Jetsam

Summary: Jetsam is an artificial atoll in disputed waters, a sprawling slum of shell companies and cybercrime. When a corporate whistleblower flees there, a small army of cyborg assassins close in on her. Can she survive her former employer's revenge?

Anya saw the first assassin coming from a mile away. He carried a diamond chainsaw over the shoulder of his exoskeleton, the sort used by the shipbreakers and salvagers along the shore. Behind him was a parade of enforcers, the thugs that worked as syndicate muscle. She saw them fill the narrow street, his large cyborg body blocking out the neon signs like a walking eclipse. Even the virtual reality junkies lying in the street vanished into alleyways, least they be crushed beneath his massive, mechanical feet.

Anya was no stranger to such industrial equipment. In her prior life, she'd been a civil engineer on automated railways, designing transit lines through the mountains of Central Asia. She caught her boss cutting corners on her designs and embezzling money, for which she went to her manager. She'd been fired as a result, and the smear stories against her blamed her for the crimes she tried to expose. Having predicted this, she'd booked a private flight to Jetsam, where the unwanted went to disappear.

Anya was more intrigued than intimidated by the cyborged swordsman outside the front door. She stuck out here, and all the regulars looked at her with the blank stares of bystanders. The posse outside reassured her in a peculiar way, that she still mattered enough to kill. She'd considered this plan, but she wanted to finish her drink first. The cognitive stimulants activated, and she unveiled her own surprise.

On Jetsam, most of the population was augmented, due to the ubiquitous toxins leeched out of e-waste, beached ships, and the shoreline where every Pacific nation dumped their trash. The desperate refugees of Southeast Asia and Oceania, fleeing their sinking homes, were the human chattel driving Jetsam's illicit salvage and recycling. The tech-savvy among them looked through old devices for personal information, financial data, interesting secrets, or blackmail material. The best of them got neural augments, while the others became ship-breakers or ripped the rare earths from discarded electronics. Former police and military became the enforcers for the other side of the law. A dozen shell companies were founded to launder the money from such endeavors, and the bosses formed a syndicate that kept Jetsam somewhat orderly. Assassins like the one marching towards her meant someone big, and someone local, wanted her dead.

Fortunately for Anya, she was familiar with the flaws of that particular exoskeleton. It drank power like the bar patron beside her knocked down booze. Her optical implants identified the model of servos in the would-be swordsman's legs, and she retrieved an appropriate bit of malware for it. The system's outdated drivers immediately accepted her worm, disguised as an automated patch. A second later, the armor's torso swung around 180 degrees, resulting in a wet, crunching sound that proceeded the screaming. She never had the stomach to look back.

Anya left through the back of the bar, and into the cramped labyrinth of alleyways behind. Instead of running like mad, she walked briskly, as though any other person going about their business in the shantytown would. The syndicate's assassins were everywhere, and anything that caused her to stand out would draw unwanted attention. The next one, she realized, would not be so careless.

Fortunately, the back-alley doctor Anya found was willing to help her with the next phase of her plan. She'd spent the last of her cash and her accounts were locked, so her IOU was the only form of credit she could offer. In a day, she would either be wealthy or dead, so the doctor had little to lose either way. All she needed was a vagrant. She pointed on a drooling, half-insane skeletal man on the doctor's monitor. He sent an encrypted message to his brutish cyborg orderly, and the abducted vagrant was brought into the lab.

That night, Anya walked into a secured hotel on the edge of Jetsam's slums. The black tower was surrounded by a web of cables, as though the nearby slums were Lilliputian tormentors trying to bring it down. As a distinct landmark in Jetsam, it was 3D printed with concrete onto a steel foundation retrieved from a ship hull. Anya walked in, and she made the same half-hearted attempts to conceal herself, but she used cash borrowed from other places. The syndicate's surveillance systems identified her, and the assassins converged on the room she rented.

Anya noted that the enforcers and assassins carried a motley blend of weapons, not just conventional guns. Some wore industrial exoskeletons and diamond-toothed chainsaws, only these had better cybersecurity. Some carried stun prods, scaled up to short-out even full-body cyborgs. Some carried industrial lasers upgraded to artillery pieces. Some had abandoned flesh for steel, encasing themselves in walking tanks. Some were never human to begin with, such as an artificial intelligence in a cloned body, or a hive-minded pack of cyborg dogs. Others even carried superheated swords and hand-cannon pistols, eager to disassemble a frail fugitive like her. Some did not bother to arrive in person, instead sending swarms of poison insectile drones or flying buzz-saws to infiltrate through the windows. They raced for her once they knew her location.

Once most of them entered the building, Anya released her trap. The thermite she'd placed near the foundations activated, followed by the explosives inserted by hacked demolition drones. The explosives were less powerful than what she traditionally worked with, but the unstable nature of the foundation made them sufficient for her task. Above, the building collapsed down, killing everyone inside. Citizens and slum-dwellers ran for cover, as the dust cloud settled on the heart of the atoll. Anya, undoubtedly, had died.

Of the assassins that sought to claim the bounty, only one survived to. It was a drone jockey named Mirage, who lost most of his swarm in the building's collapse. With his new earnings, however, he would replace and improve upon them. His employers never met him in person before, so they were surprised to see a man known only as a cyborg virtual reality junkie claim the prize. They chalked it up to obfuscating stupidity, a fa├žade they knew only too well. Anya was dead, and that was what mattered.

Anya's brain had found a new home in the cyborg junkie, thanks to the cyber-doc's black magic. She used a telepresence and pre-programmed cyberbrain in her old body, using that to draw out her pursuers. It was not merely the over-ambitious assassins she sought, though, but the ones smart enough to keep their distance. The drone jockeys had signals she could track, a skill she'd learned with survey drones on the job. She merely tracked one back to its origin point, and she "replaced" him while he was distracted watching the tower fall. Her new body was not ideal, but she was still alive.

Anya reflected on the price of her own survival. The vagrant had been her first victim, the first that could not truly fight back. His original brain was still technically alive, being repurposed as a non-player character for an online game in the doctor's lab. He was at least in better shape than the hundreds who'd died in the hotel collapse. Guilt, or something like it, paralyzed Anya for a seeming eternity.

Taking another look around changed her mind. Anya was dead. She was Mirage now. She was a killer and a schemer, and a damn effective one at that. She looked around Jetsam, and she realized she'd started her career in the wrong line of work. She thanked her former employer for setting up the contractor. So, Mirage made more money as an assassin, than Anya the honest engineer ever did. Such was the nature of Jetsam.