She tossed and turned in her sleep. Dreams haunted her, nightmares of rushing air, falling, tumbling through nothingness.
     She woke up with a scream, in a different place from where she lay down. She looked down at a pair of hairy, muscular arms and scratched her head. Why had she dreamt she was a woman?
     Probably best not to think about that, he decided quickly. Just one of those dreams.
     He hauled his battered body out of the bunk, checked the splints on his legs with a vague sense of annoyance. Still broken. Still pissed off. Simon, he added mentally, next time you jump out of an airship, you bring a parachute, you fuckin’ idiot.
     With terrible effort he lowered himself into the old wheelchair he’d been using. Two weeks, two endless maddening weeks with that stupid chair as his only way to get around. As if he didn’t have enough problems.
     Diffuse sunlight greeted him as he wheeled into the hallway. A great slanted skylight occupied much of the ceiling here, showing solid clouds as far as the eye could see, pure and bright and white as snow. Every time Simon glanced out into the skyscraper-dotted sky of Bilbao, his stomach churned with the thought of everything he’d left unfinished. Jobs that needed doing. Scores that needed settling.
     “Up early, Simon?” came a man’s voice from the corner. He glanced at the source, a small desk protected by bulletproof glass, smiling faces behind it dressed in white coats. Simon smiled back. They wouldn’t be so damned happy if they were in the same room, legs or no legs.
     “Didn’t sleep well,” he answered truthfully. To be honest he hadn’t slept well in a long time, but nobody else needed to know that. “You know the story. Fallin’ dreams.”
     “Do you want any more meds?” the orderly asked, a thick-set man in his forties who — when he thought no one was looking — fingered his shock-baton as if it were something sexual. “You know you need sleep to get better.”
     Simon shook his head. “I’m okay just now. Hungry, though.”
     The orderly looked at one of the others behind the desk — Dr. Abrida, the top headshrinker — who nodded in response. Abrida must’ve been somewhere in her fifties from the crow’s feet around her eyes, but her body looked barely half that. She always filled her outfits disturbingly well. Her secret was that she was screwing half the patients in the isolation ward, where nobody could hear or see. Probably would’ve tried it with Simon if his legs had been in better shape. Fortunately, she was not his type.
     She murmured, “That’s a good sign. I’ll have someone bring you a hot meal.” After a slight pause she added, “Don’t forget our session later. I don’t want to hear any more fairy stories about this ‘Gabriel’ person or the Federal Police. Let’s get down to the truth for once.”
     “Okay, doc.” He gave a cheerful thumbs up, which seemed to please the crowd immensely, and they dispersed. Soon the only person left behind the desk was the orderly on duty, watching the isolation ward corridors like a hawk.
     Dr. Abrida could look forward to their session all she wanted. It wasn’t going to happen today. As much as he enjoyed messing with the headshrinkers, he wanted out of this popsicle stand, and he’d laid careful plans to that effect.
     Although the doctors kept him confined to the isolation ward, Simon had been such a model patient that he talked them into giving him run of the corridors. After all, even if he could find a way to get outside, the chances of him escaping on broken legs were low. Simon couldn’t deny that. However, they didn’t know who he really was, or just how apt the nickname ‘Bomber’ could be.
     A sliding noise indicated a new tray of food at the desk, so he wheeled over to pick it up. It was a good thing he never intended to eat it; the shit they gave the inmates was two steps below dog food. The tray sat on the arm of his chair while he made his way back to his room, closing the door tight behind him.
     Big day today, he said to himself. He glanced at the clock opposite his bunk. Thirty minutes. Better get started.
     First he dug the stolen cigarette lighter out of the rusted hollow in his bed frame, followed by a black rod of melted plastic. Then he choked the smoke detector on his ceiling with a pillow cover and used the last remaining juice in the lighter to mould the plastic into a crude lockpick.
     Nobody would’ve suspected the scale of his plans. If he’d let his regeneration implant go full tilt he might’ve been walking already, but that would’ve raised suspicion after only two weeks in hospital. It was not something people did without major medical intervention. He had only reactivated the implant yesterday, after his daily physical, which ought to be just enough time to give him some mobility on his feet.
     Two weeks in this hole. It was hard to accept that only sixteen days had passed since his big jump, since he lost track of Gina, since he’d been rushed to hospital and then transferred here for no clear reason. Two weeks spent, wasted, learning all the dirty secrets of this nuthouse and using them to create this opportunity.
     You’d better have read that damned piece of paper, Jose, he thought as he grabbed the yoghurt drink from his food tray and unscrewed the cap. Otherwise this is gonna be the shortest escape attempt I’ve ever made.
     He poured the goo out onto the floor, wiped the bottle clean as best as possible, and pulled several styrofoam cups from underneath his dresser. Just a few household chemicals salvaged from the night cleaners. He poured them together into the bottle with care, then screwed the cap back on and shook it.
     The mix inside started to fizz violently, and the bottle creaked in his hand. He wedged it between the windowpane and the metal bars blocking access onto the courtyard at the heart of the hospital. Then he took cover.
     Shards of glass, plaster and concrete chips flew in every direction. The explosion tore out the bars, shattered every piece of glass, and pulverised most of the concrete around the window. Alarms all over the building started to wail.
     If Jose was out there, that would be his signal.
     Simon ground his wheelchair towards the newly-created hole, briefly enjoyed the feel of wind on his face, and then hauled his semi-functional body up into the walled recreation ground. Behind him he could hear thumping feet in the isolation ward corridors. The orderlies would be through the door in seconds. He dragged himself hand over hand onto the hot tarmac, then pushed himself up onto his legs.
     The muscles felt strange, as if surprised at being able to support his weight after all this time. He started to move on fragile half-mended bones. Each step brought him into a new world of grinding agony, but he clenched his teeth and blocked it out. Just pieces of information. Unemotional and irrelevant.
     A rush of white uniforms gleamed in the corner of his eye, more orderlies coming onto the grounds from the far side of the hospital. They were too far away, Simon judged, they wouldn’t be able to overtake him before he reached the wall. Hopefully.
     “Come on, Jose,” he rasped under his breath as he reached the north wall. A rusted steel fire door stood defiantly in his path. That was where Jose was supposed to come in, opening the way onto the main road. Of course there was no sign of him. Simon listened but heard nothing on the other side of the wall.
     A cold wind blew through his heart as he turned to face his pursuers, drawing the lockpick from his waistband. It was hard and sharp enough to double as a shiv. He dropped into a traditional knife-fighter’s stance and let them come closer. The orderlies weren’t allowed to kill, but Simon wouldn’t hesitate. Recapture meant failure. He wouldn’t get another chance. That couldn’t happen.
     Suddenly the door behind him swung open and rough hands pulled him through, onto the vacant road. For a moment he saw nothing except yellow grass, tumbleweeds, black tarmac and an unmarked white van by the side of the road. The man beside Simon slammed the door shut and locked it again. Simon almost didn’t recognise him without his white orderly’s get-up.
     “There,” the man said curtly as he helped Simon into the van. “I did what you wanted. We’re done. Now you can’t tell anybody. We’re done.”
     “Oh, Jose,” clucked Simon, smiling a terrible smile, “we’ve only just begun.”

***

     They pulled up in one of the ugliest parts of the city, at a run-down flat block where the streets had a palpable air of menace about them. Broken glass littered the pavement and thick rust ate away at exposed metal. Every drain, every door handle, every wrecked car standing abandoned at the kerbside.
     Simon looked around, but it was all the same. Slums as far as the eye could see, lifeless and desperate. Nobody walked these streets. They didn’t dare. The only living thing in sight was an emaciated dog that stumbled along the pavement with something bloody in its mouth.
     “This’ll do,” he said, impressed by the sheer squalor of it. “You need to get back to work. I know how to find you when I need more.”
     Jose looked up, glowering. The greasy black locks dangling down his forehead obscured his eyes, but the hate and fear in them was clear as crystal. “You said we’d be done. I don’t want this.”
     “Then you shouldn’t have stolen all those drugs, should you?” Simon snapped back. “That reminds me, give me your credit card. I need some local funds. Should be plenty in there, right? Two years liftin’ psycho shit off the hospital left you well off, huh?” He grinned as Jose’s face fell, took the card and pocketed it. “But don’t you worry. In a few days I’ll be done, gone, won’t need you anymore. Then you can go right back to helpin’ yourself to the supplies. I really don’t give a shit.”
     “And what if I don’t wanna help you no more, yeah?” asked Jose with a pugnacious sneer. Somewhere inside himself he had found a vile little spark of courage, something to be crushed as quickly as possible.
     Simon reached over and grabbed him by the throat, pulled him closer and squeezed tight. His arm didn’t move no matter how much the Spaniard wrenched and hauled at it. For all Jose’s size, he was a gnat to Simon and his augmented muscles.
     “You must be pretty dumb, Jose, already forgettin’ where you helped me bust out of. I crazy, yeah? You do anything I don’t like, I come back for you, yeah? We have ourselves a nice little get-together, yeah?” The silence that followed was deafening. Sweat beaded on Jose’s forehead, ran down into his bulging eyes. Simon grinned, “Maybe you’re the crazy one for thinkin’ of goin’ against me. Maybe the only thing separating us is which side of the glass you’re on.”
     He threw Jose back, wiped his hand of the man’s sweat, and shouldered his way out of the van.
     He crossed the empty street without looking back, stepping as lightly as possible. No appointment was worth the risk of fracturing again. He was vulnerable here in no-man’s-land, making tracks which Gabriel could pick up on. The ability to run might be his only advantage.
     A low brick building resolved out of the forest of flats, a neon martini glass mounted over the door. The sign was broken so that only the yellow bubbles inside the glass lit up. The steel-plated doors were closed and probably barred from the inside. If Simon didn’t know any better he might’ve thought it was closed, except for the low beat of music vibrating through his feet.
     As the van screeched off behind him, he rapped his knuckles against the door and waited. Seconds passed, making him wonder if he had the right address. Finally a voice crackled through a tiny speaker in the middle of the door, “Name?”
     “Simon Caine, here to see Toledo.”
     A grunt. “Not on the list.”
     Simon flashed an ice-cold grin at the door. He suspected that the guard had some way of seeing him, some peep-hole or camera or square of one-way material, but it wouldn’t have mattered. When he spoke next, his voice purred with unspoken threats and promises.
     “We seem to have stumbled into a terrible misunderstanding here. You seem to think that just ’cause you’re on the other side of the door, you’re in charge, you can jerk me around. We both know you haven’t had time to look at the fuckin’ list. Now I’m tellin’ you to let me in before I reach through this shitty Taiwanese pig-iron and snap your fucking neck.”
     There was a brief pause. Then the deadbolt sucked itself back into the wall and the door creaked open, nobody on the other side. Simon stepped into the dark hallway, stooping so as not to bang his head against the low ceiling. It was like walking through a cave, only to emerge into the many-coloured lights of the common room, breathing in the smoke-laden air.
     “Please be seated,” said a small, thin man beside the entrance. “Senor Toledo will join you soon.”
     Simon did as asked, finding a table along the wall. The solid wooden bench stuck to the back of his borrowed jacket and jeans. All Jose’s clothes, fortunately, so he would probably burn them afterwards.
     Without any sign of the guy he was supposed to meet, Simon updated his tactical assessment of the room. People crowded at tables and at the bar, half-seen through the blue haze and flashing strobes. Somewhere at the far end of the room, he could just make out a stage and a pair of silhouettes in the smoke, women bumping and grinding to the sound system’s lazy beat. Bits of their outfits seemed to disappear every few seconds.
     The whole table leaned slightly to the left when he put any weight on it. Its rusted bolts were all but completely detached from the floor. Funny. This was a caricature of a disreputable bar, not someplace he could take seriously.
     A man appeared out of the fog and pulled up a chair at Simon’s table. Two bulging men in business suits flanked him on either side, restless and on guard for trouble. Simon examined them first; he immediately noticed the tell-tale purple stretch marks running down their necks, where crude and too-rapid muscle boosting had strained the skin to paper thinness. Probably shot up with berserkers every morning. Simon was quite literally half their size.
     I could still take them, he told himself. Probably.
     “So, Mr. Caine,” the leader said pleasantly. “I’ve heard of you. Big-time mercenary down in the Far East, is what I’m told. Never thought I’d have the pleasure. What can humble Toledo do for a man like you?”
     Simon shrugged. “Got some bad news on my trail. I need help. Specifically, I need your help.” He paused for effect. Then, “I need a place to hide, a ride out of the city, and some secure way of gettin’ a message onto GlobeNet. Additional services, unspecified. I’ll put down a retainer.”
     Toledo’s expression never changed. He listened in silence until Simon finished, then asked, “Exactly how ‘bad’ is this ‘news’?”
     “The worst. It’ll be a challenge. That’s why I came to you.” Simon leaned in closer. “I hear about Toledo, you see. I hear you know everybody who’s anybody. I hear you can get done anything you want. I hear you’re the most dangerous guy in this town by a long mile. Am I right?”
     “You’re entirely right, Mr. Caine,” said a voice from behind him, “but that’s not me.”
     Simon was out of his chair in an instant, wheeled about to see– something he didn’t immediately comprehend. Toledo stood a few feet behind Simon’s chair, levelling a shotgun at the group. And, on the opposite side of the table, Toledo sat looking at his own doppelganger with vague surprise on his face. Gotta be a holomask, Simon thought momentarily. But that can’t be right, I would’ve known!
     One of the big thugs lowered his brick-like hands onto Simon’s shoulders and squeezed, a misguided attempt to try and restrain him. Simon shrugged out of the grip with superhuman ease, dropped into a squat and drove his elbow as hard as possible into the man’s groin. It hit with a sickening crunch, bones breaking like matchsticks, and the man’s legs went slack.
     “Clear firing line!” barked the newcomer with the shotgun, and Simon reacted with military reflexes. He dove and rolled clear of Toledo’s field of fire and plugged his ears. The blast of buckshot rattled his teeth, and behind him the second thug flew backwards in a spray of blood. People everywhere jumped out of their chairs, started screaming, throwing the whole bar into chaos. The other Toledo was nowhere to be seen.
     The shotgun-toting man offered his hand to Simon, saying, “No time to argue, we need to withdraw.”
     “Lead the way,” Simon said. Short of time and short of options. Adrenaline alone kept him on his feet while his legs slowly disintegrated underneath him, speeding back towards the claustrophobic entranceway and freedom.

***

     Bullets whistled past Simon’s ears as he sprinted across the paved stretch of ground outside the bar. The mystery man claiming to be Toledo kept pace beside him. The guy pressed a hand against the pocket of his jacket, and out of nowhere a dark red Ferrari screeched to a halt on the road in front of them. Its electric doors flung open, and Simon realised it was empty inside, lacking even a driver. The resting engine purred like a wildcat.
     “Inside!” Toledo shouted superfluously. Simon altered his course and ran for it even as he felt his bones cracking, shaking free of the fragile glue that held them together. He’d almost reached the car. He willed his legs to hold for a few more steps. Then there was a dry, horrible crack, and he collapsed under his own weight.
     Pure agony fogged his vision. Still he refused to give up, dragged himself hand over hand into the passenger seat. Toledo jumped, slid over the top of the car, and landed behind the wheel.
     “You got some interesting enemies, Caine,” he said as he hit the accelerator, turning the car into a rocket on wheels. It roared from a standing start to its top speed in the blink of an eye. “You need to tell me all about that. You really do.”
     Simon smiled through the pain. “You’re hired.”
     “That’s presuming I take the job. We’ll talk.” He took his eyes off the road for a second, had his first long look at Simon. There was a calculating cast to his eyes. “I’m taking you to my place, other side of town. Any objections?”
     “As long as we’re movin’, I’m happy.”
     The Ferrari’s acceleration pressed him back in his seat, causing the shards of bone in his legs to scrape and saw together, but he barely felt it now. His body was flooded with endorphins, anything his implants could release to dull the pain. The regeneration systems were hard at work salvaging what they could, but they could only work so fast.
     The buildings outside all blurred together at these speeds, a constant barrage of tinted glass and mirror reflections as they raced down the quiet streets. They pulled a sudden left turn and catapulted into a vast parking garage, zig-zagging around stationary and moving cars alike, upwards into the towering structure.
     Simon had to brace himself to keep from being flung left and right by the G-forces. He wondered what the hell Toledo was up to, until he realised that the Spaniard wasn’t looking for a place to park. Instead Toledo drove straight into one of the waiting car elevators and slotted an unmarked square of plastic into its card reader. The elevator doors closed behind them with a metal clang, and the whole carriage started to climb.
     “Are you sure this is safe?” he asked Toledo. “If somebody tracked your car going in here, they’d know where you went.”
     “I own this building. There’s anti-bug devices everywhere to screw up trackers, and three identical copies of this car sitting in random spots around the park. Anyone would reasonably assume we’d abandoned the car and slipped away on foot.”
     Simon kept quiet as the elevator arrived, and they drove out into a brightly-lit motor pool with at least twelve different cars sitting under plastic in their spaces. Some were slick, new and attractive, others carefully rusted and covered with dirt so as to be nondescript. Simon looked around with satisfaction. He had never seen someone so organised about stealth and security.
     “Where are we?” he asked. “I must’ve miscounted the floors.”
     “In a space between the fifth and sixth stories. Custom-made, not on the blueprints. Do you need help getting out?”
     Simon nodded, and Toledo stepped out for a minute, returning with an old foldable wheelchair. The man was clearly prepared for anything.
     “What happened to your legs?” he asked as he worked Simon into the chair. His wire-thin body must’ve been half the weight of Simon’s, and he had difficulty getting any movement into him.
     Simon explained sourly, “Only half-healed when I came to the bar. They’re fucked now, it’ll take weeks to fix.”
     Gears turned behind Toledo’s eyes as he rolled Simon through the doorway, into the hideout proper. Plans were being adjusted in his head, assessments re-evaluated. Finally he said, “Makes things a little more complicated, but we can adapt.”
     Meanwhile, Simon took in his new surroundings.
     The place seemed to consist solely of clean white lines and black furniture. A sofa the size of a small country took pride of place in the centre of the room, made of genuine vat-grown leather. It sat opposite a TV screen so vast that it took up the entire north wall. The only semblance of colour was a large painting, coloured cubes on a black and white grid. A soulless masterpiece of early 21st century design.
     “You’re lucky I’m a suspicious guy, Caine,” Toledo said into the echoing room. “Your friends managed to delay me to the rendezvous by a couple of minutes before I realised what was going on. Almost enough. You could’ve been a red stain across the wall by now. So,” he smacked his lips, “how much money were you planning to spend?”
     Grinning, Simon held up the borrowed credit card between two fingers and answered, “However much you want.”
     “Good. That buys you just enough time to tell me who these enemies of yours are,” Toledo parked Simon beside the sofa, flicked a cigarette into his mouth, “and exactly how you were planning to send a message through GlobeNet when every network in Europe is down the tubes. Nothing going in or out, local comms only.”
     “Shit,” breathed Simon. He never expected Gabriel to stop hunting him, but the blatant scale of it was a shock. Knocking all of Europe off the ‘Net just seemed wrong for Gabriel. Lacking in subtlety.
     Toledo smiled, the cigarette hanging from his lips as he lit it. “Yeah. Happened almost the same day you said you landed here. Interesting, ain’t it? Kinda makes you think there’s something more to it than ‘unusual power fluctuations’.”
     “I’ll tell you about it after I’ve crashed,” Simon yawned. Sudden exhaustion was making itself felt as the excitement flushed out of his system, and his eyes drifted closed in the chair.
     Toledo left him mercifully alone, offered the sofa to sleep on with some blankets. That suited Simon just fine. Beside the R&R, it would give him a little time to tackle his next challenge. Thinking up a way to explain the greater problem called ‘Gabriel’.
     Without sounding completely out of his mind.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *