Firewall

by Scott D. Coon

 

Her tongue invaded his mouth. Ken pulled back. “Stop. Really, promise me you won’t do anything stupid this time.”

Zoe’s eyes narrowed. “You’re no fun any more.” She closed her spacesuit’s faceplate. Her metallic grey suit moved easily with her as it hugged her body.

As she reached for the airlock release, Ken quickly sealed his helmet. His suit, considerably less expensive than hers, was a bit harder to move in. “I’m serious. Please.”

The airlock opened and she kicked off into the darkness. The tether yanked Ken along behind her. The orbiting skyscraper they had just left disappeared into the forest of buildings that crowded the sky. Below, the artificial ring peppered the equator with shadows but Ken saw none of it. He kept his eyes squeezed shut and tried not to think.

There was nothing like this (or her) back on his colony. His colony was just a little place collectively owned by the settlers, a dull place, a lonely place, a place he hated after he found himself alone with only his parents’ graves tying him to the land. (How could they leave him like that! It still screamed in the back of his head when he thought about them.) By the time his mother died, he already knew he was a psychic and he already knew about the schools for psychics like him. What he didn’t know was how fast his money would run out. At least he had taken those college courses on firewalls. It gave him just the right skills for Zoe.

Zoe.

The last time they pulled a job, she ended up in a sonic bath for two weeks while her shoulder blade grew back. Ken pressed the safety on his gun again; if he could, he’d push that little slider right into the metal casing to make sure the gun never went off again. After that last job, after watching Zoe fall to the floor covered in blood, after watching the security guard fall right next to her, a hole in the guard’s leg from Ken’s gun even though Ken didn’t even remember pulling the trigger… Did they really need to be doing this? When would it be enough?

Back in his one-room apartment, which orbited about a hundred miles away, he had a book of homes that were for sale down on Earth. He had plenty of money for one and for his school and even a car and still more left over. There was plenty of money for two… and perhaps even three, someday.

Ken felt his helmet clunk against a metal wall. He threw back his hands and boots and magnetized himself to the building. The usual shiver rattled down his spine. But there was no time to catch his breath. Zoe was already at the end of the tether pulling him up the wall. He scurried to catch up. By the time he reached her, she was crouched outside the lab’s window. She even had the window bugged, already. The voices inside filled their helmets.

“Are they coming tonight?” asked one voice.

“Quiet. Let me finish,” said another.

Zoe set up the drilling tower. It looked like a toy rocket ship from the early twentieth century. A cable coiled out of her back pack to the back of the robotic drill bit. When activated, the drill bit would eat though the building’s skin and root around inside the walls for a computer junction to splice itself into. It was supposed to be used for hacking into disabled ships for rescues or salvage. Zoe wasn’t interested in rescuing anyone and salvage was yawn city.

Ken pulled a small hand mirror from his pack and looked in it. All he saw was his own eyes looking back. “Damn.” He looked away then quickly looked back again trying to induce an image. Still nothing.

Zoe smacked his thigh. “Quit playing with that thing.”

Ken put the mirror away. It’s not like he was playing a video game or something. This was serious. He didn’t need it anyway. He angled his head to catch the light on the inside of his faceplate. In the warped reflection, he tried again to see the future, to see if Zoe would be okay this time. Still, no image.

“Is it on this one?” asked that first voice they had heard from inside.

“It’s the only one here,” answered the second.

“Are you turning off the other systems?”

“If I did that, what good would this test be? Come on, it’s all set.”

A door latch clicked. Zoe peeked in the window. “Clear.” She started the tower. It drilled through the steel and snaked the cable through the wall. The robotic bit found its mark, a nice juicy computer junction. Zoe screwed the other end of the cable to the jack in her helmet that connected to a plug surgically implanted in her skull. Her skull plug then fed the computer signals from the cable to her brain. Closing her eyes, Zoe saw herself inside the computer disabling the alarms.

“There’s one… and two… and three. Got ’em.”

Ken pulled the portable airlock from his pack. It was just a crinkly, yellow bag with rubber seams and two Velcro openings but they needed it to get through the window without decompressing the building. As he reached over to stick it to the window, Zoe smacked his hand. “I found two more.” The bag spun as it slowly drifted away.

“Look, you really don’t have to be so…”

“Shut up!” She closed her eyes. “Four…”

Ken reached for the spinning bag. He brushed it, sending it spinning further from his reach. Reaching, he accidentally looked down. The vomit rushed to the back of his throat. He plastered himself against the wall.

“…and five.” Zoe opened her eyes to see the bag, the very goddamn important bag, drifting away. “If you weren’t a psychic…” she growled. The pixy girl kicked off the building, grabbed the bag, and tugged herself back with their tether in a smooth summersault, just like swimming. Like the bag, the swimming lessons came from daddy’s wallet. She stuck the crinkly bag to the window. “Now get in there before you lose something else.”

Both inside the bag, they set off a couple of oxygen grenades and waited for them to pressurize the portable airlock.

“Sorry about that,” said Ken, his eyes unable to meet hers.

When he finally peeked up, she had that look again and Ken found himself trapped in her vice like thighs. Leaning back, she started to grind her hips. “Zoe… please… stop…” he pleaded in short breaths as he tried to watch the window. “Someone could… come on…” His mind was gone, lost in her antics. It was no longer new to him but she could still melt his brain on a whim. Of course, it had never been new to her.

By the time he realized she had stopped, she was already cutting through the window. They entered the room. It was definitely a lab with that dry, dustless air that sucks the life right out of your nostrils. Ken never had nosebleeds until he left the open air of his colony. Now, he missed that sweet swampy smell of spring and that crisp scent of snow about to happen and that cool musty smell of imminent rain.

As Zoe scanned the place for more security, he stood against the wall scratching his arm, anxious. His hand nearly reached out to help her but pulled it back. He knew better by now.

“It’s good,” she said finally.

Relieved, his shoulders dropped for the first time since they kicked off from the other building.

“Quit screwing off and get to work,” she barked.

His shoulders tightened right back up. He rushed forward to the gray cube in the middle of the room. It was a Kasakah 942, standard off the shelf stuff… if you consider mainframes that can only be accessed by natural psychics as off the shelf. The mainframe had only one wire and that was a power cord. No keyboard. No mouse. No microphone. No cranial outlet for Zoe’s skull plug. The only way in was through someone like Ken.

Ken placed a small gray cube on top of the big one. It was a mainframe just like the big cube only smaller. Putting himself in a meditative state, Ken rechecked the small cube. Yup, the hard drive was absolutely blank and it would have to be. The client had said “everything”. No one asked for “everything”. They at least narrowed it down to a file type. He hoped the little cube would hold it all.

Ken closed his eyes. Soon, like Zoe with her brain cable, he’d be inside the computer. Taking a deep breath, he focused his mind and pushed it into the big, grey mainframe’s CPU. A static stream erupted from the computer… a good one too. It got into his head before he even saw it coming. With little effort he wedged his thoughts. The stream parted around him. Then another one started and another. His wedge held. He pushed in. A noise emitter cranked up. He blocked it and continued deeper into the AI consciousness. He could feel the CPU. Soon he’d be in control of its data and its flow. The firewall started a shaker. Like that ever stopped anybody… but Ken had to give this firewall credit, it was trying everything. A feedback loop echoed his thoughts back at him. Ken almost laughed.

But then his head started to hurt. The feedback was just a carrier. He shut it down but his headache stayed as if the feedback was still on. The CPU stood naked but he couldn’t concentrate into it. A mob of memories rioted under his skull. He broke off and staggered back.

“Done already?”

Ken gripped his head. His pulse kicked at his forehead. He expected his brain to explode at any second… and wished it would just to end the pain.

“Ken?” Zoe’s voice seeped in like an echo.

“Just… Just give me a moment.”

“What happened? Did you get the data?”

Ken groped for something to steady himself. “Firewall… head…” He found a table. It was steel, nice and cool. He bent down and pressed his forehead to it. The throbbing slowed.

“For the love of…! You didn’t get it, did you!?”

Ken waved her off. Slowly, he lifted himself and fluttered his eyes open. Below him, something was happening in the brushed metal table. He blinked and squeezed his eyes. Fighting past his headache, Ken figured out what he saw in the reflection in the table. An image! Someone getting shot!

Swimming through the swirling specks that filled his eyes, he made his way to his pack. He dropped to his knees and dug for the mirror. Zoe’s echo still drifted from beyond the fog around his head. Concentrating as much as he could, he peered into the mirror… A bullet. Blood. Zoe looked shocked. But who was shot?

He looked again. Same disjointed images. Bullet, blood, Zoe. He took a deep breath and… the mirror flew from his hand. Zoe’s boot hung in front of his face. She had kicked it from his hand. Silver shards spread across the floor.

The fog lifted. “Zoe!”

“Quit playing and get back to work! We’re on a schedule here!”

On his hands and knees, Ken looked into the shards. In the dozens of tiny images, an image played over and over like a movie stuck in a loop. Someone held their guts as they sank to the floor. Was it Zoe?! Was it him?! He couldn’t tell by looking in the tiny fragments. That cold feeling, like a blade of ice, gutted him. “We have to get out of here.”

“You got the data?”

“No.” He looked up earnestly. “Please, we have to go. Now.”

Zoe grabbed his collar and drug him up the wall. “We have a job to do. Get on it!” She shoved him toward the mainframe.

He staggered then caught himself. Maybe it wasn’t her in the image. Maybe it wasn’t even a real one. Maybe he could get this done before it’s too late. He grabbed the grey box with both hands and threw his entire mind at it. Like a drill, he powered past its defenses and into the CPU. He could feel the circuits revealing themselves to his mind. But something gathered in the background. He paused. He could feel it swelling. Suddenly, it rushed him all at once and flung him from its world.

Ken’s brain burned.

He stepped back from the box and pried his eyes open. In the reflections on the dark windows to the outside, in the reflections in the blank computer screens around the room, in the steel tables and the polished, metal tools, in every reflective surface in the room he saw the vision. For just a moment, Ken was surrounded by the vision of Zoe dying.

He turned and grabbed her. “Get your helmet!”

She just looked at him, confused. He grabbed her helmet and tried to force it on her. She shoved him back. “What the hell is the matter with you?!”

“We have to go or you’ll die!”

“What?”

Ken seized her wrists and pleaded, “I saw a vision of you getting shot. Here, in this room, tonight. Please, let’s go.”

Zoe threw off his hands. “How often are you wrong?”

“I’m not wrong this time.”

Zoe scowled. “Yeah, right. Quit pussing out and get the data.”

“I can’t. That thing is too tight. Let’s go, please!”

“You’re pathetic. I swear, if you don’t… what’s the point? Screw you. If you can’t hang, then screw YOU.” She turned her back on him and started throwing gear in her bag.

Ken’s jaw dropped. He inched up behind her. “What are you saying?”

Zoe turned to glare at him. “Exactly what you think I’m talking about.”

Ken wanted to reach out to her but his hands just wouldn’t move from his sides. “But… us?”

Zoe folded her arms. “What us? You’re not playing right. Game’s over. What us?”

“But, I saved my share. I’ll take care of you. I have plenty of money.”

“Look, jackass,” she shook her bag of expensive equipment at him. “You think I got this for free? I have money, jackass. I don’t need your piddling share. My daddy bought this… though he didn’t really know it,” she added with a little chuckle. “I do this for fun. I got shot last time for fun. Before I met you, on one of these jobs, I killed a security guard. It was fun. You’re no fun anymore. Bye.” She turned back to her packing.

“But… but…” The floor fell from Ken. He floated as if jumping from building to building untethered. Somewhere far off, her equipment continued to clunk as she chucked it in her bag. “But, what about us?”

Zoe tossed her bag over her shoulders and snorted. “What us?”

“But…” He reached for her across the expanse, to pull her from this nightmare, to bring back the Zoe he thought he knew. “But, I love you.”

She slapped his hands away. “You and every other perv’ with a woody. God damn psychics. ‘Oh, we’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!’” she said waving her arms like Chicken Little. “What pussies. You and the last psychic I had to put up with, too. You’re worse then him!” The equipment clinked and rattled in her bag as she locked it to her spacesuit. “Pussy. Now I have to go and find another psychic, damn it!”

The moment closed on Ken like an iron maiden. Who was this person? What happened to the Zoe he knew, the playful Zoe, the girl who had told him she had to do this to get by? She had never existed. Once again, Ken was alone. This Zoe had taken his Zoe away and she would never return, just like his parents. Why did everything have to go away!

He drew his gun.

Zoe laughed. No, cackled. She cackled right in his face and said, “Oh, big man psychic gonna shoot me? I dare you.”

Ken wanted to. His hand really wanted to.

“I double-dare you!” Again she laughed.

Ken shuddered. His face twisted with hate.

Zoe leaned in and whispered, “I double-dog-dare you.”

The gun fired.

A curl of smoke spun from the hole in Zoe’s suit. She dropped to her knees and rolled to her back. Ken froze. A dark red mirror spread beneath Zoe. In its reflection, Ken saw the future—two men standing over her body; one of them mentioned the police. Ken turned his eyes to the gun in his hand. The fog lifted but Ken was still alone and in more trouble than ever. What the hell had he done!

Leaving everything, even the gun, behind, Ken dove through the window, scrambled out of the airlock bag, and launched himself across open space before he knew what he was doing.

Standing in the airlock where they had started, his body safely back inside the artificial gravity, he looked across the open space. How had he come here? Had he really done that? Had he really crossed so much open space alone? What just happened? He shot her and then… Had he really killed her?

With the airlock still open to the vacuum of space, he sank to the floor, his back against the inner door. He felt like he had gone too high on a swing and was trapped at the top where gravity no longer holds you in your seat, where your guts rebel and nothing is as it should be.

The blackness of space, cluttered space, spread before him as he sat there in a daze. There was nothing like this back on his colony… or like her. It was boring back there, on his colony.

There was something to be said for boring.

After a while, Ken picked himself up off the floor, went to his apartment, and packed. He cleaned the place out, took everything he owned except for two things: a book of houses that were for sale down on Earth and his schoolbooks.

The next morning, Zoe woke to someone fondling the back of her skull. She tried to jump up and defend herself but nothing moved. Even her eyes wouldn’t open. Her body just ignored her.

“Holy crap!” said a voice. It was that first voice from the night before, the one she had heard through her bug on the window. It sounded far away as if she were at the bottom of a deep, deep hole and sinking.

“She’s got a computer plug in her skull so she’s not the psychic,” said another voice, the other one from that night. “The psychic must have killed her.”

Zoe tried to yell that she wasn’t dead, that she needed help, that her daddy would reward them for helping her. Every effort drove her deeper into the hole, further and further from the voices.

“What the hell… Damn it! You said… You promised…”

“So,” replied the second voice calmly, “what you want to do with her?”

The voices barely reached Zoe’s ears.

“You killed her—you figure it out!” yelled the first voice, still growing fainter. “I didn’t want to test the firewall this way! You promised… damn! I knew this would happen.”

“At least we know it works. I wonder what memory or idea it used to get the psychic to shoot her. I wish we could record that—that would really be something.”

The voices trail off in wisps. The darkness settled in like a warm blanket. Zoe was alone in the silence, and then she was gone.

 

Kings Do Not Die

by Jason M. Hardy

He could see his old home in the corner of the photograph. The crater, and the smoke rising from it, dominated the frame, but off to the left a vertical line of tan bricks poked through the smoke. He lived in that building two years before he moved to Gracie Mansion.

He glanced at the headline—“Car Bomb Kills Five”—then turned the page. He didn’t like to read news about New York City.

Half of the remaining stories talked about Anderson Drauer in some way. By skipping all the stories about Drauer and New York, it usually took him only ten minutes to read the news.

Glancing out his window, he saw a crow on his birdbath. Fiske glared. It was an ugly bird, and it was polluting his bath. He grabbed a broom to chase it off, but stopped at his back door with a familiar itch inside his forehead. He knew he should resist—he knew the consequences—but it was such a small matter. They wouldn’t care about this, would they? After all, it was cold—he didn’t want to go outside. They would understand.

He relaxed and let his mind do what it wanted. Back when he first discovered his talent, it took effort. Now it was as easy as breathing, and the only work was holding it back.

Energy flowed out of his head. The water in the bath boiled almost instantly, and the crow flew away in shock and pain.

Fiske only had a moment to watch the crow before the pain struck. Sharp needles dug into his temples, and fire ran down his spine. He fell to his knees, clutching his head, but the agony only intensified. He clenched his teeth, trying not to cry out. A crushing blow to his solar plexus forced a groan out of him. He rolled to the floor, struggling for breath, feeling as if his skull was about to implode. Somewhere, behind the pain, his mind registered disbelief. Were they finally going to execute him? For chasing off a crow?

Then it was gone. He could breathe. His head felt fine, his spine cooled. He pushed himself back to his knees, looking out the window. The crow hadn’t come back. The sun, though, seemed much higher in the sky. He looked at a clock, and saw that forty-five minutes had passed. He had passed out.

He pulled himself into a chair and slouched, staring at his birdbath. They were getting more violent, he thought. It might not take much to push them over the edge. If he launched a direct attack on one of the monitors, they might finally kill him.

* * * * * *

Two days later, nine students were killed as fire raged through a dormitory at Mt. Zion University. My old school, Fiske thought dispassionately when he saw the newspaper. What a shame. He glanced over the story and discovered that the burned building was one in which he had lived.

He smiled sourly. First someone blows up a car bomb near his old three-flat, then his old dorm burns down. It was as if someone was trying to kill him, and kept hitting the right place, but the wrong year.

The thought whirled in his head, his smile dropped, and he sat up straighter in his chair. Maybe, he thought with a growing seriousness, their timing was perfect. Maybe whoever was doing these things knew Fiske would see the news, knew he’d notice the places that had been hit. Maybe someone was sending him a message.

He tried to cast off the idea as delusional, but it was stuck in his mind, and the longer it stayed there, the more plausible it seemed.

* * * * * *

The next day, a gunman walked into an office in New York City and opened fire, killing two people before he shot himself. He had fired on a public relations firm on the eighteenth floor of the Flatiron Building. Investigators had not discovered any connection between the shooter and the firm and had no clue about his motive.

Fiske, though, came up with a motive almost instantly. He knew that the public relations firm had been in the building for only a few years, and a research firm had occupied the space previously. That firm, Barrow and Fiske, had closed down eight years ago.

The papers said nothing of a possible connection between the shooting, the Mt. Zion dorm fire, and the car bomb. They had no reason to suspect the events were linked. But in a small house fifty miles away from Columbus, Standish Fiske, deposed president of the Republic of Manhattan, knew with a sudden conviction that all the attacks were about him.

The crackpot theory he’d idly thought of a few days ago now seemed the inevitable truth to him. Someone was after him. Only one person would go to that much trouble to try to scare or intimidate him, and only one person would be so scared of Fiske that he would send a message in this roundabout way. Anderson Drauer, current president of the United States of North America, hated Fiske. And, Fiske thought, Drauer is scared to death of me.

The tricky part was figuring out where this plan was heading. Drauer probably believed the only thing Fiske would be able to do was read the paper, see accounts of the attacks, know he was being targeted, and wait helplessly for the assaults to draw closer. But, Fiske thought with a smile, Drauer always underestimates me.

* * * * * *

His first attempts to conceive an escape, years ago, were the hardest. He had become too excited when he started planning, and his thoughts flew forcefully outside of the walls of his house and were easily read by the surrounding sentries. They in turn sent him jolting headaches that stymied his planning.

It took him months to learn to keep calm. He had never needed that sort of mental discipline before—he had always been the most powerful psychokineticist he knew, and no one had dared strike at him. But when he was left with no choice, he studied discipline, and he learned.

His work paid off, and he became able to plan without getting the attention of his guards. He had spent years building materials, as his plan called for things that did not exist. The construction of those objects had recently been completed—just in time, Fiske thought, by the looks of things.

He spent one night reviewing the materials he had constructed, making sure they were in working order. The oldest of them was five years old and had never been used. A few screws needed tightening, some circuits needed dusting, but they functioned properly.

After checking the equipment, he went into the cellar and pulled out a metal box hidden in a hole in the concrete floor. It held $1,000 each of five different types of currency. Four of them were now obsolete. However, according to a recent newspaper article, currency collectors were expressing increased interest in the old Manhattan dollars. His $1,000 bundle might be worth $1,500 or more. That, with his 1,000 USNA newdollars, should to get him where he was going

He put $100 into his wallet, then separated the remainder into four piles. He put the piles into plastic bags and taped two bags to each thigh, slightly above the knee.

He was ready.

* * * * * *

At 10:37 AM, a small metal box trundled out the back door of Fiske’s house. The box was about the size of a deck of cards, with an antenna attached to the side. It rolled slowly on a wide rubber tread. In the tall grass only the antenna was visible.

When it was twenty feet away from the house, it emitted a transmission. The transmission was identical to Fiske’s brainwaves, and it sent out a single feeling, repeated every ten seconds. Hunger… hunger… hunger…

A second box, mounted atop four metal feet that pivoted back and forth, wobbling it forward, ambled down the driveway in front of the house. Fifteen seconds after the robot in the backyard started transmitting, it sent out a signal of its own. Boredom… boredom… boredom…

Then two robots on one side of the house activated, then three on the other side, then three more in back, and four in front. Any psychokineticist—PK, in the common lingo—within one hundred yards of the house was bombarded by a flurry of impressions and emotions. Hunger boredom anger fright happiness boredom envy thirst curiosity hunger rage despair anger depression hunger happiness fright terror envy anger despair boredom and on and on.

The hunger bot was hit first. An invisible blow caught it on the side and toppled it. Its tread spun futilely in the air, but the signal continued to transmit. A second invisible blow left a deep dent on the top of the metal box, a third crashed into the side, jarring the top loose. Wires inside the box split apart and the signal stopped.

Bots around the house started falling over or flying into the air like popcorn. Some blew apart with one blow, while others had to be clobbered half a dozen times or more before their signal stopped.

The last functioning bot sent out a despair signal. It rolled over a crumpled piece of metal and some loose bolts before it abruptly rose fifteen feet in the air, then spiked to the earth as if thrown. It shattered into dozens of pieces. The air finally fell silent (though, to someone without the talent, there had been little noise in the first place).

In a nearby house, two guards breathed a sigh of relief. The psychic noise had exploded in their heads with physical pain, and they could not get rid of the tumult quickly enough. Now, though, they had peace, and the pounding in their heads was fading.

Then one of the guards bolted to his feet. He realized how quiet it had gotten. There was not a thought anywhere near the house, or even inside the house. The whole area was empty. Amid the storm of artificial thoughts and emotions, they’d lost track of the real person.

A mile away, Fiske sat on top of a compact, two-wheeled roller that he had kept disassembled next to his moneybox. It had a top speed of only twenty miles per hour, but that was enough. His mind remained studiously calm, and only someone within fifty feet of him would have even the slightest chance of sensing his thoughts. The guards near his house had no chance.

* * * * * *

Three days later he was in New York selling a car. It was a piece of junk, a twenty-five-year-old Saturn, but it was still worth a few hundred newdollars. He probably could have gotten more if he talked to more buyers, but there was no time. The police had made an arrest in connection with the downtown car bomb—some kid in an anarchist cell. She claimed the bomb was part of an anti-USNA protest. He needed to get to her before she was transferred out of the city.

The story sounded feeble as soon as Fiske heard it. The bomb hadn’t hurt any NArds and hadn’t damaged any USNA property—it wasn’t even close. It was obvious (to Fiske, at least), that the girl had been set up to take the fall for the real perpetrators. She probably knew very little about what was really going on, and definitely had no direct connection to Drauer, but she might have some helpful information buried in her skull.

Getting in to see her wouldn’t be easy. It was difficult enough walking the streets, where he had ruled like a king only eight years ago. Dealing with the USNA police, some of whom helped exile him, would be even more difficult.

While he had the chance, he enjoyed walking the streets. The city was entirely different, but entirely the same. The people were quieter, more cautious than they used to be, and USNA soldiers were everywhere. But, despite a few cracks and pockmarks, the building’s facades and people’s faces were much the same—the new spire on the Empire State Building was almost complete—and beneath the new, subdued veneer, Fiske could sense the beating of the old energy and chaos.

He walked cautiously, surreptitiously looking over every person that passed him by. His face was still on some moldy posters in the most neglected parts of the city, so anyone might recognize him. He couldn’t project non-recognition waves, since any PK on the street would detect him immediately. He would have to rely on his new beard, nightfall, and the crazed look in his eyes that he had developed over the past half-decade. So far, no one had looked at him with even a glint of recognition. A small part of him regretted that, since he would have liked a royal welcome back to his old home. A parade, had circumstances been different, would have been nice. But circumstances were not different, and recognition was dangerous. The grand homecoming would have to wait.

* * * * * *

Two days later, the police announced that, due to lack of evidence, the only charges filed against Mina Van Auten, the anarchist bomber, were for reckless endangerment, and a judge had set bail at $100,000. Though Van Auten claimed she could never post that much money, someone posted it for her.

She walked out of jail in a giddy daze—she had been expecting to spend much more time there. True, there was a good chance she would have to go back, but for now she was out, and she looked at the city like she was seeing it for the first—and perhaps last—time.

She had a new appreciation for the street vendors, for the couples walking hand in hand, even for the people walking their dogs. Her regard for the beggars, though, hadn’t changed; she ignored at least four of them. She didn’t notice when one of them got up after she passed and followed thirty feet behind her.

The beggar had her route timed perfectly. In the crowded streets of the city, he stayed comfortably behind, but then, in two empty blocks between Avenues B and C, he closed in on her, and closed quickly. He was five feet behind when she passed by a stoop with chipped grey paint. A broom, propped against the stoop, fell in front of Van Auten, timed so she could not avoid it. It hit her shins. She stumbled, and the beggar was on her, quickly shoving her to the right. She fell down seven stairs into a dark cellar. The beggar, suddenly spry, leapt after her, pulling doors shut over the stairs as he passed through. Van Auten pushed herself up on her hands and knees, but didn’t get any further before the beggar grabbed her by the back of the neck and tossed her into a cold metal chair. She landed roughly.

“Mina Van Auten,” the beggar said. “I understand you wanted to see me.”

Mina tried to stand, but her arms and legs wouldn’t move. The air around her was like stone. She looked, panicked, at the beggar who stared out from a long face covered with dirt and stubble. The dirt looked more like make-up than the real thing—the beggar had the appearance of an upper East Side magnate slumming for a night. “Who are you?”

“Very funny. I’m the person you’ve been looking for. The person whose attention you and your friends have been trying to get. Now I’m here.”

Mina shook her head. “I don’t…”

“…know who I am,” the beggar finished. “I knew that’s what you would say. But before you lie anymore, listen: you are free right now on my bond.” He waved paperwork from a bail bondsman in her face. “As easily as I got you out, I could put you back in. Your only choices are these: answer my questions satisfactorily and go free, or go back to jail.”

In truth, the beggar scared Mina far more than jail. She had survived her brief prison stint, but wasn’t sure she was going to survive him. The only thing that would keep her from telling him what he wanted to know was the trembling in her jaw.

“Are you really part of an anarchist organization?”

“Yes.”

The beggar stared evenly at Mina, deciding whether she was telling the truth or not. Eventually, he pressed forward.

“Is this organization responsible for the bombing?”

Mina’s head dropped. “No.”

“Good girl. Who is?”

“A guy named Roman. That’s what I heard.”

“Roman who?”

“No one told me a last name.”

“Why did Roman want a bomb set off?”

“Don’t know. Insurance or something?”

“Insurance? You want me to believe this was an insurance scam?”

Mina shrugged. “I heard the landlord had a lot of insurance.”

The beggar’s composed veneer vanished. He launched to his feet, stuck a finger in Mina’s face, and shouted. “You can’t cover one lie with another! I don’t care how long it takes, you’re going to tell me the truth!”

Mina felt anger growing inside her—anger from being trapped and anger from being yelled at. She was upset at herself, then, when all that came out for a few seconds were tears, and when she was able to speak, it was between sobs.

“That’s all… that’s all I know. No one told me anything else. That’s why they did it. I was gonna get $1,000. I needed money. That’s all. That’s everything.”

The beggar towered over her while Mina stared at her feet and tears fell into her lap. She wanted to leave, even if it meant going back to jail.

Then the beggar stepped back, and was suddenly calm again.

“What do you know about Standish Fiske?”

“Who?” the girl muttered, and then her head flew to the right as the beggar slapped her with his backhand. Despite this, his speaking tone remained calm.

“Standish Fiske,” he repeated.

“I don’t… oh, do you mean the guy who used to be mayor? That Fiske? I haven’t heard much about him since Drauer was elected.”

The beggar flinched at the word “elected,” but let it pass. “You know he used to live near where the bomb was set off?”

“So?”

“So you mean to tell me that’s a coincidence? That you weren’t trying to get my attention?”

“Get your attention?”

“You knew I’d see the headlines. It was a warning.”

“Warning? It was?” Mina’s eyes had grown wider, and her lower jaw trembled again.

“Then the dorm fire was a message to tell me how much you knew—that you’d researched my entire background. Well, it worked. I’m here to tell you that I got the message.”

“I don’t… what message? What are you talking about?”

The beggar’s face twisted in rage, his hand flew up to aim a slap at the girl, then, just as quickly, his features relaxed and his hand dropped.

“Of course. Of course you don’t know. You’re just hired to run errands. Okay. Good. You’ve got another errand. Tell the people who hired you that Standish Fiske got the message.”

Suddenly, Mina was free. She could stand. Without hesitating, she jumped from her chair and ran for the door. If the beggar wanted to, he could stop her long before she got out. But he didn’t.

She ran into the bright street, blinking as her eyes tried to focus. She hit a mailbox, stumbled, but kept running. She didn’t look behind her, but if she had, she would have seen that no one was following.

She kept her head enough to not head straight to Roman’s. She took the D train, then the B, then the G, then walked.

* * * * * *

Roman swaggered, doing his best to look like he owned the place. He liked to say that if only the dead know Brooklyn, he must have died twice. He believed he was the borough’s unacknowledged king.

Though the past few years had been hard on the king. He’d lost some good places to lay low when the ocean overtook Coney Island, and his new ones weren’t as secluded. He sometimes felt like he was getting lost in the shuffle in Red Hook—not a fate that should befall royalty.

But he was getting some work today, on top of the job he was already being paid good money to do. Through five different intermediaries, he’d heard about a crazy-eyed man in a nice suit looking to have a job done. And he wanted Roman. Just proof that the rep was spreading, Roman thought to himself.

Rich clients were good. Rich and crazy clients were unpredictable, but sometimes they paid all out of scale to the job, giving thousands for work worth hundreds. That was the kind of break Roman was hoping for.

He saw the address he’d been given. An old project, mostly abandoned. Roman was supposed to climb through a broken window into the cellar.

Guy must be rich, Roman thought to himself. The rich ones always want to meet in stupid-ass places.

Roman scrambled through the window and landed in the cellar with as much grace and poise as possible. The client was waiting for him, eyes darting above salt-and-pepper stubble. Taking his time, Roman loped to a chair and sat, making it creak as he stretched his legs and threw one arm over the back. He shot his best look at the client.

It was the last time in the meeting he felt confident. The air around him collapsed like an imploded building.

* * * * * *

Roman was still twitching on the cellar floor when Fiske strode out of the cellar. He covered a yard with each step, kicking cans and papers out of his path. Roman had been stubborn, and Fiske was irritated. He’d almost had to kill him. All that effort, and he still didn’t think Roman had told him the truth. What he said made no sense.

Maybe the problem was Fiske’s rusty interrogation techniques. Reading a mind while conducting the interrogation required focus. Subjects sent out all sorts of emotional waves, most of which were irrelevant and distracting. Pay too much attention to them, and you lose the little nugget of information that they thought but did not say. Or the hints that let you know they’re lying.

Fiske hadn’t found any indication that Roman was lying about his next job. As far as he could tell, in two days Roman and two others were supposed to burst into a warehouse near the Hudson and spray the entire building with machine gun bullets. The purpose, Roman said, was to scare the dealers in the warehouse, but if some of them ended up dead instead of scared, no one would be too upset.

In between screams, Roman had managed to stammer out the warehouse’s address. And that address was the problem. As near as Fiske could remember, he had no connection to the place—never owned the building, never done business there, nothing. He certainly didn’t have anything to do with the drug dealers there. Fiske couldn’t figure out how this assault fit into the attacks against him. What message was this supposed to send?

Roman, of course, had denied that any of it had anything to do with Fiske. “Don’t know you,” he said, near the beginning, when he still had some fight in him. “They don’t know you. Nothing to do with you. You ain’t nobody.”

Fiske put the screws in, but Roman held to his story through the worst of everything. “Don’t know you,” he kept saying, even when he was practically whimpering.

It was a cover. The assault on the warehouse was tied to him—it had to be, or why else would they be doing it?

He’d made a decision near the end of the interview, when he had been so angry he almost annihilated Roman’s mind. Wait, he told himself. Let him do the job, and then you’ll see.

In half an hour Roman would wake up with a splitting headache, wondering why he was lying in the cellar and where the last four hours had gone. He’d sleep for a while, then feel better. In two days, he’d be ready to attack the warehouse. He wouldn’t remember that he had told Fiske all the details of the attack. He wouldn’t remember Fiske at all.

* * * * * *

Years ago, when he fled Gracie Mansion and the city, Fiske had spent three weeks hiding from the best PKs Anderson Drauer could hire. There had been over a dozen of them (Drauer spared no expense—annexing New York was central to his plans, and controlling Fiske was the first step to annexing New York), and between them they seemed to cover every block of Manhattan. Fiske had hid like a rat, finding dark corners even the homeless avoided. The PKs chasing him were good, but he was better. They only got him when the weariness of weeks without any real sleep caught up to him.

Compared to those weeks, infiltrating the warehouse on the Hudson was simple. It was a plain, windowless building, a large brick vault near the dark river. There wasn’t a PK anywhere near the place, so he could do all the sendings he wanted without fear of detection. He found three ways in—a front door with four guards, a back door with two, and a rooftop door with a single, weary guard inside. Making this guard fall asleep took only the slightest effort, and maneuvering the lock tumblers was almost as easy. Soon he was exploring the interior of the warehouse, cloaked in diversion waves. He walked within five feet of some dealers who did not notice him.

The warehouse hadn’t been used by a legitimate business in years. Some broken wooden pallets and two barrels were the only remnants of that past. Sheets of dust covered them all. The only clear spots in the dust were a few paths that cut across the large open area just inside the warehouse doors.

The strong sendings from all parts of the warehouse told Fiske that whatever this gang was dealing, it wasn’t blockers—if they were, Fiske wouldn’t have been able to sense any guards until they were close enough to take a swing at him. Most likely they were just selling street junk.

He’d never had anything to do with junk. He couldn’t use it (compromised mental alertness) and he couldn’t sell it (compromised political future). His mind struggled to come up with a connection between these junk dealers and himself, but nothing came.

He made his way down to the main floor of the warehouse, not too far from the door Roman would be storming in shortly. He stole into a dark corner, then waved air into a cushion that pushed him up to the girders.

He spent ten minutes walking around the girders, looking for the best vantage point before settling on a spot about twenty feet away from the front entrance. He could see the guards on either side of the corrugated iron door, as well as the three men sitting in a windowed perch that looked over the warehouse floor. The floor itself was nothing more than dust, empty metal bins, and scrap metal.

He envisioned what was going to happen. Roman and his men would shoot to the sides of the door first, expecting the guards there. The guards would get off a few shots, but they wouldn’t last long. Then Roman would spray the area randomly. He’d see the nest with the other men quickly and pepper it with bullets. In the moment between the times when the first shots were fired and when bullets hit the window, the men inside might be able to run, but they wouldn’t—Fiske knew these types, and they’d die before backing down. They’d look for a way to get some shots off at Roman, and then Fiske would move.

He heard a shatter of glass against an outside wall on the far side of the building. Diversionary tactic, Fiske figured. It was starting.

The guards near the door peered across the dim warehouse but didn’t leave their post. They were distracted, though, and when the doors slid open, they could not turn, aim, and fire quick enough. They got off a couple of poorly aimed rounds before they both went down.

The rest unfolded like Fiske envisioned. He had to deflect a few bullets that came his way, but it wasn’t taxing. He watched two of the three men in the nest duck the first hail of bullets, then escape out a back door. The other one lay sprawled on a metal desk, among broken glass and powder. The survivors were on their way downstairs. It would only take a few minutes now.

Roman walked across the central floor carefully, flanked by two gunmen. Their gun barrels moved left and right in even arcs as they stepped forward. They fired random shots every few steps. Above them, Fiske walked silently on the steel rails, staying fifteen feet in front of them. He glanced at Roman occasionally, but mainly kept his eye out for the surviving dealers.

“We shot up enough, ’mano,” one of Roman’s cronies said. “All we supposed to do. Vanish now, ’kay?”

“Not yet,” Roman said. “Still some out there, we get ’em.”

“Not the job.”

“What we’re doing, though.”

Fiske did a quick scan of the crony’s sendings, to see if he was thinking about running. He wasn’t, so Fiske left his mind alone.

The bullet was fired and moved so fast that Fiske almost wasn’t able to intercept it. It came from Roman’s left, and was aimed at the gunman on Roman’s side, heading for his hip. Fiske pushed it away at the last minute, and it grazed the gunman’s canvas pants.

The next few seconds were the most strenuous Fiske had known since he was arrested. He deflected dozens of bullets while he shoved himself off of his ceiling beam and floated gently to the floor. One slip, one missed bullet, one errant reflection, and one of the people he was counting to be alive-possibly himself—would be dead.

He was out of practice for this scale of effort. For years, he only had been allowed to perform the simplest of spells, there was no way he could practice jobs like this. Most PKs, at the peak of their abilities, when they were training every day, wouldn’t be able to pull this off. There was no way Fiske should have been able to do it.

But ten seconds after he jumped off the girder, he landed safely on the floor, long black coat billowing behind him. The five armed men were pulling their triggers, but nothing was happening. Fiske had stopped their guns.

Fiske stared at all five men, looking for a sign of recognition from any of them. None gave an indication that they knew him, not even Roman. They were stunned by his entrance and stood with open mouths.

“Gentlemen,” Fiske said, feeling confident and poised. “I’ve decided to make your lives easier. You want to get a message to me? Here I am.”

The men shifted uncomfortably. One of them tried the trigger of his gun again, but it was still stuck.

“I thought my being here would save you a lot of trouble,” Fiske continued. “Now you don’t have to kill each other. Tell me what you want, and the violence stops.”

“Don’t know who you are,” Roman said, starting to recover from his surprise at Fiske’s entrance.

Fiske smiled condescendingly. “You’re expected to say that, of course. And maybe you really don’t. But someone here does—at least one of you must know what’s really going on here, and you’re going to tell me.”

“Know this?” Roman asked, waving both to his men and the men he had intended to kill. They all shook their heads.

Fiske had been quite annoyed with Roman’s earlier denials, but now he felt calm. He was the master of the situation. They could deny the truth all they wanted, but in the end, he was in control.

“Since none of you seem to know anything, let me explain. I know what you’ve been doing. I know about the bomb you detonated in Greenwich Village, the fire you set at Mt. Zion, the patsy you sent in to shoot up the Flatiron Building. You’ve been sending messages to me, and I’m here, and I want to know why.”

“Crazy, man,” Roman muttered. “Didn’t do no fire, no Flatiron. Didn’t know nothing ’bout you. Crazy.” The others nodded.

“Not going to tell me? Then I’ll explain it to you. You knew that if you kept sending me messages, I’d come find you, home arrest or no. You wanted me to come, to be here, just I did.” Fiske’s voice rose, and echoes bounced around. “You knew I’d figure out your feeble scheme, you knew I’d intercept you. You just thought, with your guns here, you’d be able to handle me. You didn’t think I’d be as strong as I am.”

“Nothing about you!” Roman yelled, but Fiske was too caught up in the power of his voice to hear anything else.

“I don’t blame you for underestimating me,” Fiske said. “It’s not your fault. Your boss did it. He’s always underestimated me. Always thought he could contain me. But it’s not that easy.”

“Who? What boss?” Roman screamed in frustration.

“Anderson Drauer!” Fiske screamed back. “Who else? Who else would play this game with me?”

Roman laughed, and laughed loudly. The echoes of his laughter chased away the last sounds of Fiske’s voice. It took several moments for Roman to be able to speak.

“Drauer! You think Drauer payin’? Drauer don’t care ’bout me! Drauer don’t care ’bout you, you crazy sonbitch.” Roman laughed again and shook his head. “Drauer,” he said, almost spitting the word.

“You’re wrong,” Fiske said, feeling his composure slip. “Drauer’s worried about me, always has been. That’s why he locked me up. That’s why he’s playing these games. He knows I’m his biggest threat.”

“You no threat to anything!” Roman hooted. “Threat to Drauer? Barely threat to junkmen here. You nothing!”

“Nothing? I’m nothing?” Fiske yelled back. “I ruled this city. It was mine! That’s why Drauer’s after me!”

“You rule nothing, so Drauer don’t care. He got power, you don’t. Why worry ’bout you?” Roman sneered. “No one cares, old man. No one cares.”

“Drauer cares! He wants me dead! He sent you to kill me!” Fiske’s fury shook his body, and exploded from his mind. The force of his anger levitated his body three feet in the air.

“Sent nothing!” Roman yelled.

“Sent you!” Fiske screamed.

Suddenly, jerkily, Roman’s arms raised. The barrel of the gun jerked back and forth until it pointed at Fiske’s head. Roman’s trigger finger twitched spasmodically, then clenched. The gun was no longer jammed. A flurry of bullets flew out, until the magazine was empty.

Fiske’s body remained suspended until most of his head was gone. Then it fell to the ground.

* * * * * *

Crazy man, Roman thought to himself a few hours later. Crazy man. Dumped in river, couple blocks away. Didn’t want to kill him. Harmless, just crazy man. Maybe hit him, maybe beat him, didn’t need to kill him. But arm moved, finger moved, bullets flew. Didn’t know how they moved. Didn’t know why. Something made them move, something made them shoot. Wasn’t me, though, Roman thought. Wasn’t me.

Someone wanted crazy man dead. Someone got what he wanted.