A Repeating Pattern by Michael McGlade [sci-fi]

Imprint - SciFi Imprint Logo 200wA Repeating Pattern by Michael McGlade

This cab reeked of murdered cigars. The back seat was moist and, if I’m being honest—a particular fault of mine, I think—the black vinyl upholstery was loose like an old toad. Cabbie fat man’s gut jutted out like a flat-pack shelf somewhat badly assembled, his hologramr balanced on it to check his bank account, confirming I’d made payment. My gratuitous compensation is for services yet to be rendered. He didn’t know my plans for him vis-à-vis our end destination. Poor sap.

“Whare yer goin?”

What accent was that? Maybe Sailortown, or deep in the five flooded boroughs, Venice of the Americas.

Just another nighttime city. Endless cities. Invisible cities. I’m always traveling: one metropolitan area or the next is not so dissimilar. This time, it’s a repeating pattern of Bed Bath & Beyond, Pottery Barn, Lamps Plus.

Cities: the only thing the same are the cabs. Cabbie fat man looks like he eats fare dodgers. He complains about hypertension. Scratches the back of his patchy head often, the skin there like flaking paint. “I deserve extra for doin’ this for yer.”

He had stopped illegally while off-duty to accept my fare. Poor sap.

My inside vibrated like a tuning fork. The dark is a cloak for crims.

Electronica music was pumping on the stereo. Aphex Twin, I think. But how do I know that?

Music made by tin cats. Twisted, eating itself. Maybe this is how I hear things normally. What is normal? I don’t know. All I understand is the present. My arm vibrates, the skin illuminating with an incoming call. Weird how I’m shifting from the past tense to present. Memory is tricksy.

It’s why I advocate regular wipes. A couple of minutes in the synapse-scrubber and I’m fresher than after a desert rain. No more muddy memory to mess with my life-or-death decisions.

I’m effective at my job, meaning I’m top banana for certain specific hyper-difficult situations. Life or death…takes a particular mindset to deal with the psychological ramifications of murder.

I answered the call and there’s an update on my new job. Downtown doctor’s clinic. Somebody jacking meds. Antivirals are big business. But this was not some career crim. She had no juvie or senior record. Maybe she’s jacking the meds for their prescribed purpose—it’s happening quite often according to the crim stats database, meaning I need to crack down harder on this crim, make her an example. Unfortunately, she’s sick, and sick people are the most dangerous. What can you do with someone who’s got nothing to lose?

“Thermals indicate the doctor’s clinic contains twelve hostages, mostly humie,” Chief Inspector Holmes said. “One med-jacker, armed, goes by the name Pol-Pot-Plant. Poor sap has a sense of humor.”

Poor sap is what we call the humies. Sapiens get a lot sicker than us. Makes them desperate.

Take cabbie fat man for instance: he has a wife and two boys, and works a daily twelve-hour shift to afford med coverage, schools and taxes, et cetera, et cetera; he had finished his shift when I hailed him on the corner of Fifth and Fig, but that was not why I was paying him three times the going rate for the fare—not because he was breaking the law for me, but because of the dangerous situation I was about to embroil him in. He actually still believes he is getting a free handout from a desperate tourist with more money than sense. But, I’ve commandeered him for official police business.

“I’m deservin ever’thin yer paying me,” he says. “The wife’s alone right now with the sprogs, ADD and under-eaters too. Practically need to force dem to eat their grits.”

Humies do like to prattle on ad infinitum about their problems. Mechas have problems too, and you don’t hear me complaining.

Last week, my colleague Javier died, but he succeeded in killing both perps first. Five hostages died in the crossfire. Acceptable collateral damage. Javier had interceded in a med-grab job by a humie who used to be a fifth grade teacher. Javier used a humie as a shield—standard tactical procedure. But the teacher didn’t respond effectively… It’s why we have our memories wiped after each job. To forget. But also to be effective. The stats from the crime scene confirmed Javier’s behavior saved twenty lives. That’s because he was thinking with his head, not his heart. Sentimentality gets you dead. I like being alive.

Hostage negotiation is a delicate and complicated matter. Of the ten of us that graduated from the academy, I’m the last of my class. I now told the cabbie I was a hostage negotiator.

“Yer one of dem kamikaze bastarts! Smashing places up, not caring who gets dead?”

“Yes, I’m one of them bas-tards.”

Despicable word. Not as if I’d ever call a sap a sap to his face. Humies think it’s funny to say it because we are asexual. I identify with the male spectrum. Mostly.

“Speakin yar shitty slitty-slantty language.”

“You shouldn’t speak like that to an officer of the law.”

“Yer no better than a crim. Killing sick people just looking for meds.”

I checked the thermal readout relayed from Chief Inspector Holmes and memorized the location of the hostages. Entry would require pinpoint accuracy to minimize collateral damage. The cab was now approaching the police line and slowing to a halt.

I said, “I’m truly sorry for your troubles.”

Building rapport gains trust. When I leaned across the seat, cabbie fat man didn’t ditch the cab to the side of the street or even reach for the piece of lumber he kept on the passenger seat as a weapon; by gaining his trust, I had negated his instinctual urge to protect himself from danger. I was danger. It’s why mechas make better police officers; we are less confused by our emotions. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings. I feel more than humies do. Crashing this cab through the exterior wall of the doctor’s clinic was going to hurt me worse than him—the simple limitations of my skin-alloy body. At least I’m rustproof.

I clamp my hand on the steering wheel and angle us through the police line, directly for the building where the hostages are being held prisoner. Cabbie fat man lifts his foot off the accelerator and moves to stomp on the brake, but I grab his saggy legs, stopping him. The front-end concertinas, crumpling through the brickwork, dust thickened the air, making it impossible to see. Everything went upside down.

***

Screams now. Close. But from the other side of the room.

And by then I had the cabbie out of the destroyed vehicle, a disrupter gun to his temple. I utilized his bulk to protect from attack. We exited the dust pall. Huddled against the far wall, the hostages were whimpering. Pol-Pot-Plant had been taken by complete surprise and was upended on the ground scrambling for her pistol. I yelled at her not to move or there would be death dealt her way and she stopped, laying there limply like all hopelessly ensnared things do. She glanced at the opening in the exterior wall and the clean night air, this unlikely portal to freedom. When she had taken the meds illegally, the security grills had engaged trapping her here. She should have just given up there and then, lay down on the ground—like she now was doing—and this would have all been over. She’d be in detention, sentence administered, rehabilitation already begun. Presently, she had all that fun to look forward to.

I released the cabbie and he slumped to the floor muttering and weeping. I’d paid him better than the going rate for his vehicle; all med/rehabilitation expenses will be covered by the state. He’d get a few weeks off work, have some quality time with his wife and kids… And he was practically uninjured, just a few cracked ribs. Nothing serious.

There was only a five percent chance Pol would shoot through him to kill me. Nothing in her record indicated she would harm another humie, certainly not this particular specimen, who greatly resembled her father… All part of the training, I’m afraid. We can’t afford to be sentimental, not when there are twelve lives at stake.

Pol was laughing now. Still on the floor and laughing. I noticed the killswitch in her hand and realized I’d made a catastrophic error. She was wired with explosives. My gambit had failed. I was trapped.

But all good hostage negotiators should feel ensnared. We work best with our backs to the wall.

Chief Inspector Holmes would be monitoring everything, viewing events through my eyes. If the situation deteriorated, I’d be expected to sacrifice myself in order to save lives. I accept these risks. I know now that, if I don’t control this situation in the next few moments, command will vaporize the entire room with a laser ray—frying all electronics (disabling the bomb) and killing those present. They would do that, rather than allow the bomb to explode.

Pol stood, brandishing the killswitch detonator in her hand, and then grabbed the canvas satchel of meds, slipping the strap over her shoulder. She wore a bright paisley headscarf, because her hair was falling out in chunks, and her eyes were white as new peeled eggs. She edged toward the hole in the wall. I blocked her.

“Quit dicking around, you slit-faced bastart.”

I hate it when they talk about my appearance. I am as I was made. We all are.

I scanned the hostages (humie and mecha), who were unharmed, although dehydrated. I’d get them all out of this, or die trying.

“Disable the killswitch detonator and surrender,” I said. “I will ensure you get the help you need.” I meant her illness. I could negotiate for that as part of the surrender. It would not be top-of-the-line treatment, but she’d survive longer.

She kept walking, only a couple of yards away from me now. If the troops outside spotted the killswitch, we were all dead.

I pointed to the hostages. “You won’t kill humies.”

“I don’t mind if the mechas die.”

She didn’t mean it. Her voice was shaky and uneven, and her steps labored. She needed rest and recuperation. If she blacked out, we were all dead when the killswitch engaged.

“Or maybe I just wanna kill you,” she said, in my face now. “I know what your kind do to people like me.”

Had you been a mecha, you’d have been killed outright. We’d never tolerate such behavior from our own.

But these kinds of things you can’t say out loud. Still, she wavered, could probably read the distaste in my eyes.

She brought her other hand up and in it she held a scalpel. Put the blade to my throat. Jerk it and I’d be leaking hydrau-oil on the ground. Dead in a few seconds. We bleed out like humies, but quicker. Death for us is a box back in the factory labeled spare parts. We are all spare parts donors—it’s the law.

“Get out of my way, you limp-dicked bastart.”

Jeez, what was it with river-siders, talking like stevedores? But I didn’t move aside. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t.

“Just lemme go with the meds.”

“I give you the meds and let you go, you give me the killswitch?”

“Safe passage out of here,” she agreed. “I get my meds, that’s all I need.”

The canvas satchel was not completely full. That meant she hadn’t cleaned out the entire stockpile. She had taken just enough for herself; this was not a professional grab operation.

“Everyone wears tracking chips,” I explained. “There is no escape. Why jack meds knowing there is no getting off?”

She leaned in closer now. “But you can wipe my record.”

Pol knew the system. I had the ability to expunge this criminal act from the database. But there would be no circumstance under which I would ever do so. She’d broken the law, putting people in danger.

“All I want is the meds,” she said. “Wipe my crim record, and no one gets hurt. And I get better. Where’s the crime in that?”

The hostages were cowering in the corner huddled up to each other, humie and mecha. Crisis always makes people forget their differences.

“The people present will know what happened,” I said. “I have to arrest you, Pol. But I’ll make sure you receive treatment for your illness. Just don’t kill these people.”

She was close enough that her breath pulsed on my ear. She made a point of sniffing because I was wearing kiwi-scented perfume I had earlier misted into the air and walked through before exiting the precinct station. I waited for her to insult me again, but she didn’t. I monitored her erratic heartbeat. Outside, the troops were mobilizing for a breach.

Sickness, the great equalizer. No amount of money could buy these meds. Rich and poor came to these clinics begging for a handout. Pol wasn’t a bad person.

I struck her beneath the chin and her eyes fluttered in her head as she slumped to the parquet floor. A sting on the side of my neck. Cut. Couldn’t think of that now. I grabbed her hand, keeping it clasped on the killswitch. They were usually always DNA encoded; I’d have to keep her hand on it at all times. Crouched now over her limp body, crimson hydrau-oil dripping from my neck wound, big as pennies. She had cut me with the scalpel, but hadn’t severed the main servo line. I kept my hand on the wound, applying pressure. Another inch over and I’d be dead.

I had put my hand around her soft humie throat and now I’m squeezing, cartilage and windpipe bunching up like pipe cleaners, and here in unconsciousness, death comes for her. Release.

My vision had tunneled in. Breathing ragged. The rush of boots now from behind as the troops breached the building. Room secured. A bomb disposal technician administered to the killswitch, and by then I had released my grip on Pol’s throat. Her breathing was normal. She’d live.

The doctor was probing and poking around my neck wound, but I shrugged her off and went outside. Somebody was clapping, maybe a hostage.

I don’t know if I actually choked Pol or not. It felt real. I know I wanted to kill her.

“Well done,” Chief Inspector Holmes said. “Back to the precinct for a memory wipe?”

She always asks me; I always agree.

***

The synapse-scrubber scanned my brain, preparing to wipe my memories. Standard procedure.

I’m effective at my job because I’m not sentimental. I know the risks. I assess the situation, playing out the percentages. I’m sanctioned to kill if I deem it required. I’m judge and executioner. And all this happens in fractions of seconds.

This time we will wipe Javier. No point holding onto his memory…just gets in the way. Muddies justice.

The hologramr tracing out the neural pathways to be erased. I wondered how Javier might have reacted had he retained his memories of every hostage negotiation. He would have been unlikely to take someone as a shield and engage the perp in a firefight. Technically, his calculation was correct; his job is to save lives. He saved more people than those that died. He stopped the killswitch engaging and destroying the clinic. He saved the meds.

The meds. Was that all we really did?

No. I am a protector; I prevent crime and save lives.

That is something I should never forget.

I unhooked the cranial cap and climbed down off the surgical table. The synapse-scrubber powered off before completing the erasure sequence. Just how many operations had I performed with people like Pol? The only way I’d know is to start remembering, to decide which side was worth fighting for.

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