A/N: Thank you very much for everyone's reviews. I may have mentioned this before, but I have been making small adjustments to this story which have fallen a little by the wayside for quite a while now. (Superseded by other projects, I'm afraid.) I hope that people do not mind. I will endeavor to post the rest in good time.
The man watched Daria's body as it writhed and jerked once again upon the hard metal floor, and again he turned the current down to nothing. He could have played this game indefinitely, he supposed. But there was nothing more to be gained from it. That was the trouble with this particular gadget - it was too difficult to extract information from anyone who had long since lost the ability to talk.
He looked for a long time at the place where she lay. Her eyes were closed, body sprawled as though someone had merely dropped a stuffed toy onto the ground. Few signs remained that she was more than just an empty shell - a body without a soul. The first was the ragged heaving of her chest as she noisily, desperately, gulped in air. The second was an occasional involuntary grimace, a twisting of the muscles of her face, groaning against the torment that had coursed along her back.
With a sigh, he slipped the control back into a dark sports bag, and scratched his head. He reluctantly supposed that he would have to go there anyway - to retrieve the remote speakers from various corners around the room. Strange, he had almost come to respect this particular subject. She was a spirited woman, committed, and in a peculiar way, not entirely different from himself. It would be a shame to have to dispose of her.
But if he had to go there anyway… It would take a while to stroll along the corridor without attracting too much attention. How far was it again? Ah, yes… Seven doors along. Well, he could always use the intervening time to work out exactly what to do with the woman.
"They came too close," said one of the men around the table. Their broad-shouldered leader sat at its head, with his much smaller second-in-command glancing around their faces from the seat beside him. But the man who spoke was neither leader, nor second.
Even so, his tone was soft, tight, accusatory. "You promised us an easy operation. You swore that their theft of the Unit would not be a problem, but now you are telling us that the entire project may be in jeopardy. So explain to me, how exactly are we supposed to respond to that?"
"Your response, and your opinion, are of little consequence to me," the big man replied, his own voice deep enough to cut below the surface of every other that rose in consternation against him. "This is a reparation conference, not an inquisition."
"You say that now," was the first speaker's response. "Now, when the responsibility is placed at your feet. But what about Jones, and Timberman, and the others? You're all too eager to hand out blame and punishment when it goes to someone else. I would say, both of you, be as answerable as you assume we ought to be."
"I told you, Vincento, this is not the time." Some of their assembly jumped, startled by a sudden rise in the large man's voice. As if to test their mettle, the leader slapped both hefty palms on the hard surface of the conference table. "You may judge either one of us when this is over," he growled. "But now is not the time. I have called you here to inform you of more recent developments, in the hope that we can work out what our next move is to be."
"What - er - what recent developments?" A slightly nervous speaker asked from the far end of the same table. The fingers of one of his hands plucked the skin of the other as he glanced towards his leader in wary anticipation.
Finally, with this question, there was silence in the meeting room. The small and jittery man who had brought about this silence coughed, anxiously.
"I'm talking about the anti-techs," said the large man, whose face was still concealed in shadow. "And you are correct in one of your rather poorly expressed assertions, Vincento. They did come too close this time. From what I have been told, it was only a degree of ingenuity on the part of the Unit and her comrades that spared them. But what you don't know is that the anti-techs are not our only adversaries."
"The others?" someone gasped.
The leader nodded. "And they are also far too close for comfort."
He told them all about what they'd discovered at the home of the underworld hacker. And then, he paused to allow the implication of his words to settle in their thoughts, to burrow in to their nightmares like a termite into a tree. Once there, it would continue to haunt them - and that was exactly what he needed it to do. "But…" one of them finally said. "If the others should ever find the Unit…"
"Trust me," the big man told them all. "We have to get to her before any of them get close. Otherwise, the project will be as good as over. And I don't believe I need to mention that the others have far worse things planned in store for her than the anti-techs ever did. And meanwhile, she's out there somewhere. She's alone - vulnerable. And I'm sure you all know after the incident at the hospital, she certainly doesn't trust any of us. We'll have to play this one very carefully, gentlemen. I want each of you to come up with a plan of action, and have it on my desk within the hour. That will be all."
They left in silence, but both the larger man and his thin-backed partner could see that many of them would start to grumble the moment they were out of earshot. It wasn't important. Their underlings could grumble as much as they liked, as long as they got the job done. There would be plenty more opportunities for annoyance at a later stage. After all, the very survival of their project depended on their most effective plan.
"I did tell you that free will was a bad idea."
The leader turned around to see his smaller companion still standing behind him. Briefly, he raised his eyebrows, and stepped towards the light-source on the wall. A large screen, whose coldly blue-white illumination never seemed to travel very much more than a foot or so beyond it. He regarded the unceasing light, which seemed to flicker a little.
"Perhaps you did," he conceded. "But do you also remember what my response was at the time?"
His companion nodded. "I believe that I may."
"Good. Then you should know that at this moment, my personal opinion on the matter has not changed. I do not regret the use of 'free will' algorithms at this particular stage, and certainly not with this particular Unit. The only thing that has me worried is that there was no opportunity to be certain that she had the memory base to govern the decisions that she does appear free to make. But you can understand, don't you - to deny the Unit some semblance of freedom would have gutted the entire purpose of our project."
"But in controlled conditions…"
"Conditions, yes. Possibilities, no." Tightness had returned to the big man's response. "I confess to some regret that circumstances did not permit us to limit this project to more controlled surroundings. But… It may be interesting to see how she responds to the chaos of the lower city."
And now, he smiled. The smaller man wondered if he hadn't detected something else in his leader's deep voice. Satisfaction, perhaps. Or pride. It was far more apparent in the larger man's next words. "From what I have heard, our young friend is surviving quite well out there. Losing her may not be a complete disaster."
But then the stern expression returned. "But losing her to those others, or even the anti-techs would. We have to find her first."
"You have forgotten one other element," said his second in command.
There was a pause, and the leader's gaze finally shifted away from the light-screen.
"Ah, yes. Our doctor friend."
"You did not tell them anything."
The big man nodded. "That's true. But I think it would be far more prudent in this case to keep on watching. See what he does next, before we decide to involve any of the others."
The small man could not help but frown. "Are you sure that prudence is really the best course here?"
"One thing you'll learn with time," said his partner, finally looking his way. "Is that it's impossible to be sure of anything. But you can be clever, and the trick is to know which uncertainty is the least uncertain. I think that in this case it is best to attempt a degree of caution."
"The question is," a young man spoke from the crowd, still staring warily at the green eyed doctor. "If I can give you the information you need, what can you give me in return?"
Reaching into his pocket, Tobias pulled out a collection of small copper discs. The first speaker snorted derisively.
"Credits? Is that the best you can do? First of all, what use are credits down here. And second, don't you realise every one of those are individually tagged? We'd be traced the moment we tried to use those things, hunted down and shot."
Ronald Tobias had heard the same rumours many times before - tracing people through the money tokens in their hand, subcranial implants being administered at birth, for the purpose of population control at some later date. These stories had been circulating around the population for almost as long as their floating metropolis had existed. But he had come across few people who actually believed them.
He had certainly never believed any of it himself. Certainly there had been others in this underworld who had been perfectly willing to accept his credits. And he'd always thought that if the movements of the populace were being monitored, then surely there were easier, more subtle ways of carrying out that surveillance. In all his years as a doctor, he'd never seen any evidence of implants in people's skulls - beyond those which had been a medical necessity.
But now, after his encounter with Merle, he found that none of his own beliefs were as certain as they had been just one week earlier. He found no joy in his present position, tracking a fading signal through the lower streets of the city, and was even less happy about his new found uncertainty. But these people had information that he needed, and he wasn't prepared to dismiss them out of hand.
"What do you think would be a reasonable exchange?" he asked them finally.
The speaker glanced around at his companions, all of whom nodded almost imperceptibly. He turned back to their visitor. "Medicine man, right?"
Tobias nodded. "Something like that."
"So… If we were to need certain… substances from you, then you would be able to get them for us?"
"No." On that, he was entirely firm. "I don't think I would."
"No chems, no deal," the young man reminded him. But there was a line, which Ron Tobias was entirely less than willing to cross.
"No deal, then," he told them, and left their hideaway. Whatever they wanted from him, he knew, they would almost certainly procure from somewhere else - but there was no way that he was going to make it easy for them.
Outside of their shelter, the doctor paused and rubbed his hands together, a sudden chill in the air tinging the tips of his fingers with a shade of sour yellow-white. He glanced about him, and sighed, unable to hold back a wave of sudden disappointment. After feeling as if he'd been wandering lost around the lower city for the better part of a day, this was as close as he'd come to a real direction.
Still, he reminded himself. There were deceptive people around him. Part of him believed that he was mad even to try - certainly he knew now that Tia and Marie believed it. As likely as not, they would take whatever they could from him, and then set him on entirely the wrong path. Better that he should keep on searching for something more concrete than the word of a group of drug addicted squatters. Might have even explained where their paranoia was coming from.
"It's not what you think," said a voice.
Doctor Tobias turned around. The girl who spoke was tall and supple. He'd noticed her earlier - in the same small room. It was difficult to miss those dark clumps of hair hanging down like a tangle of thick-woven rope. "What isn't?" he asked her.
"We're not addicts," she replied.
"Is that what you suppose I think?" asked Tobias.
The girl took a step forward. "Isn't it?"
"Fine," he raised his hands. "I confess. But it wouldn't be the first time someone's tried to fool me into supplying them with recreational drugs."
"And you think that just because you're a sky-dweller and we're not - you think everything we say has some kind of dastardly motive behind it."
"Now that's not fair…" protested Tobias. "I'm sure you understand that we all have to be careful sometimes."
"All right," the teenage girl conceded. "But like I said, we're not addicts. We're just like everyone else - trying to get by in this world as best we can. And…" she sighed. "They won't tell you this, and I'll bet anything that those high-and-mighty idiots who run this city won't tell you either. But some of us are sick. We need medicine, that's all. Just medicine."
Tobias frowned. "Then why the round-about talk in there. If there are sick people, I would have tried to find them medicine no matter what."
"Did you trust us?" the girl challenged. When the doctor didn't answer, she nodded as though her suspicions had just been entirely confirmed. "Don't feel bad about it. We don't entirely trust you either. What's your name, Doc?"
"Tobias," he told her, then considered his answer a little better. "Ron."
Finally, the girl in front of him smiled. He'd been starting to wonder if she was capable of anything but a distrustful frown. "Aisling Brown," she told him. "I promise I won't lead you astray. If you can help us, I can certainly help you."
Tim paused and leant against the lower railing of the nearest tower, rubbing his eyes with the back of one arm. With some concern, Kate noticed how deeply her brother was sighing, and how badly he was sweating even though no day had ever been hot on the colony ship. If anything, the air around them was a little too chilled, and this was enough to make her cold and alert.
"Perhaps we should slow down a little," she suggested.
Even in the state he was in, Tim still managed to glare. But he gripped the wall as he slid down it, and leaned back for a moment. Both arms were wrapped around his shoulders as if to lessen the discomfort of too much exertion.
"Where are we going anyway?" asked Kate, as her brother took the time he needed to compose himself.
Tim turned to look at Merle. "Did you say you were found near the centre of the city?"
"Intersection Six Three Two," she confirmed. "Are we close?"
Tim nodded, swallowing hard.
"But it's also completely off limits," Kate reminded him, wondering if her younger brother wasn't also a little delirious in spite of his apparent recovery. But all she saw was determination in his eyes.
"It's a place to start," he insisted. "We would have had to go there anyway if the archives didn't have anything, and you knew that."
"The first thing they'll do to us there is round us up and lock us away. You know what happens to people who don't belong in those places…?"
"If you're really that scared…"
"It's not that and you know it," snapped Kate. "I have to look out for you as well, don't I?"
Tim's eyes flashed momentarily with something very much like anger. "How about, just once, you let me look out for myself?" He coughed, but shrugged away his sister's offer of a supporting hand. His next words were soft and bitter. "Quit trying to mother me. I'm tired of being the stupid little brother."
"All right," said Kate. But she found that instead of looking into his eyes, she studied the sides of her fingernails, where the skin was gradually peeling away. On far too many occasions it had started to bleed from her constant anxious fidgeting. "Fine. If you want to go to the gardens, we'll go to the gardens." She sighed. "It'sa good idea, Tim. It's just… I did promise…"
"…That you would take care of me, I know. But I'm not that little kid any more. You don't have to worry so much." Gritting his teeth, he hauled himself to his feet, and looked past his sister. Kate turned to see that Merle was watching their exchange.
"Come on," Tim told them both. "There has to be something there for us. You'd be surprised at how good my sister is at finding things."