staggered. I slashed up and down with the knife edge, cutting deeply through the skin and muscle of the forearm. The creature snarled with pain and pulled its wounded arm close to its chest.

“I will gut you with that knife!” it screamed.

I raised the blade and thrust forward. The LMO dodged and slapped my shoulder with the glove, setting off a blinding flash and a loud pop. I hit the wall with a jarring smack and slid to the wet floor. Stunned, my muscles buzzed and tightened.

The LMO roared in delight and shook its fist at me. “Amateur,” he growled.

I tried to push myself up off the ground but my legs wouldn’t move. I was weakened, trapped. Wait for the tingling to subside, Maxim. Wait…

The creature sniffed loudly and stepped toward me. It looked down at its injured arm. The deep wounds poured blood into the water on the floor. It raised its head to the ceiling and roared again. “Sar has many plans for you, chikushou!” it shouted. “I hope he won’t mind if I kill you first!”

It stepped cautiously toward me. I pushed out with my legs but couldn’t find the strength to get to my feet. The creature moved closer, palm glowing and crackling. My heart pounded. The electrode coil in the center of his glove turned bright orange and hummed with increasing intensity. The beast was charging up for a killing blow, taking its time. As the electrode coil reached maximum charge, it popped and sputtered.

The LMO peeled back its fat lips into a twisted smile, revealing two rows of sharp, black teeth. It lunged with a guttural scream. I pushed my shoulders back against the wall and drove a high kick to its midsection. It barked in surprise as my heel connected. It toppled backward into the standing water on the floor.

There was an explosion of electricity as the charged gloves shorted out in the puddle. The creature’s body tensed, arching its back, going completely rigid. I pushed off the wall, slid across the wet floor to the side of the beast, and punched the knife into its heart. I twisted the knife. The LMO shuddered, gurgled, and fell silent. Its dead, black eyes continued to stare up at me in disbelief. It was over quickly. I stood up, breathing heavy. I was covered in blood and muck. I spat at the foul thing.

I stepped over the body of the dead sentry and rushed to the man on the ground. I shook him. He was unconscious. His pulse was weak but he was alive. I would have to move him, get him away from the scene, otherwise he would surely be blamed for this attack.

I looked back at the LMO. Blood pooled up around its head and spread quickly through the water on the floor. I tucked my knife away and pulled the charged gloves from its hands. I stripped the earbuds and went to work removing the forearm cuffs.

I heard a gasp. A woman, older, dressed in black, stood in the entrance to the alcove. She had one gnarled hand raised to her lips and her eyes were wide with alarm. She did not move.

Cautiously, I raised an open hand. She continued to stare back, frozen in place.

“I am not what you believe me to be,” I said in a reassuring voice.

The hand at her mouth trembled. I stood up, raising both hands into the air. She dropped her quivering hand and pointed at me.

“Wait…” I started.

She let out a scream.

I leapt over the body of the beast and ran past the wailing old woman, back through the passageways. The water and muck underneath made the footing difficult. I slid around the corners, slipping and falling once, hitting a shoulder and knee hard against the floor and soaking most of my clothing. This is not good.

As I ran, I pulled Makabe’s map from my pocket and unrolled it. The map’s digital readout spun, locked, narrowed, and finally pinpointed my location. I was nearing the far end of a tunnel with no place to go but back. I came to a dead end where the overhead system of pipes and ducts converged and disappeared through the wall. I looked at the map again. My fingers played across the screen, zooming in on the duct works and the ventilation system. I traced a route from the overhead shaft to what looked like a kitchen in a ground-level shop. I tucked the map away and climbed up on the pipes in the wall. When I was high enough to reach the vent shaft cover, I pulled the multi-tool from my pocket, selected a driver, and quickly went to work. In a minute or two, I was in and pulling the cover closed behind me.

It was a long crawl, made only possible by the map Makabe had given me. I exited in the kitchen of a noodle shop. Lights out, the establishment was vacant. Consulting the map again, I saw that I was only a few blocks down from my initial entry point.

I found the exit and ran through the snow and wind with my wet outer-layers and sweat-soaked clothing quickly freezing to my skin. My legs and back ached from the cold. When I reached the maintenance room entry, my fingers could not work the keypad on the access panel. The wind kicked up. I felt solidly frozen. As I breathed in, my throat and lungs were assaulted by super-chilled air. I leaned on the door and threw an elbow hard against its surface. The door opened and I collapsed at Makabe’s feet.

The little maintenance man pulled my nearly frozen body in and closed the door. I struggled for breath and shivered. Makabe leaned over me and shook his head.

“You’ve managed to return,” he said with a curious smile.

Out of breath, I nodded.

“What did you see?”

“Patrol groups. Rounding citizens up.”

“Your troubles are just beginning, my old friend.”

I gave him a puzzled look.

Makabe stood and put his hands on his hips. “Bad things are happening. You’ve now been blamed for the attack on the two human citizens in the marketplace days ago.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “We witnessed that attack. It was two LMO patrolmen.”

“There’s more.”

I sat up, with a little help from the old man. “What is it?” I asked, still gasping.

“Three more deaths have been attributed to you.”

My heart thumped.

“Another LMO patrol officer was slain.”

I nodded. “I found him torturing…”

“And,” Makabe cut me short, “they discovered a human citizen electrocuted at the same scene.”

“It wasn’t me.”

Makabe held up his hand and nodded slowly, as if he understood. “Maxim…” he said in a serious tone. “An old woman was slashed to death as well, cut open from her throat to her belly.”

I stopped breathing.

“She was gutted like a fish. The patrols are calling you a deranged assassin.”

I stared at Makabe’s face. His eyes lowered. He shook his head.

“The LMOs are making sure that all of Bellingshausen is fearful of you. They are killing in your name – and rounding up witnesses to cover their actions.”

I let out a long, exhausted breath and leaned my head back against the door. A bitter wind howled just outside. My heart thumped steadily in my chest. Blood and ice covered my frozen hands. I made a tight fist and watched a trickle of icy pink water run down my wrist.

“Maybe Bellingshausen needs a deranged assassin,” I whispered.

[Communication Relay:  08MAY2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]