In the future, everyone who doesn't agree to a mandatory implant is an enemy of the state.
New Orleans, 2218
The guerillas said the floating blue orbs came down from gunships hovering out of sight above low clouds. The Quarter rats didn’t believe a word of that. They whispered that those orbs were the spirits of Voodoo kings and queens gone by, returned to put the dying city out of its long misery.
It was cold the night the crackling blue orbs came down, cold enough to freeze the dirty puddles in Jackson Square. The wind howled over the Elysian Fields seawall and brought in frigid air from the ice fields over the sunken 9th Ward. The streets were silent save for a soft crackle of electricity from the orbs; they were deserted except for the lone, bundled-up figure of a man ambling up Chartres Street in the French Quarter. No face was visible. A dirty white slouch hat was pulled low over his goggled eyes and fogs of exhaled breath emanated from a thick black scarf covering his mouth.
Redshank Lirette knew the meaning of the orbs. He was intimately familiar with the routers that heralded the Wireheads' approach. It would not be long now before their transport descended, and Jackson Square looked to be a likely landing zone.
A long time ago, Jackson Square had been the tourist nexus of this troubled city. The iconic outline of St. Louis Cathedral, the stately gardens of the Plaza d'Arms, and the bustle of bacchanalian Quartericans were enduring symbols of a culture that was once beloved by Redshank's ancestors, a people who called themselves Americans. Now, the cathedral was a husk, the Square was a rusting ruin, and the neighbors were more likely to kill you over a scrap of shark meat than buy you a beer. As a rule, Redshank did not dwell on the past. It was ancient history. Contemplation of the dust was a luxury his kind could not afford.
Redshank skipped around the black ice on the cobblestones and entered the black-gated plaza to work his deadly magic. At the center of the Square a toppled equestrian statue greeted him, shattered into many parts. There were bits of metal horse here and there, and off to the side, he saw the rider’s upper torso. He was tipping his hat, and wore an expression which may have been resolve, but now looked like the constipated countenance of a man who was long in dying. This is a good spot, Redshank thought, and stuffed the hollow iron rider with twenty pounds of putty explosives.
When the charges were set, Redshank Lirette walked backwards toward St. Ann Street, letting the firing line leading to the explosives unspool from his detonator, an old-fashioned miner’s blasting machine. He ducked into the ruins of a restaurant and climbed to the second story, taping down the line as he went. Then he waited.
An hour passed, then two, and in that time Redshank only moved once in a while to bring a flask of whiskey to his chapped lips. His eyes were continually fixed on the overcast night sky. Moonlight was still trickling through the clouds. When the light was obscured, he would know that the transport was coming.
Sleep beckoned but he fought it off. Where were they? What was the delay? With less than an hour left before daybreak, Redshank began to think something had gone wrong. Perhaps he had been discovered. But in that case, why didn’t they simply destroy him with an airstrike?
He was about to head down and defuse the bomb when the moonlight finally winked out. Redshank’s whole body tensed. He curled his hand over the blasting machine's plunger. Reaching low with his other hand, he popped the push button lock of his holster, freeing the old Glock 72 hanging at his waist.
A windowless, matte black monolith ruptured the clouds. No sound heralded its approach, as its engines ran totally silent. It fell with deliberate steadiness and lighted on Decatur Street with a resounding crash, crushing one side of the wrought iron fence that encircled the Square.
Redshank Lirette swore. They had landed too far away to be destroyed by his hidden explosives. At best, he would singe their hull.
The exit hatch of the transport fell open with a whoosh of pressurized air, and the orbs that floated along Chartres Street brightened and crackled more loudly. Redshank had a quick decision to make. If he abandoned the mission and fled on foot, he risked leading the enemy back to the other rebels. He had no doubt the Wireheads would quickly find his explosives. He had been careful not to leave any of his DNA on the firing line or the blasting machine, but even so, Wireheads had methods of tracking that put a seasoned guerilla like Redshank to shame. And if he followed through with the plan, he might take out some Wireheads – but a whole transport full of others would be waiting just beyond the fireball’s reach. It meant almost certain death.
He turned the options over in his mind as the first of the Wireheads emerged from the hatch and tromped down an unfolding gangplank. They were soldiers, armored and helmeted all in blue. The Black Sun, sigil of the Fourth Realm, was emblazoned upon their chestplates. These men were the vanguard, securing the area.
Rifles up, tactical flashlights on, the soldiers swept across the Square. Redshank’s heart pounded in his chest. He watched one of them stop at the statue. The blue helmet dipped in consideration. A blue boot kicked at some rubble, sending it scattering. The Wirehead stared right at Redshank’s firing line – then looked past it, and shone his flashlight at what remained of St. Louis Cathedral next door.
Redshank’s head swam alarmingly, and he realized he had not breathed in more than thirty seconds. He took a gulp of air. The Wirehead had missed it! Their implants perfected the senses; they could magnify their vision at will; but underneath the programming, they were still human, and all too capable of error. Not for the first time, Redshank wondered if a powerful ancestor spirit had taken a keen interest in him.
His resolve hardened. His grip on the plunger tightened. In the end, he knew, he had no choice but to light the bastards up. The Wireheads could not be allowed to find the others. His own life meant nothing – the Cause meant everything.
More helmeted soldiers, two or three dozen, poured from the transport. Most wore blue armor. Others sported yellow and green, denoting officers of higher rank. Once disembarked, they set up a perimeter around the transport and stood at rapt attention.
The troops were followed by a group of civilians richly adorned in colorful robes, the heads of both sexes shaved clean as was the Wirehead custom. The civvies turned on their heels and knelt in supplication as a final figure disembarked – it was a shriveled old man, and the sight of him filled Redshank with sublime terror.
Supreme Admiral Crois was rumored to be over two hundred years old. Even from a distance, Redshank could see that most of his anatomy had been replaced by cybernetics. Both legs and one arm were fully mechanical, and a flat respiratory mask was installed over what had once been his nose. A series of tubes extended from key organs and arteries toward a sleek medical capsule floating behind him that removed waste and injected vital liquids.
Hope surged in Redshank, banishing his fear. The Commander of the Seventh Fleet was here, mere feet from a payload of rebel explosives.
Crois moved forward with surprising agility, heading for the cathedral. The assembled troops fell in step around him.
The column of troops turned to move around the wrecked statue. Redshank put the slightest pressure on the plunger, anticipating the moment. Five more seconds, and Crois would be close enough to vaporize utterly. He began to count down.
Five. Four. It was easily twenty below, but Redshank felt hot, almost feverish, and sweat poured off him.
Three. Two. The Supreme Admiral was passing the bomb now. One more step, and he would be directly over it.
“Fuck all y’all!” Redshank Lirette cried, and depressed the plunger. Nothing happened.
Panic, red and blinding, took hold as every Wirehead in the Square looked up at Redshank’s hiding place in unison, their ocular arrays whirring to regard him.
A moment later, the urgent voices of the officers filled the predawn air, barking orders, and Supreme Admiral Crois was whisked away by his guards.
Redshank pushed the plunger down again and again. “Come on come on come on!”
Rifle fire strafed the restaurant, shattering the windows around him. A bullet bit Redshank's shoulder, propelling him back, away from the blasting machine.
He screamed, a deep animal sound, and pulled himself over broken glass back toward the detonator, lead whizzing inches above him. He could hear the soldiers’ boot heels pounding the staircase. He could not be taken alive, of course. That was inconceivable. “One more time,” he said. One more try before I kill myself. Maybe the ancestors were with him still, and Crois had not made it back to the ship quite yet.
With a heave, he grabbed the plunger and pumped it up and down with one fluid motion. The inner workings of the blasting machine, frozen nearly solid in the hours of waiting, had finally been warmed by the friction of the pumping.
The explosion was awesome and immediate. Mechanized screams died in burning throats. Flames licked Redshank’s face, and the building shook. Ancient plates fell off the restaurant walls and shattered. The wrought iron galleries were blazing, and looked like an artful network of red hot pokers.
The first few blue Wirehead soldiers appeared in the stairwell of the second story. Redshank Lirette's right hand moved in a blur. The Glock cleared leather, and fired thrice from the bloody, glass-strewn floor. The reports of each shot could not be discerned – it seemed more like a continuous roar of sound to all within earshot. The range was too close for the Wireheads’ armor to protect them. Three of the soldiers stumbled back, the faceplates of their helmets ruined; and as they fell lifeless, blood sprayed in geysers from the smoking holes in their digitally enhanced brains.
Even before the blues had clattered to the floor, an officer in yellow was behind them, firing a machine pistol from the hip. Redshank shot him in the belly. The officer grunted and pitched forward, so Redshank shot him again through the top of his helmet.
He heard a loud, fiery hiss behind him, and in turning spotted a score of green soldiers with jetpacks landing on the still-flaming gallery. He fired wildly – if he killed any, he never knew. Two bullets tore through his chest, and his own arterial blood spat up to soak his coat and spatter on his face.
The pain nearly paralyzed him, but he needed to act fast. They could revive him, turn him into a Wirehead, but only if his brain was intact. He was surrounded, and it was the end.
The soldiers in front were past the stairwell and running toward him now, firing mercilessly. Redshank Lirette was shot seven more times in the second it took for him to put the pistol into his mouth.
His last thought was of his friends. I love you all.
He squeezed the trigger. There was a flash then everything stopped.
Supreme Admiral Crois regained consciousness in slow, sluggish steps. His neural interface revealed his surroundings sense by sense, first presenting him with a pixelated view of a room he recognized as the executive medical bay of his flagship, the Intelligence. Touch and taste came next, in rapid succession. He felt heavy, cumbersome, pained by cramps. His throat was dry and his tongue felt like sandpaper. Then smell returned, a cloying metallic aroma and a body odor he did not recognize stinging his nostrils.
My … nostrils? he thought.
The first thing he heard was a voice. “Welcome back, my lord Admiral.”
Dr. Scilda Teeme, the chief medical officer of the Intelligence, was sitting at his bedside. She smiled when their eyes met.
“What has happened?” Crois asked in a voice that was not his own. Had they drugged him? His utterance sounded deep, slow, vaguely accented.
“Try not to speak, my lord,” Dr. Teeme said, the lenses of her ocular arrays adjusting in size. “Allow me to explain. There was an explosion. Your medical capsule was destroyed, and unfortunately you did not survive. We were, however, able to recover your implant and install it into a new host.”
The Supreme Admiral looked down at his new body. It was taller, stronger and far younger than his old one. “You have done well, Dr. Teeme,” he said.
Teeme beamed. “Thank you, my lord, but I cannot take all the credit. An unprecedented procedure like this is always a team effort. Dr. Suskeas, in particular, was an invaluable help to me.”
Crois lifted his medical gown and admired his nakedness. His penis was thick and uncircumcised, a welcome change from the half-robotic, permanently flaccid acorn he had contended with since the mid-21st century. He had an urge to take Dr. Teeme right then and there, but decided against it. A Supreme Admiral could do better.
His tanned hands drifted to several small laser-stitched wounds dotting his chest, stomach, and thighs. “Whose body is this, doctor?”
“I regret to say,” Dr. Teeme said, “that we were forced to work quickly and only with resources that were readily available downside. An implant as old as yours cannot function long without a host, I’m afraid.”
“Answer the question,” Crois said.
“It is the terrorist from New Orleans, my lord. The one who detonated the bomb." A bead of sweat trickled down her bald head.
“I trust you ensured the terrorist was racially pure before transferring the implant?” Crois asked.
Dr. Teeme hesitated before speaking. “In our genetic analysis, we detected African DNA in the amount of eleven point nine seven perce–“
With a thought, Crois deactivated Teeme’s implant. Her eyes darkened. She slumped, swayed, and then crumpled to the medical bay floor.
As he watched her die, Crois considered his emotions. He felt no sentiment toward his old body, though it was far purer than the mongrel one he now inhabited. Despite this, he could not help experiencing a profound sense of loss. His implant had preserved his memories and saved his consciousness – or had it? Perhaps it merely copied him. Was he artificial? A proxy Supreme Admiral Crois?
He stood, grabbed at the wall to steady himself, and made his way to the nearest window. The Intelligence was in orbit over the decaying Earth. Mentally accessing the implants of the ship’s pilots, he saw that they were bound for Huangdi Luna, the imperious lunar base in the Sea of Tranquility. The Leader himself had requested Crois’s presence. The Leader would not take kindly to the impure host, but the Supreme Admiral did not dare deceive him. His own life meant nothing – the Directive of the Leader meant everything.
The world of the story continues in "The Revenge of Redshank Lirette"