When Sonya Aronova finally pulled on her coat and walked out the back door of Maxwell & Chen Staffing’s office just after 8 p.m., she wished she had a bodyguard. Or ten years of fight training, or a blowtorch or even a crowbar for a weapon. After today’s decisions, any of those would be a major step up. Unfortunately, though, none were on-hand at the moment, and if anything went south that night, she’d just have to run like hell.
Locking the door, she mounted a flight of narrow concrete stairs and headed quickly up the alley, around the corner and down the street. This part of town was one of the worst neighborhoods in the Egg: crumbling and abandoned, apart from the occasional down-on-their luck doorway sleeper. It was already pitch-dark, and the clack of her high-heeled footsteps sounded far too loud. She walked faster in the dark spots between streetlights, reminding herself fiercely to hold her head up, quit looking suspicious, quit acting hunted. As if she were an ordinary girl coming home from an ordinary job, a librarian or a waitress or a corporate recruiter. A normal corporate recruiter. Someone without a target on her back.
But she lived to make it down the block, turning onto a busy main street and breathing a little more easily. She shoved her way through a chattering crowd of fedoras and cigars and feather boas outside a cinema, moving past glass-fronted cafés and lit-up jazz clubs where the night was just getting started. She clambered down a dark flight of stairs and stepped into a grimy subway car, traveling eight stops. A few blocks from home, she climbed the stairs back up onto the street.
But when her earpiece buzzed with a telephone call, she almost jumped out of her skin. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders before pressing the button on her pocket-box to pick up, knowing there was only one person likely to be calling her this late.
“Sonya! How are you these days?” Josephine Charpentier’s soft, slithering voice seemed to grin in her ear. “I’m calling to see if you have an update on that job I interviewed for.”
Sonya wondered if Josephine was that cheerful when she killed people. She’d heard the woman’s favorite weapon was razor wire, although she preferred not to imagine Josephine using it.
“Not quite yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as we do, okay?” She dug her nails into her palm. If Josephine knew what the update actually was, Sonya just might find herself wearing a razor wire necklace tonight.
“Then when will I hear from you next? I hope you aren’t one of those recruiters who never get back to people. I’ve… dealt with a few of those before.”
Sonya stuttered. “End of the week?” A man with a briefcase glanced at her quizzically. Of course. She was talking to herself on the sidewalk. He probably hadn’t noticed the earpiece — a small, flesh-colored plastic knob in her ear, which she hid behind a sheet of loose hair. With any luck, the man would just think she was crazy. Her firm’s clandestine invention of the pocket-box always made for odd situations on the street, seeing as the rest of the city had yet to move beyond rotary telephones. Dead Tech — the kind that sent communications through thin air, that used machinery or software that couldn’t be understood through a simple diagram — had been stigmatized since the beginning of the small world that Sonya knew. A lynching hazard for the past generation, although only a source of ridicule by now.
Tonight, though, she had bigger problems to deal with.
“How about 7 a.m. tomorrow?” said Josephine quietly. Her tone made Sonya’s temperature drop.
“Of… of course! I should have some good news for you tomorrow.” Why, why, WHY did I tell her that?
Josephine’s voice was warm again. “Well, I am so glad to hear that! Couple days’ delay, and you had me scared! Good night, Sonya.”
Once she was positive Josephine had hung up, she leaned against a wall and took deep, shuddering breaths until the adrenaline wore off.
They do not pay me enough for this.
Sonya had been working at Maxwell & Chen Staffing for nearly a year. She hadn’t known until the day she started that her job wasn’t to place nurses or accountants, but killers.
There was plenty of business in town, and Maxwell and Chen (M&C, as the basement girls called it) took it all: activist groups looking to get rid of some unfavorable lobbyist; radio moguls rich and bitter enough to hire a pro to dispose of an ex-wife; or even some corporations looking to weaken a competitor by making a figurehead CEO “disappear.” The Egg was fertile ground for that type of work — a violent city with a joke of a police force, governed by lynch mobs since the year it was founded, with bombs in its pockets and a club in its fist. It was a “last survivor” of a city, a final holdout after all the world outside had fallen, and it acted the part.
The work was all perfectly legal, of course. Signed into law after the last administration came in. Even if the only difference between a legal assassination and a good old-fashioned street murder was the giant pile of paperwork that some desk drudge at a registered assassination firm would have to fill out in order to certify the killing as a legitimate “termination.” It was also more-or-less relegated to the private sector, as all public officials were exempt — illegal for anyone to “terminate” under any circumstances. But the new industry had met the intended goal of keeping the Egg’s messy streets clean, putting the average criminal at the mercy of whoever now saw fit to send a now-legally-protected Josephine Charpentier, or equivalent, after them. It was there to stay.
M&C held a prime position as the one recruiting firm in the Egg that focused exclusively on recruiting and placing killers. Nineteen, short on cash and with no surviving family to question her life choices, Sonya had initially thought that taking a recruiter job would be a decent way to make money. She’d learn to deal with people. It might even make a bit of spare change. She’d been wrong. Not only was the commission rate barely enough to pay the rent, but she found herself constantly looking over her shoulder. Legalized or not, her line of work put a target on her back. Hence the secret office location, and the fake consulting firm upstairs as a front: just a thin layer of protection against any unfortunate “jobseeker” who, after losing out on an interview, might decide to release some frustration by doing what they did best.
Her apartment building was a squat concrete structure that had been built in a hurry. She let herself in and climbed a narrow flight of plywood stairs under an old fluorescent lamp, hearing the neighbors yell at each other, a bottle smash against a wall. She glanced back down the stairs, seeing nothing but half-darkness and an empty hall, and forced herself not to run. Reaching and unlocking her door, she slipped inside and dead-bolted it behind her.
Her apartment was one room, clean despite the building’s disrepair. A small bed sat in one corner; in the other was a kitchenette and a wooden crate that she used as a table. There wasn’t much clutter; she kept as few possessions as possible in case she ever needed to leave in a hurry. After carefully checking the closet, shower and curtains for intruders, she kicked off her shoes and rummaged through the kitchen cupboards for some food.
She’d thought she was doing a good job. Her biggest client, a powerhouse assassination firm called Acosta Solutions, had been looking for another pro to hire full-time as part of their elite team. Sonya had gone to a cocktail party and introduced Josephine to their CEO. Ms. Acosta, may I introduce Josephine Charpentier, also known as Razor Wire Woman. I’m sure you two will have plenty to talk about. They’d hit it off. The next morning, Francisca Acosta had called Sonya to tell her they’d make Josephine a job offer right away — full-time benefits, best insurance package in town. Sonya had called Josephine immediately to tell her the news, almost screamed it in her ear. The commission from that deal would pay Sonya’s own rent for three months. She’d finally be making ends meet. More importantly, it would take the Razor Wire Woman off her hands. Which was a good thing, because Josephine scared her to death.
That was last week.
Today, Acosta Solutions had called again. This time, it was their Director of HR. The man had the gall to demand — demand — that Sonya bring them five more candidates to interview before making a job offer to anyone. This week.
Sonya fought back. Told that bastard that she’d worked hard to bring them that one damn candidate. That they’d already crossed the bridge by having her tell the best killer in town to expect a job offer. That it was too late to back out. That they had to respect the relationship between her firm and theirs. But those were fighting words she couldn’t afford.
So the man complained, and complained to Sonya’s boss, and Sonya’s boss reamed her out and threatened to fire her, and Sonya gave up and called that HR bastard back and told him that she’d do it. Keep Razor Wire Woman waiting, bring them candidates behind her back for a job that Josephine already thought was hers.
She’d made that call an hour ago. Now she was just glad to have made it to her door without Josephine sidling up to her, after hearing the afternoon’s gossip from who-knows-where, and stringing some wire across Sonya’s neck. Maybe just as a threat; maybe snuffing out her life in a split second. Wouldn’t be great for the woman’s chances of actually getting the job, but as far as Sonya knew, Josephine might be just that crazy.
That night, though, the most damage Sonya suffered was a cut on her finger while opening a can of soup for dinner. Lying awake in bed, she dreamed about going through the Door: the rusty old one at the bottom of the underground tunnel that some street kid had discovered last year after falling through the tunnel’s crumbling wall. The Door must have been built back before anyone moved into the city, presumably for emergency exit into the world outside; although certainly not for emergency entrance, since it opened only from inside the Egg. If you went out, there was no way to get back in.
Sonya had never seen the world outside the Egg. She’d only heard of a couple of people who’d even dared to actually go through the Door: one had been some poor sod on the run from a client of the one-and-only Maxwell and Chen. Of course, since then, no one had exactly had the opportunity to ask him how his new life was going.
The Egg’s walls were taller than any building inside, and topped with barbed wire. The rumors Sonya had heard of the world outside spoke of ruined and uninhabitable cities, savage and murderous tribes — people with no memory of their old civilization, whose ancestors had somehow lived through the world’s end. The end that, four generations ago, had caused so many people from all over the globe to hole themselves up in a fifty-mile-wide settlement in northeast Germany, live on well water and wind power and vertical farms and some basic cobbled-together technology, and call it the Egg. Since then, the people of the Egg had always been more preoccupied with their own street wars than with keeping track of history.
Sonya wasn’t sure whether she believed any of the rumors or not. All she thought of, when she thought of that Door leading out, was freedom. She couldn’t imagine a place without streets or traffic, but she also couldn’t imagine killers and bosses and ringing earpieces out there.
The next morning, against her expectations, Sonya was still alive at 5 a.m. She pulled her stockings and heels back on, jammed her earpiece back in her ear, and headed back down the street and into the subway tunnel. Every few steps she glanced over her shoulder, until she finally reached the steel door at the bottom of that thin concrete staircase and began the day all over again.
“So, are we taking shots every time we see the word ‘extensive’ on a resume?” said Karen, dumping a two-foot-tall pile of printed-out job applications on her desk and collapsing dramatically in her chair. She pulled her goggles off from around her neck and chucked them on the floor. Karen Hakimi was a lanky girl with a squealing laugh and a mass of dark hair that she curled into ringlets every morning. Her insistence on blowing company resources by printing out resumes on paper rather than viewing them all in the Space was her own form of rebellion.
“Like this one? ‘Extensive experience in dispatch of adversaries for a wide variety of clients?’” said Sonya, pulling a resume from the top of the pile. “Can’t they just say ‘I’m really good at killing people for whoever will pay me’ and leave out the whole ‘extensiveness’ bit?”
“Take a shot,” Karen ordered, grinning. Sonya filled a small cup with vodka from the bottle on Karen’s desk and downed it, giving Karen a high-five.
Their office was a basement. The walls and floor were bare concrete. There were no windows. The floor space was populated with a grid of grey cubicles, each one filled with a tangle of filaments and goggles and a house-built computing machine the size of a small refrigerator.
“See you in the Space?” Sonya called over her shoulder at Karen, heading back towards her cubicle.
“See you in the Space,” said Karen, jamming her goggles back on.
The Space (or “Staffing Space,” as it was supposed to be called) was a fake, virtual office built in-house by M&C for interviewing candidates, making job offers and negotiating pay rates. The need for such an invention had come up a few years ago after one angry candidate decided the firm had screwed him out of a well-paying contract, and had showed up at the office and gone on a killing spree. After that, M&C had moved their office to a secret location, setting up a shell company upstairs as a front and hiding the assassination recruitment business in the basement for good measure. But in a line of work where anyone could kill anyone, face-to-face levels of trust were crucial, and the business suffered heavily after switching to telephone-only contact.
So Avery Chen, the Big Cheese of the firm, had tracked down the old minds. The ancient engineers who had directly survived the end of the world, the only keepers of the scientific knowledge that civilization used to command. Dead Tech. They were all in hiding by that point, the ones whose minds were still sharp. Most had been starved to death or lynched during the Tech Revolution, back when the Egg was brand-new; the rest had found no use for their old talent in a tiny world that stigmatized anything more complex than a rotary telephone as, at best, an unnecessary frill, and at worst, as a dangerous re-creation of the ghastly tools that must have ended the world. The tools that had created nuclear weapons, or had manufactured diseases; the pinnacles of human achievement. Soon after everyone had moved into the Egg, the Tech Revolution had meant all of the Egg’s new citizens had gathered up that fancy stuff — instruments of science, computers of all types, overly sophisticated factory machinery, recently-manufactured cars, and even telephones — into big, useless piles and destroyed it all. No one really knew any more than that; all they knew was that innovation had been the wood on the world’s funeral pyre, and then the cause of the Tech Revolution. Good enough cause for a few lynchings in those trying times. People always needed to lynch someone, anyway.
In the years since, the old inventions had begun slowly and tentatively reappearing, recreated by vestiges of knowledge from the old world, hidden like folklore in the memories of ordinary people. Rotary telephones had made a grand and scandalous debut when Sonya was a child. And when Chen tracked down the old minds, all of them in their eighties and nineties by then, he bribed the hell out of them. Convinced some to contribute their knowledge, others to work directly for him for obscene amounts of money. Called them the “Invented Technology Department” (IT for short). After all, advancement would always happen on the fringes of society, and what could be further out on those fringes than the killing business? Two years later, M&C launched the newly-built Staffing Space, and the firm’s dealings moved completely into virtual reality.
Sonya wore VR goggles attached to her computing machine via a slim filament, and sensor gloves that replicated her movements in order to gesture or shake hands in the Space. The virtual office also hooked up to pocket-boxes with earpieces attached, serving as a sort of portable telephone — another invention that had apparently been widespread before the world’s end, as one elderly gentleman from the IT department had told her once. All the junior recruiters wore their earpieces around the clock, which meant that they had little excuse for missing calls after hours. Every time Sonya took out her earpiece, she’d find at least four angry voicemails the next time she put it in.
But now it was almost 6:15 a.m., and Sonya was running late. Cruising into her cubicle, she hastily pulled her goggles and gloves on, logged in with some simple commands on her electric typewriter, and entered the Space.
Her display showed her a narrow, beige-carpeted hallway that stretched to her right and left without end, into what looked like infinity. The ceiling was lit with a soft but austere light from millions of chandeliers in one unending row. Both walls were lined with an indefinite number of identical wooden doors. Above each door was a small, bare lightbulb mounted in the wall, with a blank wooden plaque above it. Images of Sonya’s co-workers moved jerkily up and down the hall, heading from meeting to meeting. Some of them waved hello.
There was a soft “ding” as a lightbulb illuminated above a door to her left. Her name had appeared in gilded letters on the door’s wooden plaque. She checked her appointment calendar, which hung on a crisp white card from the wrist of her image, and went in.
The room was small and square, with wood-paneled walls. Two slim leather armchairs faced each other across a small coffee table. In the chair opposite her, wearing the simpering grin of a boy who had faked it till he made it and refused to shut his big mouth since, was her first problem of the day.
“Tomasso Martinelli! How are we doing today?” She dropped casually into the chair and gave him a serene smile, the most patronizing one she could muster.
“Doing well, doing well.” Tomasso looked her image up and down with a glint in his eyes. Sonya thanked the probably-deceased gods for the invention of the Space. She wouldn’t go near that freak with a ten-foot pole in person.
“You had an assignment for me?” His tone was expectant, like a kid wanting candy.
“Sure do. It’s the one for Addington Corp. The deal with Mr. Karpovich.”
“Ah. They still want a… drastic solution?”
“If hiring you to put him down counts as drastic.”
“Anything for you, Miss Sonya. And for the money. Mostly the money.”
Sonya winced whenever anyone said her name in the Space. She had the luxury of concealing her location, true, but not her real name or face. The opportunity to disguise either of those, to make it harder to get recognized on the street, was above her pay grade. The higher-ups at M&C had decided in their roundabout way that it wouldn’t reinforce trust. A decision made despite their efforts to conceal the office address, although those might have been geared towards protecting them rather than the basement girls.
In the meantime, Sonya rolled her eyes. “Let’s talk logistics.” After walking him through the plan, she talked him into an hourly rate and gave him a contract to sign.
“But there’s something else, too,” she continued after he’d signed it. “Not a one-off. A chance at a full-time job doing what you already do, somewhere special.”
“Special? Where?” He raised an eyebrow, tapping his fingers disinterestedly on the table. His image’s movements looked much smoother in the Space than hers, being generated by a simple tack-like chip implanted under the skin of his temple rather than by clunky gloves. Another cursed gem from the old world. One of those special perks of being an assassin, for which Sonya was grateful every day that she had not been granted.
Tomasso sat up straight, and his eyes widened. “They’re hiring? I thought you had to know someone. Really know someone.”
“They decided their internal network couldn’t quite bring them anyone… perfect. But that we could.”
“I’m in. What do I do?”
Sonya’s next meeting, at 6:45 a.m., was with Josephine Charpentier herself. Walking toward the door, she felt her stomach roil and wished she could be anywhere but here. She thought about tearing off her goggles and bolting. A childish thought, she told herself fiercely; a weak-minded thought. The lightbulb above the doorway glowed pleasantly, and she opened the door and went in.
“So? Any updates, Sonya?” Josephine turned abruptly towards her; a tall, bony, sharp-featured woman of thirty-five or forty. Even in a fake world made of pixels on glass, Sonya instinctively kept her distance. She hadn’t seen many animals in her life, other than in the few remaining vestiges of old artwork and photographs from before the world’s end, but she imagined that any large and predatory creature might look a bit like Josephine: cruel, yes, but mostly indifferent. Happy to rip your throat out and not think twice about it. Go back to cleaning its claws afterwards. Maybe send its cub to school with your liver in its lunchbox alongside a glob of mashed potatoes. That was what Josephine looked like.
Sonya took a deep breath and spouted the first lie that came to her mind. “They’ve had a technical glitch.”
“Their HR director called me about it this morning. It’s putting their hiring process on hold for a few — ”
“You’ve had a week since my interview already,” snapped Josephine. “Is there hesitation on their side? If they’re not sure about me, I don’t need to be sure about them. Unless the delay is due to something on your side, Miss Aronova?” Josephine was too still, like a coiled spring, as if ready to jump at her. She had already moved to stand between Sonya and the exit.
“No, no, no,” said Sonya, panicking. Too late to tell her the truth. If this all went through, and if she managed to get Josephine hired — somehow — she wouldn’t have to talk to the awful woman ever again. It would all pass like a bad dream. She clung to the thought like a lifeline.
Josephine stared at her for a long time. Sonya wondered irrationally if she would have taken out her razor wire and wrapped it around Sonya’s neck if the two of them were standing in real space.
Then Josephine smiled cruelly.
“You have three days to get me that fucking job. After that… well, we’ll see, won’t we?”
Sonya knocked out twelve or thirteen other meetings before lunch. She signed Edgar Drake into a contract to get rid of some high-powered lawyer’s ex-wife, and Alhaadi Mwangi to get rid of the lawyer himself at the behest of one of his rivals, who paid more. It was after 1 p.m. before she finally took off her goggles and gloves, stretching and hearing her shoulder crack. All around, she could hear buzz and chatter as people started to pack up and head out to lunch.
There were about twenty recruiters in the basement office, most of them young women. The upper floor, where management kept their offices, was much nicer, with a plush-carpeted lobby and heating and air conditioning. But those people upstairs had an extra job: keeping up the alias of a respectable consulting firm. The girls in the basement, at least, had no reason to make pretenses about the dirt on their hands.
“Wanna get lunch with us?” Karen called at Sonya from down the hall. Her girlfriend, Naoko MacGregor, peeked over the edge of her cubicle and waved.
“If you’re okay with me third-wheeling.”
“Are you kidding? You’re a great third wheel.”
Naoko pulled the hood of her raincoat up. “You need to get a someone, Sonya! You promised you would, so we could go on double dates.” Karen rolled her eyes. “Let’s just go.”
This was what Sonya knew: her great-grandparents, teenagers when the world ended, were part of a small group of survivors from Kazakhstan. The political decision-makers, whoever they were, allowed a calculated number of survivors from virtually every country in the world to enter the Egg while millions of other pleading refugees faced only a closed iron door. She didn’t know much more than that.
Sonya herself had grown up attending a school sponsored by a weak government that existed only to run schools and hospitals, and that dabbled in law enforcement only enough to claim taxes and break up the occasional rally. She’d learned to read and write formal English and Mandarin like every other child, although the only language she spoke fluently was the nameless polyglot mishmash of the street. She’d also learned five or six theories of how and why the world ended (a plague, a meteor, environmental mayhem), although she wasn’t sure whether she believed any of them. She suspected that the Egg’s government had long been trying to blot out whatever complex truth actually existed, and that her generation was the first to forget completely.
But this she knew, because she saw it every day and understood it much better than the abstract idea of a global disaster: form a city of survivors, survivors who had been chosen over their friends and neighbors and families, from all corners of Europe and Asia and the Americas and Australia and Africa, who didn’t speak each others’ languages, didn’t understand each others’ legal systems, and nothing would rule them. They would rule themselves, and badly.
Sonya’s father had told her stories from his own father’s youth, about the chaos that ruled the first years of life in the Egg. Street wars, Molotov cocktails, would-be revolutionaries running around with stolen police weapons, an underworld government overthrowing the hastily-instituted official one a year into everyone’s stay before being overthrown themselves. “How strange it is,” he mused while holding her on his lap as a child once, “that a city built on the idea of staying alive, nothing but that, could be so in love with death.” He himself died six years later, followed shortly by Sonya’s mother. The hospital staff told Sonya that it was a genetic abnormality. Perhaps it had been passed down to both of them by their own parents. Radiation poisoning, or traces of the plague, or something equally absurd; a souvenir from the world’s end. Sonya stormed out of the hospital, screamed in an alleyway and sprained her wrist by punching a wall.
As she grew up, washing dishes and clearing tables and trying and failing to get through school, it seemed that the people around her valued human life less and less. The streets around her ran bloody when political rallies turned to club-wielding mayhem. A detested city official hung, slowly swinging, from the gate to the town square, five days after being elected. Once, Sonya hid under the bar to avoid a shoot-out in a restaurant she worked in. And by the time she came of age, it was no surprise that assassination had finally become a respectable business.
“Miss Aronova, will you come upstairs?” Liisa Järvinen’s voice sounded humorless and weary.
“Sure thing,” Sonya chirped pleasantly into her earpiece, feeling her shoulders sink. She didn’t have the energy to deal with management, not on top of the fear of being sliced to death with razor wire after work. But pulling her goggles off and grudgingly pushing herself up from her chair, she headed out of the basement and up the rickety back elevator, then down a glossy upper hall towards Liisa’s office.
The first time she’d walked this hall was nearly a year ago, just before her interview to get the job in the first place. She’d stared around open-mouthed at the shiny faux-marble walls, the high ceiling and the echoing floor. To a nineteen-year-old with a failed education, laid off from her other job and with no way to pay the next month’s rent, M&C looked better than being a movie star. Liisa had assured Sonya that she’d make far more money on commission here than she would at any other job within her reach, citing some high figures that made Sonya’s eyes widen. She’d accepted the job offer on the spot.
Sonya opened the door to that same office now. The thin, bespectacled woman with the beaky nose sat behind her desk, wearing an expression that belonged in a morgue. Sonya sat down in front of her, straightening her skirt nervously and folding her hands.
“I know this was unscheduled,” Liisa said somberly, “but I’m hoping we can do a bit of a performance review right now. Do you mind?”
“Oh! Uh, no, not at all.” In her mind, Sonya cursed up a storm.
Liisa handed her a spreadsheet. “This contains your candidate placements and your billing amounts for the past calendar year. We need to have a conversation about your performance and progress, since as I’m sure you’ve noticed, there’s room for improvement.”
“I do realize that,” said Sonya, trying to stay collected while looking over the sheet. It didn’t look good. She’d struggled in her recruiting over the past few months, and it showed.
Liisa leaned back in her chair. “I’d like to hear your thoughts. You’ve been working here a full year.”
Sonya fidgeted. “My deal with Acosta Solutions should boost this month’s billing by a lot.”
“I agree. But it seems to be your only chance at upping your numbers at the moment. Is there still a chance that they’ll hire Josephine?”
“I doubt it. They asked to interview five more people this week before they give her an answer. They’re having second thoughts.”
“You don’t have any other candidates lined up?”
“One. Still trying to come up with the other four.”
“It would be prudent of you to also keep in mind how much you owe the firm in advances on your commissions. Commissions you have still not earned yet.”
“Could you remind me how much do you owe?”
Sonya winced. “Fifty…thousand.”
Liisa raised her eyebrows. “Really? That much?”
“Well, I got off to a rough start at the beginning, so I had to borrow a lot from the company to tide me over until I started making placements.” Sonya felt a knot of stress tighten in her stomach. She wasn’t sure that anyone else in the firm had quite so much debt to pay back. Karen had once told her, in a hushed voice while they were out at lunch one day, about Aditya Patel — the one guy who’d left, quit, walked out, before paying off his draw. A month later, the one-and-only Tomasso Martinelli had sent the man’s head to the office in the mail. He claimed he’d been hired for it by an old ex-girlfriend of Aditya’s. The girls in the basement knew better.
“I see. Might I recommend arriving earlier in the morning so that you have more time to accomplish your to-do list?” Liisa tented her fingers. Sonya felt a sudden rush of anger and forced herself to clamp it down.
“I get in around six in the morning and leave around seven or eight at night…”
“Well, we can’t have it all,” said Liisa dismissively. “There might be some extra time in your evening schedule if you’re willing to put in the work. Anything else you’d like to discuss?”
Sonya stood up. “I think that’s about it.”
“Thank you for your time,” said Liisa, turning her chair away from Sonya and lifting a stack of paperwork. Sonya marched out the door, one hand balled into a fist. If I didn’t think you’d have someone hunt me down like Aditya, I’d quit here and now.
“Sonya. I was wondering when you’d call me again.” His voice was a deep roll. A killer’s voice.
“How are you?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“Tell me the truth, Smoke.” She had her own killer’s voice, even if she wasn’t a killer herself.
Smoke paused, then sighed. “My hands are covered in blood, there’s a dead man in front of me gasping his life out, and I wonder what he’d do with his life if I hadn’t killed him.”
“Want me to call back later?” She wasn’t sure what else to say.
“No, I’m glad you called. Need a voice of reason here.” He took a deep breath. “How are you, Sonya?”
“How are you really?” His voice was businesslike again.
“Urgh.” She sighed too. “Not good. But I have an assignment for you.”
“Well, anything for you, Sonya. And I guess for the money, but mostly for you.”
“I meant the other type of assignment.”
He paused, then gave a surprised chuckle. “I’ll look forward to it!”
“See you soon.” She hung up.
That evening, she ran through meeting after meeting until 6 p.m. Then she spent two hours hitting up potential recruits, contract killers who hadn’t been introduced to the M&C fold yet. Cold-calling murderers and trying to offer them job interviews was always a mixed bag of luck and crap, but tonight it was all crap. Madman after madman yelled at her over the telephone, most of their complaints along the lines of “how the fuck did you get my number” and “I won’t kill for you, but I will kill you, bitch!” In between calls, she muttered atheistic prayers of gratitude that the office’s location was still a secret. At about 8:30, she finally chucked her goggles and gloves, threw on her coat and headed out, too tired to even turn off the lights behind her. Clacking down the street, in the dark, in the lamplight, in the downpour, she looked over her shoulder again and again. Just make it home. Tonight, of all nights, all she needed to do was make it home, and she’d be safe.
Reaching her apartment building, she forced herself to walk slowly up the stairs to her unit, hoping it would make her less tense. It didn’t. Standing in front of her door, she took a few deep breaths while fumbling with her keys. Finally finding the right one, she gave herself a silent pep talk, unlocked the door and pushed it open.
And even though she’d known what she would see, she stopped in the doorway and stared.
“Well, hello there.” Smoke got up from where he sat on her bed, seeming almost too tall and broad to fit in the room. He’d washed the blood off his hands, but his dark beard and dreadlocks were still soaked from the rain.
“I hope this is what you meant, Sonya.”
Still staring, she slammed and dead-bolted the door, then threw off her coat and kissed him.
She’d first met Smoke in the Space as a brand-new M&C candidate, signing him into a contract to carry out some business assassination or other. At the beginning, it had been hard enough to admit that she wanted him. She’d only been a few months into her job, and didn’t want to put herself in danger of losing it. After all, dating candidates was forbidden. Of course the firm couldn’t afford the chaos that would ensue if its recruiters snuck into romances with their contract killers, turning favors and giving away secrets that could put the rest of the company at risk. Forbidden. Double-underlined, might-get-fired, might-get-knifed-and-stuffed-in-a-bag forbidden.
But she’d also been in the business long enough to know that Smoke’s work would someday take his life. It happened to all of them eventually: these people got butchered on the job or strangled in their sleep; packed up in a big suitcase and dumped in the sewer canal. One day he’d disappear. She’d have wished she’d meant something to him, and known it, before he died.
So she’d asked him out at the end of a business meeting in the Space, gambling that no managers would bother listening to the meeting’s audio recording afterwards. He’d stared at her for a second before saying yes, surprised but smiling, and gave her a time and place. That night was the first time she ever saw him in person: waiting for her, his hair soaked in the rain, rain running down his face like tears, tears above a smile.
Since then, they’d seen each other in basements, on rooftops, in alleys, at 4 a.m. or 1 a.m. or 12 noon on her lunch break, with perhaps five minutes’ notice every time. She knew the worst of his past, but not his food allergies or his morning routine. He knew all about the fear that dogged her steps to and from work, but had never heard her talk in her sleep. And every time she left him, she remembered that she might not see him again.
“How’d it go?” she said, looking up at him now.
Smoke laughed bitterly. “Guy begged for his life. I wanted to let him go. I didn’t.” He closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against hers. “Why do we do this, Sonya?”
“Because we’ll both wind up dead in a gutter if we try to get out of the business.”
“Right. Because we have to live under other people’s thumbs to stay alive.” He took a deep breath. “Sorry I’m a mess tonight. How was your day?”
She laughed too. “Not as bad as yours.”
“Tell me at least one thing.”
She shrugged. “Had a performance review. Might be getting fired.”
“Fired, as in just fired, or…?”
“Just fired, I’m sure,” she lied.
He analyzed her face for a second, seeing the lie. “What a pair we make.”
Six years ago, in his late teens, Smoke had walked down a dark street, sold his soul, and gotten into the killing business to pay for his sister’s leukemia treatment. He’d told Sonya the story the second time they met, in the corner of a smoky underground bar, spilling his guts just when she’d started thinking he’d be a hard nut to crack. He hadn’t even had a drink yet.
He’d tried to raise the money over six months and ten different kills, but it was already too late. His sister died anyway. After that, Smoke found himself with no normal job, no surviving family, and enough medical bills to sink a ship. All he had were his newfound skills and his anger.
So he chose to dedicate himself to his trade full-time. With feeling. The guilt caught up with him, but not before he’d gotten himself strapped into a contract for some nasty figure down the drain. He’d tried to leave several times before realizing that if he did, it would be in a bodybag. Hundreds of kills later, he received an awkward cold-call from a newly-hired recruiter at a staffing firm, on the hunt for a few new job candidates. That was Sonya.
An hour later, her earpiece rang on the floor. It was the first time she’d taken it out in a week, other than to sleep or shower. She let out a long breath, leaning forward and burying her face in Smoke’s chest, wishing he could stay. He put a hand in her hair, pulling the blankets up over both of them. The device gave one more buzz, indicating a voicemail.
“Want me to check that for you?” he offered.
He put it in his ear and played the voicemail. His eyes widened. “You’re Josephine Charpentier’s recruiter? Shit. J-Sharp. Razor Wire Woman. Did you know she’s never had a failed kill? I had no idea she worked with you guys too.” He frowned as he kept listening. “Also, she apparently thinks she can schedule a meeting with you at 6 a.m. tomorrow.” He took the earpiece out of his ear. “Lady should quit busting your chops and show Sonya Aronova some respect.”
“Busting my what?”
“I mean, she should quit bugging you. …Are you sure you’ve never heard that term?”
“Absolutely never.” Sonya realized she was laughing, despite herself, despite Josephine.
“I guess my grandfather used it all the time, before he died. Maybe it’s from the old world… Point stands. She should show you some damn respect.”
The next morning at six, Sonya muttered a quiet prayer to the nonexistent gods before putting her goggles on. She felt nauseous as she logged into the Space and walked out into the unending hallway. When the bulb above the day’s first meeting-room door lit up, with her name suddenly embossed on the plaque, she said another prayer in her mind before entering. This time, the prayer was a ferocious one.
Josephine stood facing the wall. “Good morning, Miss Aronova.” Her tone was polite. Sonya relaxed a little.
“Good morning.” She sat down in the imaginary chair.
“Thank you for your time, Sonya. I appreciate you meeting me on such short notice.”
“Not at all. What brings you here today?”
The woman turned around. The polite tone had been a lie; she had a hard look in her eyes that made Sonya’s skin crawl. “Well, of course I’m here to inquire about the results of my interview.” She smiled, too wide.
Sonya nodded, her mind going haywire. “The interview with Acosta Solutions.”
“Yes, that one. From more than a week ago. Perhaps you could provide some insight as to the cause of such a long delay.”
Sonya’s voice felt like a squeal for help, as she made up excuse after excuse. “They just have a lot of stakeholders that the decision has to go through, Josephine. A board of directors. The whole C-suite. They never make hires quickly. Also, I made a big salary proposal, because I’m fighting for the highest one possible for you, so that has to go through a ton of people too. They’re the one assassination firm that has a real HR department, you know.” She was talking too fast, and she knew it. Josephine chuckled.
“What a shame it’s taken so long.”
Sonya shrugged, trying to look casual. “Gotta hire the right people.”
“And so you must. But, unless I’m severely mistaken, you yourself led me to believe that I was the exact right person ever since introducing me to their CEO at that cocktail party. You told me that it would be a very quick process.”
“I’ve done everything I possibly can to make this go faster.” She forced herself to look Josephine in the eyes. Josephine smiled cruelly.
“Of course. Of course, Miss Aronova. So why do I hear from my friend Tomasso that they’re interviewing other candidates, himself included, at breakneck pace, through none other than yourself?
Sonya’s stomach jolted. Damn you, Tomasso Martinelli. Your big mouth might have just gotten me murdered. Of course everyone talked to each other. She knew that. But she must have been too desperate to fill her candidate quota to consider that Tomasso would spill the beans. No, she realized; she’d just assumed he’d covet the job enough to keep it a secret from everyone else on the scene. Or maybe she’d just thought, naïvely, that people in this business would have enough honor not to talk to each other about this sort of thing. Should have made him sign a nondisclosure, at least, although even that might not have been enough. One thing was for sure: she’d made a mistake, and if things went exactly wrong, she just might die for it tonight.
“Thought so.” Josephine’s wide smile grew wider and flatter. “I turned down two job offers from your competitors, because you told me that we had a deal.”
“Even an inexperienced recruiter like yourself can understand just what a loss two contracts means for someone who makes their livelihood of this. On second thought… no, I don’t think you can understand that.”
Sonya started spouting with fake cardboard confidence. “We’ll absolutely give you priority treatment. Move you to the top of the list.”
“That’s nowhere near good enough, but…” she shrugged. “Okay. I’ll take it.” Josephine stood and marched towards the door.
Sonya stayed sitting, not looking at her. “Josephine.”
Jo stopped with her back to Sonya. “Yes, Miss Aronova.”
“I fought for you. You have no idea what I went through to get you to this point in the interview process.”
Josephine shrugged. “Didn’t do much good, did it? Not sure how long you’ve been in this business, but I am not impressed.” Then she left.
It was nine hours later. Sonya was only bringing a report upstairs. Somehow, despite her misery, she’d managed to meet her quota, finding five new interviewees for the Acosta job. She’d made a comparison report on all of them, ready to deliver to that bastard HR manager. The thing was a ten-page work of art composed of elegantly summarized interview notes, pristine graphs of vetting rubrics, perfectly edited punctuation and grammar, a nice little letterhead on top. It looked damn good.
Coming up the back stairs, into the faux marble hallway, she didn’t even notice Josephine sitting in the lobby until she cleared her throat.
“Hello there, Sonya.”
The woman looked like a nightmare. Her cheekbones stood out hard, and the whites of her eyes were gray and bloodshot as if she’d been up all night. There were dark circles under her eyes. Frizzy strands of hair stuck up all around her head like a halo, above a bandage-like scarf wrapped around her head. Sonya noticed a dark stain on it, right where the chip was implanted in her temple. Or was it? Had she ripped it out? The look on her face was a wide-eyed parody of a smile, with all teeth bared like a skull.
Sonya stared. The one protection she’d had against this woman — the secrecy of her workplace — was gone now. Somehow. “Josephine? What… what on earth happened to you?”
Josephine grinned even wider. “Nothing Just wanted to drop by and say hi.” She glanced down at Sonya’s scuffed heels, her too-short dress and torn stockings. Her leather folder with MAXWELL AND CHEN STAFFING emblazoned on the front. “Although, I must admit I always imagined you all were a more… professional type of company…”
“What are you doing here, Josephine?”
“As I said. Just saying hello.” Josephine glanced at her watch. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a… work engagement.” She drew a thin coil of wire from her pocket, unwound it, and gave it an experimental tug with gloved hands. Sonya winced. Josephine gave a final smirk and headed out the door without waiting for a response.
Sonya stood there for a while, her mind racing, wondering how Josephine had even found the office. Whether she’d found out where Sonya lived, or had even followed her home this week and looked in her window. Or whether she was circling near the building, waiting to slaughter Sonya as soon as she walked out the door.
“Hey, it’s… me. Listen, I hate to ask friends to do their job for me for free… especially friends I sleep with… that came out wrong. But I do need to ask you for something. I think I’m being stalked. It’s Josephine Charpentier, of all people. I’m scared. I need to ask you to be my bodyguard, at least for tonight. I’ll come up with a plan for the future, and I hate to be the damsel in distress, but I’m not a trained killer. If you could meet me at Café Patrice this evening, whenever it’s convenient for you, and… walk me home, and stay with me tonight and get me to work in the morning, I think I could have a plan worked out by then. Thanks. I really, really appreciate it, though I understand if you can’t do it. See you soon.”
He didn’t respond. She didn’t think he would, until he left her a voicemail with only the words “I’m at Patrice” just as she was extricating herself from her last meeting of the night. The café was only a couple of blocks from M&C’s office, but she sprinted up the stairs and around the corner like a child fleeing a dark basement.
The place was lit up against the night, warm and full of voices. He was sitting at a small, wrought-iron table just outside the front door, and got up to greet her. She couldn’t read his expression. They moved into a dark corner inside the place and talked distractedly about the weather, about last week’s rigged election, about weekend plans, until the conversation degenerated into borderline nonsense. Finally, he stood up and offered her his arm, and the two of them headed to the subway.
Jolting awake at about one or two in the morning, Sonya realized she was in bed alone. Smoke’s wallet was still on her nightstand. The shower was running.
She sat up, feeling cold, although she’d slept in her clothes in case she needed to run. Come on, don’t be clingy. He’s just taking a shower. He sat up late keeping watch for you. But now she stood up and wandered towards the bathroom door, telling herself that it was just because she wanted to join him in the shower. Telling herself that it wasn’t because she was afraid of being alone.
And Josephine was right behind her in the dark and she didn’t notice, until the arm around her waist and the wire looping around her neck and the whispered “Hey, girly.” And then there was the wet sound of a knife through flesh, but not Sonya’s flesh, because of course Smoke had been waiting behind the door rather than in the shower. And Josephine stiffened and let go as Smoke’s knife went into her side, and Smoke pushed her away and grabbed Sonya and pulled her towards the window, and shoved her out but didn’t follow her.
Screaming, she fell two stories, then landed in a heap and rolled, feeling sharp pain in her ankle and wrist and shoulder. A few seconds later, Smoke landed next to her, flat on his back, arms spread like a bird in flight. There was a slash across his throat, with blood gushing from it in rhythmic spurts.
Looking up, she saw Josephine leaning over the windowsill, staring at them. She turned back with a painful-looking lurch, her hand clamped over her side, and headed out of sight. Sonya crawled towards Smoke, lifted his head and shoulders, and wrapped her arms awkwardly around his chest from behind. Cursing as pain lanced through her shoulder and up her leg, she hauled him away.
“Shit. I’m sorry. Forgive me. I should never have asked you to come. I should have gone it alone. Why the fuck did you do it? I wasn’t even paying you for it, although that wouldn’t have helped much anyway. Shit. I’m sorry to leave you here, especially behind a dumpster, but I can’t carry you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I have to run, or she’ll catch me. I’ll be back for you. I will. I promise.”
It was five in the morning. She’d taken turns and detours and alleys to lose Josephine, in case Josephine were following. She’d run almost the whole way and only stopped a few times out of sheer exhaustion, barefoot and limping, her breath coming out in sobs, the rain beating down and soaking her hair and clothes. Smoke’s blood covered her hands and forearms, seeming to drip a thin trail of guilt behind her no matter how many times she tried to wipe it off on her dress.
But she finally reached those concrete stairs, went down them and jammed her rusty key in the lock. The door swung open, with nothing but dark inside.
Keeping the lights off to avoid being seen on a security camera, she felt her way delicately through the office to her cubicle. Reaching it after what seemed like forever, she wiped her hands on her skirt one more time, logged in, pulled her goggles and gloves on and entered the Space.
The fake office was empty and silent, although full of light. The hallway stretched out endlessly in front of her once more with its infinite rows of doors, all of them locked. She stood there and finally wept, the tears filling her goggles and blurring her vision. She pulled them off her face, drained them, and put them back on.
Then, above the doorway directly in front of her, a bulb lit up.
She stared at it for a few seconds, blinking, not believing, although this was what she had come for. The plaque above the lightbulb showed her name, as if to confirm it. Sonya Aronova. Whoever was behind that door was there for her. Taking a deep breath, she walked to the door and opened it.
Smoke turned and smiled as if nothing had happened.
“Can’t forgive yourself for what?”
“I should never have asked you to come.”
“You can’t blame yourself for asking for help when the best killer in town was busting your chops.”
“Is it really you I’m talking to, Smoke?”
“But you’re dead.”
“I’m backed up in here. All of us are. Come on, you knew, or you wouldn’t have called.”
“I called because I was in denial. Like a kid looking under the bed for Mama when Mama’s gone. How are you actually in here?”
“Your boss had us all backed up in case one of us died knowing something important. She could call up our… ghosts… virtual ghosts, I guess… and ask us all she needed to.” Sonya stared at him blankly.
“You know, the chips in our heads. All of us contractors. Part of the deal to belong to the M&C club? Those are what save us. I mean in the tech sense, not in the religious sense.”
She blinked at him.
“Didn’t think your IT department could do that?” He chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe how many of us are hanging out in here. I’ve run into people I didn’t even know were dead. Did some catching up.There are even some folks who aren’t supposed to be in here.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s this kid, even. A little girl. Someone installed a chip in her head, I guess, and she’s running around in here. I have no idea why. Whoever did it has to have been one of us, but…”
“That’s terrible.” She swallowed. “Why didn’t they ever make us recruiters use chips? So I could be saved in here too?” She forced her voice down into a whisper to keep it from rising.
“Well, I suspect Liisa never liked spending much on her recruiters. And your incentives were different. I don’t think she would have wanted any undead whistleblowers floating around in here. Besides, you wouldn’t have wanted to wear one of those things anyway, right?”
“So I can’t live here? With you? Somehow?”
He stared at her for a long time. The joke on his face faded, and his look turned hard and earnest.
“Listen to me, Sonya. I want you to take your earpiece with you when you leave this room. So you can take me with you.”
“Okay,” she whispered. It came out as a gulp.
“You need to get out of the Egg, and out to whatever’s outside. Now. What you and I should have done together months ago. You won’t be safe, but at least there will be fewer people trying to kill you. Probably. You always wanted to go out there anyway, right?”
“You do realize the Space will only work inside the Egg?”
“I can be with you until you get out of town. Besides, once you’re out there, you can do without me talking your ear off, if it’s so you can be safe. Josephine will bleed you dry if she catches you.”
“Even though you stuck a knife in her side?”
“She’s had much worse happen to her on the job, and she’s still never had a failed kill. And it was dark and she was moving, so I’m not sure what I punctured or didn’t. Also, your work won’t protect you. Word will get around that you’d been with me, now that Josephine knows. She’ll tell Liisa or someone. They’d punish you for that, even if you stay. Do you think they’d blink an eye before pulling the trigger on you, if they had even the smallest reason to?”
“NO! If you’re dead outside, at least you live in here.” Sonya realized that a lump was building in her throat, and tried to push it down. “I’m not leaving as long as I can be with you here.”
“Who sold out the office location to Josephine, anyway? My money’s on Liisa. J-Sharp probably threatened her and she cracked.”He folded his arms. “Either you leave town, or you stay and they murder you.”
They stared at each other until she broke eye contact and headed for the door.
“I need to think.”
When she logged out and took off her goggles, it was close to 6 a.m. People would start arriving soon. If she stayed and tackled her work day as usual, no one would need to know anything, at least for a few hours, maybe for the rest of the day if she was lucky. She could try to wash the blood off in the bathroom, explain her disheveled appearance with some vague story about a party last night. It would buy her a little bit of time to get her mind back together, figure out a real plan. That might be worth it.
On the other side of the room, a door opened. She froze instinctively in the dark. Then she heard a clatter, and Karen’s voice gave a loud yelp.
“Stupid fucking chair! Who put that in the way? Sorry, Naoko, did I spill coffee on you?”
She really could stay and work. No one would notice anything.
But they would eventually, she thought, standing up. If Josephine were somehow still alive and hadn’t outed her yet, she would soon. Liisa wouldn’t mind taking an excuse to offload her. There was no way she’d actually pay off all that debt to the company, anyway. It could–probably would–even be today that they’d hire someone to follow her home, snuff her life out quietly. Then they’d be rid of her forever.
Grabbing her earpiece and pocket-box, she felt her way to the door and ran.
She didn’t leave town. That would mean leaving Smoke behind, although he tried to coax her into it.
“I’ll be fine,” he said in her ear, the first time she turned back from the subway that would take her to the Door. “No one can hurt me now.”
“They can make you disappear with an update. They can delete you. And then I’d never see you again.”
“You can’t waste your life over a dead boyfriend. You and I weren’t even official.”
“You died for me.”
“You’ll die if you stay. You don’t belong in this town, anyway.”
“I can’t leave you drifting around the Space alone. I can’t have it on my conscience that you disappeared alone when you finally do. And I’ve got to go back for your body anyway.”
“NO. If Josephine wanted to find you, where would she look? She could just hang around your apartment, knowing you’d be back to pick up my corpse. She’s probably already found it. It’s the best bait. Leave me to rot, Sonya.”
“I’m not leaving you to rot.”
“Call the cops and tip them off about a dead body behind a dumpster, then. That’s what they’re good for, isn’t it? Cleaning up all the blood that trickles down from the jaws of the business we do?”
“Once you’ve done that, will you please get out of town?
She called the police anonymously from an old rotary telephone in the back of a dark, narrow pub that smelled like stale cigarette smoke. As she hung up, her earpiece buzzed. Freezing, she took the device out and stared at it as it rang, rang, and rang, then stopped. She forced herself to breathe slowly, in and out, feeling a nervous tremor run through her arms and legs. The bartender glanced back at her. “Everything okay, miss?” She nodded and turned away.
There was a final, small buzz as the earpiece registered a voicemail. Shaking, she put it back in her ear, and turned it to play.
“Hello, Miss Aronova. It’s Liisa Järvinen. I’m curious why you chose to leave our firm without giving notice, and I just want to make sure everything’s all right. I’d also like to inquire about some Staffing Space equipment items missing from our inventory, which I assume are in your possession if you’re able to hear this message. Finally, I think it’s critical to remind you of the balance of draw debt you owe our firm, which we were under the impression you would pay back. So, Miss Aronova, when you get this, I’d encourage you to call me back within the hour. Otherwise,” she paused meaningfully, “I’m not sure what might become of you.”
“So they’re on to you already,” Smoke said drily when Sonya told him. “Sounds like you must have been more important to that company than you thought, after all.”
Right after that, a second call came in.
“I just can’t,” she told Smoke.
“Would Liisa really call you again?”
“I’d say mystery calls are worth picking up. You can always hang up on whoever it is if you don’t like them.”
Sonya picked up, but didn’t speak. After a couple of seconds, she heard a smooth female voice on the other end.
Sonya stuttered awkwardly. “Hello. Who… who am I speaking with?”
“This is Francisca Acosta. I’m the CEO of Acosta Solutions. You and I met at that cocktail party where you introduced Josephine to me. Do you remember?” The woman’s voice was low and warm, with a casual tone to it. As if she was calling Sonya to invite her to a ladies’ brunch.
“I do remember. What can I do for you, Francisca?”
“You sound very tired.”
“You have no idea.”
“Well, I’m calling with what might be good news to you, or at least interesting,” said Francisca. “We’re looking to hire an in-house recruiter, and I thought of you. I’m calling to see if it’s an opportunity you’d be interested in. Do you want to join my firm?”
Sonya stood, stunned, for several seconds, in her torn shoes and unwashed hair and filthy coat. “That’s not what I expected you to say.”
Francisca chuckled. “Take your time thinking about it, I don’t want to rush you. Although from what I hear, it sounds like you don’t have much time on your hands these days.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Aren’t you on the run?”
“Who told you that?”
Francisca chuckled. “As a matter of fact, it was Liisa. We had a meeting yesterday. She’s a bit… aggravated.”
“I’m just glad you didn’t say something like ‘I have my sources.’”
“Oh, I do use that line a lot, just not with people I respect. Anyway: we’d also provide bodyguard services at no cost to you.”
“That’s a compelling offer,” Sonya admitted.
“Why don’t you think about it? Again, take your time. Why don’t we give you two weeks? If you need more time than that, though, just let me know.”
“Why me? Why roll out the red carpet for me?”
Francisca chuckled again. “Glad you asked. We want you because you, my dear, are a rebel.” She paused. “And because you know things that we would like to know. About who’s been working for whom, and through whom.”
“And it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I’m already caught between a rock and a hard place, and that I’m not likely to say no? Easy source of insider knowledge, that you can use against M&C at will?”
Francisca sounded unfazed. “Let’s say that I thought of you at a time you’d be most likely to be interested in this type of opportunity.”
“Look, this comes with no strings attached–I’m sending you an address of a place you can stay if you need to. It’s a safe place, and I mean safe.”
“See you around, Sonya.” Francisca hung up.
“What do you think?” she said to Smoke, after telling him what had happened.
“What I would have done to work for Acosta… I had a friend who was one of their best. Francisca’s firm was the one place that would actually take measures to keep you safe. Keep your identity hidden. They gave you tons of time off, too. No shortage of money there. They even gave you this dorm type of place where you could stay if you didn’t feel comfortable going home. I assume that’s the place Francisca mentioned. Honestly, of all the jobs you could do, this is probably the safest. Ironically.”
“Josephine could still track me down. And I’m sure Liisa will hold on to her grudge.
“It’s safer than trying to live on the run. And let’s face it, people could track you down anywhere, even if you went out that secret door into whatever’s out there and ran until you dropped. Maybe not M&C, because you’re not a threat to them once you’re out of town, but I don’t think Josephine will leave you alone until you die.”
“And we could be together if I stayed in town,” she said offhandedly.
“Let’s leave that out of it for now, as much as it hurts. Again, you’re more important alive without me than dead with me talking your ear off.”
She could have made it to the lockbox and been safe. The way was clear. But the city, it turned out, had other plans.
And Sonya looked away when the cops showed up, and edged in the other direction when they headed for her, but finally put her hands up when they said to.
“You’re Sonya Aronova?”
“You’re under arrest.”
“What did I do? What’s going on?”
“Don’t be snarky with us, ma’am. We all saw you at the rally.”
“Doing what? I wasn’t even at a rally!”
“Likely story. We have footage.”
“Nice try, smartass.”
A few minutes later, she was in handcuffs. After taking away her bag and clumsily patting her down, completely missing her pocket-box and earpiece, they told her not-so-politely to get in the back of the car. She yelled almost hysterically the whole way to jail, where she found out she’d been beautifully framed for “civil disobedience” and “disorderly conduct” following a rally against legalized assassination.
“This is not okay. DAMMIT, LET ME OUT! FALSE CHARGES!”
“Sonya, I could swear I’ve been in this jail before.”
“What? Did you break out? How, Smoke?”
“I wasn’t here as a guest… No, that’s right, I broke in. You remember that one time they had me get rid of the mob guy before he could testify in court? He was here. I had the place mapped out to the centimeter. Might have offed him in this exact cell.”
“Then you’d know how to get out?!”
“Take a look at the lock on the door.”
“It’s on the outside.”
“Dammit. If I were a real person, I could break into this place and get you out of here in twenty minutes. As is… crap. Are there any vents? Maybe you can pry one open with a…”
“Don’t see any.”
“On the bright side, they’ll probably just let you out in the morning…”
Sometime in the middle of the night, a disheveled and red-nosed young security guard came to rattle the door of the cell block and announce that Sonya had a visitor. She stuffed her pocket-box down the front of her dress before turning to face the man. He escorted her down a hall and out to a barred window with a metal chair in front of it, sat her down and cuffed her wrists to the chair.
She only had to wait a few seconds before her visitor appeared, breezing in through a door on the other side of the bars and settling down in the chair across from Sonya, as casually as if they were meeting for coffee.
“Come to gloat?” She smiled at the visitor. The smile came easily. It probably didn’t look very kind.
Josephine shrugged, lighting a cigarette. “Of course.” The woman was a mess. Her hair was as matted as a bird’s nest; her face was lined and haggard and looked ten years older than before. The deep-looking gash on her temple, where her chip had been, was scabbed over and half healed.
“You framed me for going to the rally. You got me arrested. Guess the police owe you favors for doing their dirty work once in a while, don’t they? Of course. But why’d you do that instead of killing me?”
“So we could do this. Chat. Much easier this way.” Josephine leaned back in her chair, wincing, one hand rubbing her side. The wound Smoke had given her the night he died.
“I see. You’re going to show up and kill me when they let me out in the morning. They won’t try to stop you at all, will they? Also, what the hell happened to your chip?”
Josephine shrugged, letting a puff of smoke trail out of her mouth. “Didn’t want it anymore. Stupid thing.”
“Why are you still chasing me? It was a business deal.”
“I was hoping you’d start with that,” said Josephine. “You probably thought you’d just tossed aside a faulty candidate when you took away my chances of getting that job.”
“I did NOT…”
“SHUT UP!” Josephine suddenly roared, leaning forward, her face contorted. “Let me make my damn speech.”
“Fuck you,” said Sonya calmly.
“Fuck you too. You think all the lost paychecks and contracts were a game? A joke?”
“Not enough to kill Smoke over!” Sonya could hear a snarl in her own voice.
Josephine was standing now, towering. “You,” she said quietly, “killed my daughter.”
“You heard me.”
Sonya gaped at her. “I… didn’t even know you had a daughter! How…”
Josephine sat back down, still leaning forward, her face almost pressed between the bars.“All you knew,” she whispered, “was that you were trying to make a buck, and you were willing to lie to my face to do it. You gave no thought to what that buck meant to me.”
“How did I kill your daughter by trying to give Acosta the candidates they asked for? I had no choice!”
“She had a bone marrow disease!” Josephine yelled. “Oh, I’m sure you haven’t heard of it, her doctor hadn’t even heard of it! One of those genetic problems from who-knows-what, you know? We had no insurance. We didn’t know what to do! Do you think I kill people because I enjoy it? Do you know what it would have meant to have a job that would actually pay for her treatment? She died instead!”
Sonya’s mouth opened and closed. Her mind felt as if it had been jammed. Josephine seemed to finally deflate, leaning back in her seat. “Thought so,” she remarked, letting out a shuddering breath and taking another drag from her cigarette.
“Smoke did nothing to you. Nothing except try to protect me. And you sliced his fucking throat.”
Josephine smiled. “I consider it a fair trade.”
Sonya stared at her silently, too enraged to speak. Josephine shrugged, and if there hadn’t been bars between them, Sonya would have thrown a right hook then and there. Lack of training be damned.
“Let him go,” said Josephine, her tone suddenly level. “He doesn’t exist anymore. Just like my little Alissa.”
“What’s to say that?” Sonya shot back, realizing too late that she had shown her cards.
Josephine stared at her for a moment, looking confused. Then a knowing grin slowly spread across her face, as if she’d finally understood a joke. “Oh, I see how it is! Been talking to the spirits, now, have we? The ghosts made of zeroes and ones?”
“Well, there’s not much left of him now that you killed him, so I make do with what there is!”
Josephine laughed bitterly. There was a strange, wide-eyed look on her face that Sonya couldn’t understand. “What a lucky girl you are. Never had to know what it’s like drive a stupid chip into the head of someone you love, just for that chance that some trace of a soulless copy of them might stick around in an old computing machine somewhere. It was all done for you, wasn’t it?”
“Josephine, you did what? To your…”
Josephine laughed again. “Get over yourself, girl. Have you ever asked Smoke what he does these days when he’s not talking to you in that little earpiece of yours? Nothing. He doesn’t think. He doesn’t exist. As a matter of fact…”
Josephine moved so fast that Sonya didn’t even realize it until the woman had reached through the bars, seized her by the wrists and dragged her forward, chair and all, slamming her face against the bars. The handcuffs dug painfully into Sonya’s wrists, and she yelled. In that split second, Josephine’s expression had changed from laughter to pure hate.
“Now, where would Little Missy be keeping it? Aha!” Josephine snatched Sonya’s earpiece and pocket-box out of the front of her dress, then shoved her back into her chair. Stepping back from the bars, she held the devices up and admired them, the delicate filament dangling from her fingertips.
“WHAT THE FUCK?!” Sonya roared at her through the bars.
“You don’t need this stupid little thing. And it’s my turn to use the telephone. I’ve waited long enough.” Josephine swung the earpiece in circles on its filament, wrapping it around her fingers and sliding it into her pocket with the box. “Sweet dreams, Aronova. I’ll be here to pick you up in the morning.”
Once the night guard had shut her back up in her cell, she lay down on the floor with her face to the wall, stuffed her fist in her mouth and sobbed. Two or three times, she reached for her pocket-box to call Smoke before remembering that it wasn’t there.
Was Smoke even conscious when she wasn’t talking to him? She realized she’d been pushing that question away before, but now it dug into her mind like a drill. If she could never speak to him again, maybe that would be his final death: floating in the Space, his mind inactive, never thinking again. Assuming that the part of him that lived in the Space had even been real in the first place. The thought drew a deep, shuddering sob out of Sonya’s chest, and she bit down on her fist to keep herself quiet. If only to keep one last shred of dignity by refusing to bawl like a child.
Briefly, she wondered whether she truly had been responsible for a little girl’s death. She shoved the thought aside violently, shouting at herself to be reasonable. She hadn’t meant for anyone to die. Perhaps Josephine was even making it up, an excuse for the joy of an arbitrary vendetta.
Tomorrow would be judgement day. Maybe Josephine would waltz right up to the front desk of the jail, or maybe she’d just ambush Sonya on the street as soon as she left. Sonya imagined escape after escape — run like hell? Scream for help? Josephine would have planned for that. Find a weapon and go after her proactively? Likewise. If she were to somehow hold off the most prolific serial killer in the Egg, Sonya decided, no amount of planning ahead would improve her luck. She’d just have to play it by ear. She resolved to make her death a screaming, thrashing one. Give the woman a few scars or bruises to remember her by. The thoughts swirled around and around her in the dark for hours, until she fell into a restless doze from sheer exhaustion.
The loud metal clacking sound of a lock woke her a few hours later. Her cell door opened, and two human shapes stood silhouetted against the light. One cocked its head and covered its mouth.
“Is that her?”
“I hope so, ‘cause if not, we’re screwed.”
“Sonya? Are you in there?”
She pulled herself up groggily. “What?”
“We’re here to break you out! Jailbreak! Yeah!”
“What?!” Sonya squinted in the dark. Karen came forward and hoisted her up by the shoulder. Naoko held the door open and gestured at them frantically.
“No time to lose! Come on!”
After they were clear of the jail, Karen pulled Sonya into a small and ancient-looking automobile parked in a back alley. Naoko climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled out into the road, then floored the gas. She was giggling like a maniac. Karen buckled her seatbelt and looked back at Sonya. “You okay back there? Never thought we’d actually pull that off.”
“How did you guys even get in there?” Sonya asked in a daze.
“Someone… someone helped us. Someone in the Space called me and told us what to do and where to go.”
“We’re… um… not sure,” said Naoko from the driver’s seat. “They were blocking their number and distorting their voice somehow. Whoever it was told Karen that you were in trouble, and that you were in here, and that Josephine Charpentier of all people was planning to… what was it?”
“Bust your chops,” said Karen. “Whatever that means. Said that J-Sharp was planning to… bust your chops, really bad.”
“Oh,” said Sonya.
“Are you okay, Sonya? You’re shaking! Hey. What did you even get yourself into?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Just a really crazy night. Guys…”
“Don’t mention it,” said Karen. “Hey, we brought you food.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a sandwich in a plastic bag, which Sonya thanked her for and started wolfing down. “Do you need to come to our place? To clean up or anything?”
“You guys have done so much,” Sonya mumbled with her mouth full. “I don’t want to endanger you.”
Naoko giggled. “You should have seen Liisa’s face when she found out you’d left her holding the bag of debt. Priceless.”
“I’ll do something for you guys, someday.” Sonya meant it.
“Don’t stress it!” said Karen. “Where should we take you?”
The address Francisca had sent her, for the safe place to stay, didn’t look like a neighborhood in which any of them belonged. Genteel high-rises with floor-to-ceiling windows towered over their car. The sidewalks were clean, giving way to courtyards adorned with fountains and gardens. The address pinpointed the very tallest building, where the ground-floor windows showed a lobby full of plush carpets and leather chairs, with a roaring fire-pit in the center. And while it was four in the morning, Francisca’s note said to “show up any hour.” Sonya was so exhausted that she could have happily fallen asleep in the lobby.
What I’d have given to work at Acosta Solutions, Smoke had said. She believed it now, thinking of safety, of a warm bed to sleep in, a lockbox where she could finally unwind and take off her shoes without worrying about having to run. Without being afraid of Josephine, at least for a bit.
Karen and Naoko hugged her on the sidewalk, squeezing tight, then said their goodbyes and drove off. To go home and maybe get some sleep, show up at M&C the next day as if nothing had happened.
But with her finger on the buzzer, Sonya let her hand fall. Pausing for a second, turning around, she headed down the street instead.
She made her way out of the neighborhood, dove through alley after alley until she found a subway entrance, then jumped on and off trains until she reached her destination. Then she headed up the stairs onto the street, marching, almost running. The darkness was beginning to lift. She walked for another hour, and as the sun finally rose, she found the right place.
Smoke, this one’s for you.
The tunnel was a narrow concrete shaft that might once have looked official. Spiderweb-covered remains of defunct electric lights stuck out of the ceiling, and wet dark mold had spread across the walls and floor. At the end of the tunnel, almost completely hidden in the dark and covered in rust, was the door. The door that led out.
Sonya stopped and stood, her insides squirming, her thoughts turning again to the lockbox. She could turn around and go back down the hall right now, sleep in a warm bed, start a new job tomorrow. Spend however long it would take to find some way — some way — to talk to Smoke again. He was immortal now, made of zeroes and ones. He would never age, never grow tired of her. He’d wait. She could even see if there was a way to download him, keep him in a server under her bed. Keep him safe.
And be a prisoner forever.
After one more second of hesitation, she took another step towards the door instead. Soon she’d be free. This was what freedom felt like, lonely as hell and infinitely uncertain. But at least she’d be free.
Then an arm clamped around her from behind, a large hand crushing her mouth. Someone dragged her into a corner. She thrashed and flailed. Someone slammed her against a grimy wall and stretched a taut strand of razor wire across her throat, pressing the skin hard enough to nick it.
Josephine’s eyes were blank as pebbles in the half-dark. She stood there, still, holding the wire against Sonya’s throat for seconds and seconds as the two of them stared at each other. Sonya felt the wire sting, wondered if she were bleeding.
Then Josephine’s face changed.
“What does that even mean? I don’t understand.”
Sonya noticed vaguely that Josephine was wearing her earpiece, the one she’d seized during the jail visit. She struggled again, hoping to take advantage of the distraction. Josephine crushed her harder against the wall. Her eyes were unfocused. Listening.
“You can’t be serious. You’ve never said that before. No. I’m not doing it.”
After a long, angry pause, she sighed, lowered the wire and shoved Sonya away.
“Only for you. Only for you.”
Sonya stepped gingerly away from her, circling toward the Door. Josephine watched, but made no move to stop her.
“Well, there you have it, Sonya,” Josephine growled. “You would be dead by now, no question. I’d throw your corpse on the subway tracks for good measure. But my Alissa… Alissatells me to stop busting your chops.”