Friday, December 5, 2008


By D.A. Madigan

Grand Central Station was a terrific body slam of people – packed to the rafters with every conceivable configuration of shoving, shouting, shrieking humanity, a motley mob of sprawling, brawling, and occasionally, crawling human beings, each individual member of which snarled, barked, howled, or hurled vile imprecations as to everyone else around them’s parentage, appearance, personability, and/or personal hygiene, as he or she prodded, pummeled and punched their individual paths through the madding, jam-packed horde towards whichever platform their designated transport was departing from or arriving at.

“Sniffer” Carnegie, once one of the finest investigative reporters the Big Apple had ever seen, scanned the flocks shuffling surlily across the floor below him with a cynical sneer pasted to his ratlike visage.

“Say,” he said, elbowing the near-Titan standing next to him on the observation deck, “know who that jamoke is, ape?” Carnegie then defied all conventional decorum by pointing directly into the heart of the seething mob.

Carnegie’s enormous companion bent a stony glare downwards. “Sniffer” seemed to be indicating the male half of a couple moving adroitly through the milling masses below. The fellow himself was nondescript; slim build, short hair, probably no more than average height although it wasn’t easy to tell from so far above him. Well dressed in a swell suit. It was tough to pay any attention to the joker, what with the glamour job he had wrapped around his arm – flaming red curly hair running like hot lava down past shapely shoulders bared by some kind of filmy fashion that was no doubt illegal in any state starting with a vowel; a body that might have been put together by fallen angels bent on man’s corruption, and a face that could have launched every ship in the U.S. navy with a wink and a smile. Who would ever notice the nebbish riding drag, when you had all those curves to ride your weary eyes around on?

“Sniffer” could. It was what the boss paid him for, the same thing the editors at four different papers had ponied up top dollar for when he’d still been on the beat – Sniffer’s uncanny ability to notice things that would ease on by the average greasy eyeball.

“That’s Leslie Ambrose Lawless,” the former reporter opined, blinking rapidly. “M.D., Ph.D. in about eighteen different rackets, including astrophysics.” He paused for effect, then went on dramatically -- “Doc Nebula, as ever was!”

Sniffer was proud of the Doc Nebula tag, for he himself had invented it. When Lawless had first burst on the global scene a couple years back, every paper in town had tried to hang a sensationalistic nickname on him, mostly consisting of tired, desperate attempts to work some twist on the joker’s odd last name – Outlaw, Lawman, The Law… none of it would fly. Then that gasbag Kent over at the Planet had tried calling the doc “Speed” Lawless, after he won the first international mag-lev Grand Prix by a handy three minutes, breaking every land-bound velocity record in human history. That monicker might have took, except that the day before the race, Lawless had also published an article in Science magazine detailing his theory that there were ‘dark nebulas’ that made up the seemingly empty space surrounding the more visible galaxies. Sniffer had seen that and the phrase “Doc Nebula” had fairly leapt into his mind. He’d called Lawless “Doc Nebula” in his own write up of the race, and damn if every other reporter in the world hadn’t glommed onto it instantly. So “Doc Nebula” the dude became, like it or don’t… and Kent at the Planet could go suck eggs.

The giant next to Sniffer, whose name was not ‘Ape’ but who rather rejoiced in the sobriquet of “Molehill”, because somebody else in their mob was already called “Mountain”, scratched his shelf-like brow in what passed with him for thought. “No kiddin’,” he said. “You think he’d give me an awtergraph?”

Sniffer snorted. “What I think, ape,” he sneered, “is that this is the stuff the boss pays me to report on.” The former newshound flipped open his q-phone and hit the buttons. A split second later, the line was picked up and someone grunted a one syllable acknowledgement.

“Carnegie here,” Sniffer barked into the phone. “Thought somebody might wanna know… Doc Nebula just showed up at Grand Central.”

There was a pause while Sniffer listened. “Yeah,” he said, “he’s got some dame with him… redhead, solar hot. They’re heading over to the mag-lev platforms… yeah, I wouldn’t expect the Doc to ride iron like the riffraff, neither… I dunno. Platform 12, looks like. Awright.”

Sniffer folded his phone and put it away. “Boss says stay here and keep observin’,” he noted. “He’ll find out for hisself what mag-train the Doc is gettin’ on.”

Sniffer’s companion whistled. “That dame was some dish,” he allowed. “I’d do a tail job on her any time.”

“Yeah, you giant monkey,” Sniffer sneered. “An’ she might not pick you out of the crowd, neither, if we assume Nebula found her on a street corner sellin’ apples and pencils so’s she could feed her seein’ eye dog.”

Below, on Platform 12, the ‘solar hot dame’ accompanying the object of Sniffer’s attention whispered in Doc Nebula’s ear, “Do you know that dreadful little man who just reported on you, Cain?”

She was the only being in existence who would ever call Doc Nebula ‘Cain’ because she was the only one privy to his real name… or what his real name had once been, anyway. And she was also the only entity in the world whose words could never be overheard, because she did not speak to Nebula aloud, but rather, by directly stimulating the sensory centers of his brain with a few precisely directed microvolts of electricity.

“Yes, Jasmine, I know him,” the man mostly known these days as Doc Nebula replied, silently subvocalizing the words, understanding that his companion could ‘hear’ them just as easily as he ‘heard’ her. “Of him, anyway. He used to be the best investigative reporter in New York City, maybe on the whole Eastern seaboard. He’s gotten himself mixed up with some bad mobs, though. Funny thing… he’s the one who first came up with the ‘Doc Nebula’ tag for me, back after I had you whip up the Lawless identity and we made the big push to get my new mug and name plastered all over every TV set on the planet.”

“The deception was necessary, Cain,” the ‘woman’ said compassionately. “When The Eight Legs of the Spider went after your family…”

“I know,” Nebula responded silently. “I know it had to be done, and I’m grateful you were up to it… purging my real name and history from every data file in the world, and creating somebody new for me to be out of whole cloth. But…” He shrugged. “I miss ‘em, sometimes… I wish I’d thought things through better before I gave you your first commands.”

The ‘woman’ shrugged prettily. “I myself could not anticipate there would be another cybernetic organism as formidable as myself existent in 2012, Cain,” she said, “and I am a 43rd level self aware Jacostic Algorithmic Simulations and Modeling Inductive Network . If I myself could not deduce such a thing, how would you have been able to guess?”

It was Nebula’s turn to shrug. “Dunno, Jazz,” he said. “But if I’m half the genius the news channels keep calling me, I should have at least figured it for a possibility.”

“Perhaps,” his companion said. “Have you ‘figured a possibility’ for who Mr. Carnegie was speaking to?”

“Some middleweight,” Doc said, rubbing his jaw, “Sniffer ain’t big enough to stooge for anyone too far up the ladder. Offhand I’d say it’s probably a heel named Jaegermeister… Henry Jaegermeister. Owns most of the meatpacking businesses between here and Chicago, but that’s just the laundry where he washes all the cash he rakes in from drugs, prostitution, protection, the nastier forms of porn, fixing elections, and murder for hire.”

“The one they call the Butcher,” Jasmine said, after a microsecond searching her own extensive databanks. “He’s among many whose personal fortunes were protected from redistribution by Retrograde… obviously, a minion of TELOTS.”

“That’s who I’d figure Sniffer to be working for now,” Doc agreed. “He’s on my list, but I hadn’t worked my way down to him as yet. There’s quite a few in the Eight Legs I was giving more priority to.”

“I think he may be… what is the expression? Cutting ahead in line,” Jasmine said dryly. “I wish I could confirm that it was he Mr. Carnegie was speaking to…”

“Yeah,” Doc said. “Kind of foxed myself with these Q-phones, didn’t I? I thought the idea of completely private personal communications that nobody, especially the Feds, could tap into was a good one, but…” He made a rueful moue. “Buy yourself a Q-phone and you can dial any number, any where, talk all you want, no additional charges at all… and if your party is also using a Q-phone, nobody can eavesdrop on the quantum link connection, either. I guess just about everyone has one now…”

“As with all the technological innovations you have introduced, Cain,” the ‘woman’ said warmly, “your intention was to maximize individual freedom and privacy. You yourself have noted to me frequently that nothing is all good or all bad, but always some mixture… ‘you never get something without giving up something’, I think is how you usually put it.”

“Yep,” Doc subvocalized. “You get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get. Always.”

“And don’t forget,” Jasmine went on, “your marketing of the Q-phones has released everyone in the world from the constant financial drain of a monthly phone bill.”

“I know,” Doc said, absently. “I didn’t mind putting those pirates out of business one little bit.”

“And q-phone sales provide you with more capital to invest in HELP INC.,” Jasmine added. “All around, I’d say they were very well worth it… even if you cannot now eavesdrop on a criminal’s conversation, except by using my own sensors to actually overhear what he himself says out loud on his end.”

“Yes,” Doc affirmed. “All right. Well, they spotted us, sweetheart, even if it’s not quite as big a fish as I was hoping to hook. So far, so good. Now let’s move on to Phase 2.”

“As you wish,” the female voice in Doc’s head agreed. “Your stratagem seems to have gone as planned so far. Do you anticipate difficulty?”

“Babe,” Doc sighed, “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and contact with the enemy is what we just had. So, yes, I anticipate difficulty… hell, these days I could sleep in and I’d still ‘anticipate difficulty’. But going on the presumption that Sniffer just reported my whereabouts to Jaegermeister… or somebody else in TELOTS… here’s what we should be doing now…”

In a high priced penthouse 80 stories above Manhattan Island, Henry “the Butcher” Jaegermeister drummed fingers the size of sausages on his solid teak desk. “Nebula,” he snarled. “That punk.” The Butcher shifted his massive bulk, fat rippling like a tidal wave of garden slugs beneath the shiny facade of his expensively tailored silk suit.

Across the Butcher’s vast office, the greatest set of scale model electric toy trains in the known universe sprawled like a mysterious lost city of clickety-clacking plastic and moving metal. Even as the Butcher declaimed to himself behind his desk, no less than seventeen separate toy engines rolled through the enormously complex scale model labyrinth, a bewildering series of computer controlled switches making certain they never collided.

If there was anything the Butcher loved more than food, more than money, more than power, it was his trains. He deliberately kept his office dark and gloomy, so he could run the trains with their lights on, and so he could see the thousands of tiny, scale model signals along the tracks blinking to each other in idiot’s semaphore.

The Butcher looked like a prime candidate for one of his own slaughterhouses, although to be fair, he would have been a pretty fatty meal. 400 corpulent pounds on the hoof, he could get up out of his motorized chair if he had to – but he’d built his whole day to day existence around avoiding such a necessity at all costs. The Butcher thought of himself with great satisfaction as being like Mahomet’s mountain… he didn’t go anywhere, everything came to him.

Regardless of his penalty weight, though, The Butcher’s brain was as agile as a squirrel in a tree. You don’t build up an illicit fortune of 100 million bucks and an association with the Eight Legs of the Spider by making stupid plays, after all.

So Doc Nebula was heading for Montreal – setting a good example for the riffraff by eschewing expensive private vehicles for mass transport, too. The rabble wouldn’t know, of course, that Nebula himself had invented the new mag-lev technology and owned a controlling interest in all the new mass transit companies that made use of it. The Butcher wouldn’t have known that, either, before he’d accepted the invitation to join up with TELOTS. But The Spider knew pretty much everything worth knowing in the world. Do gooders like Nebula could run, but they couldn’t hide…

The Butcher had only a vague notion as to the actual details, but he was aware that Montreal – McGill University, specifically – held one of The Spider’s biggest operations – a secret subterranean lab where the top secret global brainwashing program known only as MONROEVILLE was headquartered. The Butcher had only the sketchiest idea of what went on in MONROEVILLE, but he knew it was the kinda thing that a do gooder like Nebula would do anything to smash.

Still, chances were, Nebula’s trip was pure coincidence… but the Eight Legs of the Spider hated Nebula anyway; whoever brought in his head was eligible for a billion bucks, at least, in reward money. A billion bucks added up to a lot of power, and would give him a lot more influence in TELOTS.

The Butcher licked his grubby, wormlike lips at the thought.

The hugely fat crime boss picked up his q-phone again and dialed a number he had committed to memory. He had no operatives of his own actually on the train Nebula had boarded, but he’d be willing to bet that wouldn’t be a problem for people higher up the TELOTS food chain… The Spider’s web reached everywhere, the Butcher had learned.

And just in case that failed, he’d put a back up plan of his own in place, too…

The 11:15 to Montreal left from Gate 12 exactly on the tick. Magnetic trains move in low orbital arcs, jumping up from their point of departure, curving with a deceptive seeming laziness through the upper ionosphere, then gently realigning on the positive poles at their receiving station. Their velocities are only subsonic at the very beginning and very end of their journeys, although the all but frictionless electromagnetic aura surrounding them in flight prevents disruptive sonic booms. Their cabins are necessarily pressurized; to have a hole blown in one while in mid journey is entirely disastrous.

At 11:22, as the train to Montreal neared apogee, catastrophe struck. An on-scene observer might well have noted a cobalt blue finger of light drawn for a fraction of a second between a central car in the train and an invisible spot much higher in the sky than the conveyance itself, striking from outside Earth’s atmosphere. What happened next would best be explained by a theoretical computer model showing what would occur if a mag lev train were to suddenly have its magnetic polarity reversed in mid passage – it would literally tear itself into tiny pieces within seconds.

Rendered into particles too small to be much affected by gravity, the expanding cloud of metal debris that had formerly been the 11:15 to Montreal dispersed chaotically through the upper atmosphere.

With great satisfaction, the Butcher regarded the distant smear of light marking the destruction of Doc Nebula high above Manhattan. It was the greatest disaster to hit a paying passenger service since the Titanic went down, and within five minutes every news channel would be covering it and every man, woman and child on the planet would be glued to a tube watching it. Stock in the new mag lev companies would plummet, an additional blow to anyone who might want to carry on for the now dead Nebula… and best of all, disasters made people hungry. The Butcher expected a spike in profits across the boards, from pork rinds to chicken nuggets… a little gravy, on top of the billion buck reward he could expect from The Spider.

A little gravy that would buy him a whole lot of HO scale model train track. And a few new engines, too.

While a world of losers, dopes and natural born suckers mourned the loss of their hero, Doc Nebula, the winners that ruled that world would rejoice that at long last, the biggest wild card ever dealt was finally off the table.

Sniffer tapped Molehill on the elbow, which was about as high up on the walking mass of muscles as he could easily reach. “Down there,” he said. “In the crowd. It’s Nebula.”

Molehill scowled. “He didn’t get onna train?”

Sniffer explained as he would to a child. “He got on the train, you big dope, along with that fine piece of female footsie he had with ‘im, and you, like everybody else, didn’t pay attention to anything but her. But Nebula’s smart, see? He made the ol’ switcheroo. Turned his jacket inside out, changed sunglasses, and left the dame on the train. But he can’t fool me. The frail’s on her way to Montreal, sure, but that’s Nebula, right down there.”

Sniffer was no genius, but he had a pretty good idea that ‘the frail’ was never going to make it to Montreal; like everybody else on that train, she was about to become collateral damage in a big hit aimed Nebula’s way… which was too bad in her case, but hey, them’s the breaks.

Even someone as low on the pecking order as Sniffer had heard of the billion dollar reward on Nebula’s head. His boss had ordered him and the ape to make sure Nebula got on board the train and report back on whether he did or didn’t… but where was the angle in that? Sniffer and Molehill could take out Nebula on their own, and a billion bucks would… hell, with a billion bucks, Sniffer could hire the Butcher to be his personal towel boy.

“Try to blend in, you gorilla,” Sniffer sneered, moving to follow Nebula through the crowd. Sniffer fingered the illegal rail-gun he had stowed in a side pocket. All plastic parts except for the half-inch slugs, which would show up on any scan as simple, harmless staples. Still, it could fire a clip of fifty such ‘staples’ at barely subsonic speeds in less than three seconds, and was lethally accurate at any range out to 15 feet or so… and after fifteen feet, well, wave it around like a firehose and you had good odds of getting lucky, since all one of these babies had to do was wing ya to do an instant kill from sheer body shock.

“He’s goin’ inta the men’s room,” Sniffer said, a second or so later. “Okay, ape. Get your gat out. We ain’t doin’ nothing fancy here; we go in and spray everything sittin’, standin’ or layin’ down. DNA will confirm the kill if we come out with even a good sized piece of him.”

“I bet I could take him in a fair fight,” Molehill groused. Nonetheless, he unholstered his own much more old fashioned Glock 9 as he said it.

Doc Nebula hated violence, and especially hated guns, and avoided such whenever possible. But it wasn’t always possible.

Sniffer put a hand out to push the mens’ room door open. As he did, he heard a muted thump, a grunt, and a much heavier thud from behind him. Had the ape tripped over his own feet? It wouldn’t be the first time – Sniffer glanced back over his shoulder, preparing an acidic comment.

“Whazzup, Sniffer?” Doc said, smiling pleasantly as he stood above Molehill’s unconscious body. “The bigger they come, etcetera, etcetera… do you want to come along quietly, or do I have to demonstrate my mighty kung fu powers on you, too?”

Sniffer wasn’t the most courageous guy in the world, but a billion bucks will make nearly any man brave… if he’s got a gat in his hand, anyway. “Kung fu this, Lawless!” Sniffer rapped out, wrenching his body all the way around and bringing the rail-gun up to fire.

Abruptly, the gorgeous redhead Sniffer had been certain was on her way to certain destruction aboard the 11:15 was standing between Sniffer and Lawless. “Please, Mr. Carnegie,” she said, “don’t shoot!”

Sniffer boggled – and Doc leapt through the redhead, kicking the rail gun out of Sniffer’s astonished hand, then turning on his other heel to drive a hard elbow into Sniffer’s solar plexus.

“Awp,” Sniffer gasped, collapsing into a near lotus position on the ground as his lungs emptied themselves of air.

“I doubt he can tell you much of anything helpful,” Jasmine said.

“Nope,” Doc replied cheerfully. “But I bet his q-phone can.” He bent to rifle Sniffer’s pockets. “And don’t forget to call the cops about this illegal side arm,” he advised. “Remind me to unload it before they get here, too.”

“Whoever he works for will just get him sprung on some technicality,” Jasmine opined as Doc continued going through Sniffer’s pockets.

“Whoever he works for will hopefully be in no position to do any such thing,” Doc said, standing again with Sniffer’s Q-phone in his hand. “You can see the numbers he’s dialed, right?” When Jasmine confirmed that she could, Doc went on, “And while I know no one can listen in on a Q-link, you can at least trace where one went to…?”

Jasmine cogitated on that for a long millisecond… then confirmed that she could, indeed, do exactly that.

“Good,” Doc said. “I figured you must be able to. Let’s see exactly where Sniffer’s calls have been going to…”

The Butcher was starting to have a bad feeling about the whole thing.

Sniffer wasn’t answering his q-phone.

The Butcher was sure Nebula must have been aboard the mag-lev train. Why wouldn’t he be? But the very nature of the explosion made it almost impossible to confirm Nebula’s death. Even high flying NSA probes were having a hard time getting enough biological remains together to run DNA on. In fact, so far they hadn’t found any organic remains at all. It worried him. He wished Sniffer would answer his phone.

“Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,” the crime boss heard, emanating cheerfully from the shadows all around the white circle of light cast by his desk’s reading lamp. “Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler… eh? Eh?”

“What the hell?” The Butcher was a much more erudite man than he appeared to be; he recognized the lines from Sandberg’s immortal poem, although he’d never connected them to himself, as he was a Brooklyn boy, born and bred. “Who’s out there?” Even as he asked it of the darkness, the Butcher had a tight feeling in this throat and gut that he knew exactly who was out there. But… how?

Doc Nebula stepped into the light, smiling pleasantly as he glanced around the Butcher’s vast array of model trains. “It’s good to be the king, hm? Or should I say, chief conductor?”

The Butcher’s face darkened. “Don’t you laugh at my trains,” he said, shaking a warning finger at Nebula. With his other hand, he was excavating in his central desk drawer. He had a gat in here somewhere… but how had Nebula managed to get past all his men?

Nebula rolled his eyes. “Jaegermeister, you used an orbital particle cannon on one of MY trains.” He spread empty hands. “You seriously think I shouldn’t even laugh at yours?”

The Butcher hauled a very old fashioned .357 Magnum out of his desk drawer. “I seriously think,” he growled, leveling it across his desk at Nebula with both pudgy hands, “that unless you can digest lead, I’m about to be a billion bucks richer.” He squinted. “But how’d you get by my guards? I got like thirty of them all over this floor. You can’t turn invisible, can you?”

Nebula shrugged. Actually, with Jasmine’s light projection capacities, he could turn effectively invisible in certain environments, although unusually observant people might see a slight blurring where light bent around him… no point advertising that, though. “I hacked your security software and activated the knock out gas grid,” Nebula said, cheerfully. “You know, you wouldn’t need something like that if you could actually trust the people on your own payroll.”

The Butcher said something unprintable. “You and that goddam supercomputer of yours,” he said. “Tell you what. You tell me where it is and gimme the access codes, and maybe I’ll let you live.”

Nebula grinned. He doubted very much the Butcher would believe him if he told the exact truth – that his supercomputer looked very much like a plastic credit card, mirrored on both sides, almost completely indestructible to anything 21st Century technology could bring to bear… and it was currently, as she nearly always was, riding in his shirt pocket, just over his heart. “Nah. I have a better idea, Jaegermeister. You blew up my train from orbit, now I get to blow up yours.”

Although it was still half an hour to noon in the outside world, the Butcher did indeed like to keep his office gloomy… but now, it had perceptibly begun to brighten, even with the lights dimmed and the heavy shades drawn.

“What are you…?” the Butcher squinted towards the heavily screened window wall behind his desk, trying to keep one wary eye on Nebula as he did so.

“Don’t worry,” Nebula said reassuringly, remaining perfectly still. “This building isn’t a moving target, so the satellite’s optics can take their time focusing. We’ve got maybe five minutes before the light beam actually lazes. After that…”

“You’re bluffing,” the Butcher said, a note of doubt worming into his voice. “After you hijacked all that money the first time, the Spider started protecting all their assets with Retrogade. You can’t possibly have hacked a military satellite.”

“Not just any military satellite,” Doc said firmly. “The very same one that blew up my train. I thought it was only fair.” He interlaced his fingers in front of him and then flexed them over his stomach in an exaggerated display of patience. “Retrograde isn’t really such a much, Butcher. The Spider is totally paranoid about unauthorized intrusions into their personal finances these days, and so they prioritize Retrograde’s protection to their own private bank accounts. The coverage in other places gets a little thin. And to be fair, I think the Spider is currently under the impression that I’m a leetle bit dead, so I don’t think they’re taking all the precautions they could.”

The room had continued to brighten as Doc Nebula spoke. The Butcher’s face was wreathed in sweat now. “I don’t believe it,” the meat magnate finally said. “You’ll die with me, Nebula.”

Yeah, Doc Nebula thought, and Jasmine might die, too, which is much, much worse. She’d argued vociferously against Doc making a personal appearance in the Butcher’s office, but in the end, she’d had to agree it was the only way to accomplish what needed to be done. At which point, she’d insisted Doc take her with him… when his plan had been to drop her off before coming over here.

As long as the tiny interface that actually contained Jasmine’s 23rd century central processing unit and memory molecule chains remained intact, Jasmine herself could continue to function at optimal efficiency, tapping into any surrounding electronic network via her own internal q-link apparatus. If that CPU and attendant memory molecules were vaporized, though, Jasmine would be just as dead as her biologically living partner.

Neither Jasmine nor Doc could be sure that being hit by an orbital laser cannon would destroy her… but she was far from certain she’d survive it, either. “Goddam stubborn bitch,” Doc subvocalized with affectionate irritation to his partner.

“I love you too,” Jasmine responded primly. “Now sell him the deal, would you, please?”

“Yep,” Doc said out loud. “This is your big chance, Jaegermeister. If you’re all noble and self sacrificing, just sit there. We’ll die together, and The Spider… well, I’m sure they’re all honorable; they’ll give that reward to your next of kin, I guess.”

“Shut it off,” the Butcher said, his voice gone suddenly weak. “I… look. I’ll turn myself in to the Feds. I’ll go State’s evidence against The Spider. Honest injun…”

“Don’t teach your grampa to steal sheep,” Doc said impatiently. “There isn’t a court in the world that would convict any member of The Spider right now, Butcher, and you know it as well as I do. I’m hoping to get that situation cleaned up in another ten or twenty or thirty years, but for right now, that’s just how it is. But… if you really want to shut down the laser before we both fry… you can do it. It’s easy.”

The Butcher’s fat face, greasy now with muck sweat, squirmed with an uneasy mixture of hope and suspicion. “How?”

Doc grinned. “Just type your password in to your personal computer and transfer all the funds in your personal private accounts into another account I’ll provide you the number for,” he said. “Retrograde isn’t going to keep a member of TELOTS from doing a bank transfer, right?”

The Butcher went gray – or maybe it was the way the air in the office kept getting brighter. “You’re gonna take it all? Everything? Not leave me a thing?”

“I’m going to leave you with your life, which is more than you would have left to the passengers on board the 11:15 if I hadn’t had them all transferred to a later train,” Doc said implacably. “Come on. You got maybe 90 seconds left and then it’s all moot.”

The air was perceptibly warmer now. The office’s central AC had kicked into high gear and you could hear the circuits laboring mightily under the strain. The Butcher grimaced – pointed the gun in his hand – then threw it down with a curse and started frantically typing at his desktop keyboard.

Retrograde’s security systems were thorough – through the keyboard itself, the TELOTS supercomputer confirmed the Butcher’s fingerprints, did a DNA scan on his ample perspiration, and after a standard password was put in, Retrograde used the built in web cam for a retinal scan. But it all took less than ten seconds. Jasmine q-linked the number of the target account over, and seconds later, the funds transfer was complete. The Butcher was a pauper… and the intense light filling the office had already begun to wane.

“What am I supposed to do now?” the Butcher asked dully, staring around at the ruins of his life. “I got nothin’… the end of this billing cycle, the repo guys are gonna take everything.” Like every other elite member of the global ruling cabal, the Butcher kept very little in actual hard wealth on hand; every asset he had was leveraged to the utmost to magnify his economic position. But the funds transfer that he had just made was real enough; while most of the currency moved had been ‘virtual’ with nothing backing it up in the real world, nonetheless, the Butcher’s accounts were now empty, his credit rating maxed out, his financial status zero. When the bills started to come due – which they would, within days – everything he ‘owned’ would go up on the auction block.

Doc had seen it before; it was, in fact, his preferred method for dealing justice to those who were otherwise entirely above any human law. Doc had as little bloodlust in him as any human being possibly could, but he got a great deal of satisfaction from seeing men of vast ill gotten gains, who had trampled all over others on their way to a privileged position in the monetary stratosphere, reduced to the same poverty they had condemned so many others to with their rapacious financial tactics.

This was what Doc had done that had earned him the original enmity of the world’s global elite. Upon first obtaining Jasmine’s services, he had launched a cybernetic attack on the world’s financial markets, hacking in to every account in the world and draining many of them of all funds. He had not done it blindly; the standards he and Jasmine had agreed upon before launching the attack were such that only those who had inherited great wealth without ever working for it, and who had done nothing worthwhile with the money since, or those who had amassed great wealth through predatory financial tactics, would be targeted by Jasmine’s ‘redistribution programs’.

Doc had envisioned a world where a non-productive or actively predatory ruling class no longer existed; where everyone everywhere would have access to the wealth that they themselves had justly earned through their own ethical efforts… and no more than that. He and Jasmine had been shocked to discover that the private wealth of much of the globe was protected by a sentient cybernetic system on the same level of sophistication as Jasmine herself… and that the people who ran that system had taken Doc’s attempt to ‘hijack’ the contents of their personal, secret bank accounts as a declaration of war.

And war it had been, ever since… a war Doc and Jasmine could only hope to very slowly, very carefully wage, as their opponents were powerful nearly to the point of omnipotence. But it was a war that tonight, Doc Nebula had won one more victory in.

“What am I supposed to do now?” the Butcher repeated, staring at his heavy hands.

Doc reached into a coat pocket and then flipped a white rectangle of pasteboard onto the Butcher’s desk. Printed on it was a toll free number that was already becoming famous around the world. “Give them a call,” Doc said. “They’ll fix you up with an honest job, see you have a roof over your head and 3 square meals a day while you get your feet under you.” Doc paused, and went on, more gently, “They can get you into a good exercise and diet program too, if you want. You become a HELP INC client, you get access to top notch health care.”

The Butcher picked up the card. “HELP INC,” he read off. He looked up at Doc Nebula wonderingly. “This is you? I heard of these guys… I thought they were some kinda white slavery racket some of the big boys was running.” He scratched one side of his head with a ham sized hand. “I mean, I heard they give out jobs, help people buy houses, even offer a cash stake… I couldn’t see no sense to it unless it was tied to some kinda unbreakable labor contract or something.”

“That’s how you would see it,” Doc said. “After the big crash in ’09 there are a lotta people out there who would sign up for anything if it meant a cot and a mug of soup… but this isn’t a racket. I set it up to help people, for real. That cash stake you’re talking about… what HELP INC does is, they sit down and calculate all the taxes anyone has ever paid… income, sales, Social Security, gasoline, whatever. They subtract the actual value of the real services these people have gotten back in return… usually, not much. The rest is what gets provided… not a loan, but an actual refund of monies extorted by force for which no value was ever received.”

The Butcher looked horrified. “That’s crazy!” he said. “You can’t just refund people’s taxes like that! Who do you think you are, the government or somethin’?”

“We’re all the government, Butcher,” Doc said, patiently. “Of the people, by the people, for the people, remember?”

“But don’t get your hopes up on that score,” Doc went on. “Guys on your end tend not to qualify for the cash stake… you cheat on your taxes your whole life through the rigged system, so you don’t get much back. But, still… they’ll find you a job to do and give you a place to stay while you get set up again. As long as you play fair, you’ll do okay.”

The Butcher looked miserable… but Doc felt little sympathy. It was no more than he deserved, and no worse than millions had it… millions who had been condemned to lifelong poverty, by rackets the Butcher, and his fellow economic predators, had been running since mankind left the caves.

“I don’t get it,” the Butcher said, finally. “What do you get out of this? I mean, there’s gotta be some angle for you… right?”

Doc shook his head. People like Jaegermeister, whose whole life had been spent in pursuit of one dishonest buck after another, couldn’t understand true altruism. Doc could tell the Butcher that all his life, he’d just wanted to make the world a better place, and that’s all he was trying to do… but the Butcher would never understand it. Well, not yet. Maybe after a few years of honest work…

Doc stepped back into the darkness. As he did, Jasmine used her light projection abilities to draw even deeper shadows around him like a cloak. He left the disconsolate former crime boss to ponder his own future. Hopefully, without the corruptions of his former power available, and faced with the necessity of starting again from scratch, he would make the right choices… but if he made the wrong ones, well, Doc could always pay him another visit.

“You got a good look at Retrograde’s security procedures, right?” Doc subvocalized to Jasmine as his stealth-shielded mag-lev hoverboat lifted from the Butcher’s penthouse roof.

“I recorded everything,” Jasmine said. “There’s a very tricky algorithm built into the central password sequence, and the DNA scan will be very hard to outsmart… but I have a few ideas. Let me think about them for a little while.”

“Good,” Doc assented. That was the real prize they’d set out to get… they’d wanted to get right next to an actual associate of The Spider and watch while that associate got into his or her own private bank account, past Retrograde’s advanced shields. Security procedures would vary from one financial platform to another, of course, but standard cyber-protections were no concern; what Doc and Jasmine needed insight into was Retrograde’s specific protective tactics. And that was what they’d gotten, tonight… that, and they’d cleared another one of The Spider’s pawns off the board.

It would be a long war, but tonight, Doc had renewed hope for its outcome.

* * * *

Behind them, in the gloomy penthouse office, the Butcher had wheeled himself over to one wall and opened a hidden panel there. He didn’t keep much cash on hand, but what he had would have to do. He tapped his fingers in a particular sequence on a particular section of the paneling and then, when a well hidden access hatch slid open, placed his thumb against a scanner plate on the heavy metal door thus revealed

The Butcher was hauling the last of several small chamois bags full of Krugerrands onto his lap when he heard a light footstep behind him. He swore. Nebula had doubled back on him, just to make sure he was cleaned out…

He wheeled his motorized chair around, to see a woman he didn’t know leaning a hip against one corner of his desk. Short black hair, good looking face, black, loose clothing… smoke curling up from a cigarette in an old fashioned, very long cigarette holder held nonchalantly between two black gloved fingers. A looker, if a little mannish for his taste…

“Nice desk,” the black clad woman purred, her voice smoky in the gloom. “Nice trains, too.”

“Who the hell…” The Butcher was annoyed, but not afraid. Like many men of his age and former economic stature, he was almost genetically incapable of feeling fear for any woman. This one wasn’t even armed. One good slap would put her in her place…

“Blackjack,” the woman said, her voice a sibilant sigh.

The Butcher felt incredulous. He’d heard the name Blackjack; a top notch bounty hunter who worked almost exclusively for the Eight Legs of the Spider, but still nominally an independent operator. He would never in his life have figured such a person could be a dame.

“What do you want?” the Butcher demanded. Hope dawned. Maybe the big shots were using her as a courier. Maybe she’d brought his billion dollar reward…

“I don’t know if you heard,” Blackjack said, smiling cruelly. “There’s a standing five hundred thousand dollar bounty on anyone who betrays The Spider.”

The Butcher’s face went white as a sheet. “But… I…” His hand went to the controls on his chair. She still had no gun out. He could ram the chair into her. His massive bulk would probably squash her like a bug –

Blackjack flicked the cigarette holder in her hand, as if knocking ashes off her cigarette. A line of bright red light shot from the tip, into The Butcher’s left eye. There was a hiss and an odor of scorched meat, like a brief bubble of flatulence.

The Butcher’s body sagged limply down in his chair. The bags of Krugerrands jingled musically as they fell to the carpeted floor.

“Little bonus,” Blackjack mused aloud, walking over and bending lithely to recover the bags of gold.

Of course, none of this could compare to the billion bucks she planned to collect on Doc Nebula’s head. Pity he’d been gone by the time she’d gotten over here. If she’d been closer when Retrograde raised the alarm over the weird funds transfer… but never mind. Nebula’s luck couldn’t last forever. Eventually, it would run out.

And when it did, she was going to be the last thing he ever saw…

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