Alec turned just in time to see Ennis begin to fall, to feel wetness spray across his face. Ennis, his bodyguard, his friend, wavered for an instant – then collapsed backward, emptying a flower of red over the steps behind him.
Alec was already running. There was the whiplash crack of a second shot and a pane in the vast series of glass doors disintegrated. Arms up over his face, Alec threw himself into the opening, felt splinters shivering across his clothes and skin, stumbled and fell.
For an instant he was sure he was going to die. But Ennis’s training was coming back, and he used the momentum, rolled, and pushed off in a new direction. A second pane exploded into whirling fragments and then he was past the doors, into a corridor that ran straight ahead as far as he could see, and – crucially – had no windows.
Alec slowed, struggling against the rush of adrenaline. Only then did he realise there was a message waiting in his Networked Neural Portion, the chip nestled against his skull, connected both to his brain and the IO port beneath his right ear. The message was from Ennis, and strung with half a dozen bulky attachments. The time stamp was for a few seconds ago.
Alec opened it, without slowing. As a secondary function, his translator plug-in could interpret audiotext, and it kicked in now. Suddenly Ennis’s voice was in his mind, impossibly fast but thanks to the software, understood.
“Alec, I’ve programmed this message to send on a dead man’s switch, so if you’re hearing it I guess that means I’m dead and you’re not. What can I say? I’m sorry I screwed up, that I’m not there to do my job.
If they got me then the people trying to kill you are professionals, well organised and equipped. There’ll likely be more than one, a sniper and three or four on mop-up. They know the police will be on their way, but that still leaves plenty of time. With me out of the way, they think this will be easy.
So here it is. I tried to train you to defend yourself. I told you, it’s a noble thing to be a pacifist and a dangerous game when not everyone is playing. Maybe you were right, but I wish you’d listened. There’s so damn much you need to know if you have a hope of getting through this.”
All in the blink of an eye. There was something at once comforting and sickening about hearing his friend’s voice spiralling through his mind, oblivious of death.
“You’ll have noticed the attachments I sent. They’ll have automatically installed themselves by now. First, I’ve updated the firewall on your NNP. They won’t be able to hack your brain, and you should be safe from viral infection. That means they’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way. Second is a hack plug-in of your own. It’s automatic, and will get you into places you’re not meant to be. You may have to bend the law a little to get through this.
So first things first Alec, get orientated. Download maps, floor plans, blueprints, whatever there is for wherever you are. They’ll have planned this and they’ll know every inch of your location. Unless you do too, this will be over before it’s started.”
The message paused and he was alone again, feet still pounding against the tiled floor, the corridor sliding by to either side. Blueprints, floor plans? Where did he start? Like most of his generation, Alec had never taken to his modifications. He viewed them as an unwanted necessity and favoured passive software like the translator, crucial to an ambassador and hardly noticeable once you got over the shock of hearing in two languages at once. If he needed to do anything more sophisticated he did it sitting down, in a dark room for preference – not while running for his life.
He’d been here once before, three years ago, and been led through a maze of stairs and corridors by a bored young receptionist. Back then, he couldn’t find the toilets without a guide. He knew he was lost already and, after Ennis’s warning, had an awful sense of unseen assailants closing on him.
He had to try, at least.
That meant slowing down though. Not that he had much choice; his heart was pounding and the muscles in his legs were already raw, because while he was hardly unfit he was, after all, over forty, and more overweight than he’d like to admit. At a fast jog, he began to search with the only parameters he could think of: BERLIN COLLEGE OF PEACE STUDIES; BLUEPRINTS; FLOORPLANS. Instantaneously, reams of results bloomed into view, projected by his optic modification onto the periphery of his sight. Disorientated, he stumbled, glanced hard against the wall.
How could he watch two things at once?
Yet – and he could almost hear Ennis saying it – he had to do both if he was going to survive. He forced himself back to a sprint, aimed for the middle of the passage and tried again.
This time he found that, while he couldn’t do either well, he could do both, if only because the NNL compensated for his slow perceptions. He opened a result for the college’s archive and found only endless essays, some no doubt his own. He tried again with the council’s planning department site, but the amount of information was overwhelming and the miniaturised designs in blue and white incomprehensible. He was about to try a third site when Ennis’s recording started again.
“Done that? Good. Now that you know where you are, whatever happens, keep moving. Don’t try to hide because they’ll likely have thermal imaging. Keep out of corridors, avoid dead ends. Head for open-plan rooms, populated areas, they may hesitate to open fire and you’ll have plenty of cover. Buy time until the police arrive.”
Alec cursed fiercely. Damn you, Ennis, you know me better than that. You know I can hardly make sense of this stuff at the best of times. I can’t do this!
“There’s one more thing and you won’t to like it. I’m sorry, truly. But I’m dead, you’re alive, and it’s my job to keep you that way.
Odds are that they’ll find you. Then, pacifist or not, you’re going to have to defend yourself or die. I know you don’t want to, that you don’t know how, and I respect your ideals more than you know. But you’re only human, and when you’re cornered, your instinct will be to fight back. I’m making sure you can.
So the last files are military dirtware: hand-to-hand combat training, firearms, some basic tactics, as much as you can subconsciously take in. When you need it, it’ll be there. It’s the last thing, the only thing I can do for you. Good luck, Alec, goodbye. I hope you make it.”
The message stopped, leaving nothing in his head except his own thoughts – and anger.
You respect my ideals? Ennis, did nothing I said mean anything to you? You think I can lecture about a world without violence when you’ve filled my mind up with this, when suddenly I know a hundred ways to kill someone with my bare hands?
Only, not doing something because you couldn’t, or you’d never had to, that was no choice at all. Ennis had said that once, before asking the question levelled at every pacifist sooner or later: what would Alec do if someone was pointing a gun at him, or at Isabel, or their children? Would he kill to save them if he could? Alec had tried to tell him, no, not even then. Someone had to choose not to, whatever the cost.
Had Ennis always known this day would come?
There was a dull crack from behind, and to his left the plaster exploded, white dust clouding the air. Alec almost fell, flailing at the drifting residue of what instants ago had been a chunk of wall.
A second shot couldn’t possibly miss. He could dodge all he liked, but he was in a corridor, and there was nowhere to go … nowhere, except…
Alec threw himself towards the door coming up on his left, praying it wasn’t locked, that it wasn’t a broom cupboard. It burst open and he stumbled through, barely hearing the second shot a moment later as the door slammed closed behind him.
He was at the bottom of a stairwell, flight after flight leading to a glass dome a dozen floors above. His whole body was shaking with exertion, but he began to run again anyway, taking the stairs two or three at a time, clutching the lacquered handrail. They knew where he was. Now it was just a matter of time. Behind the next door he opened, they’d be waiting. Even if they weren’t, how long could he keep running for? Where was he going? He was lost, they knew exactly where he was, and…
And that meant there was nothing to lose by trying again. In his peripheral vision, the list of search results still hung superimposed. He tried to focus, using the rail to guide himself.
Somehow, it seemed a little easier this time. Though most of the results were gibberish, one caught his attention:
Paul Gruder – Berlin College of Peace Studies (Visitor’s Guide) – roving NNL link – Floor plans, all floors <RESTRICTED ACCESS LINK>
Alec knew unauthorised remote connects were possible, used in extreme circumstances by the emergency services and armed forces. He knew as well that outside those professions they were highly illegal, and difficult, the reserve of skilled hackers. Would the software Ennis had sent him work? Could he really break into someone’s mind? Did he even have the right?
You need to stop thinking or you’re going to die.
He tried the link. Perhaps it took a fraction of a second longer than usual, or maybe even that was his imagination. A new directory opened. There were maps, dozens of them, detailed diagrams of every inch of the building. Glancing aside, he saw he was coming up on the third floor landing, and cycled through the files for the appropriate plan. He was at the front of the building, in the east wing. No good, the stairs led into corridors, small offices, they’d corner him easily.
The fourth floor? No better. Lecture rooms, staff rooms, no cover.
Fifth? The fifth floor was archives, the library.
Alec could hear footsteps from below, a steady tapping on the stone stairs not far behind. He didn’t have any strength left, he was barely jogging and still each step meant struggling to make his legs respond. There was an insistent pain in his chest and each ragged breath was a challenge. The other steps were far more rapid than his own, and growing louder.
He had to concentrate on something other than the pain of moving.
The part of his mind that stubbornly remained a professor, which refused to admit he was running for his life, said, how strange to be reading information from someone else’s mind. Even if it wasn’t strictly true, the thought was thrilling.
He stumbled past a sign that read FOURTH FLOOR. The other steps were two floors beneath him, no more.
Somewhere in the building, a tour-guide named Paul Gruder was going about his business, completely unaware that at this instant Alec was looking at information stored millimetres from his brain.
Alec reached the middle landing, swung around the corner, barely kept his footing. He staggered up the last steps and towards the door ahead.
It made him feel less isolated to know that, even if it was only unconsciously, Paul Gruder was assisting his survival. It was a reminder that he wasn’t alone – that even today, a Sunday, the college wasn’t empty.
Alec slipped through the door as quietly as possible, hoping against hope that the owner of the footsteps might continue upwards. He was beginning to understand the power of the tool Ennis had given him. He was surrounded by information, if only he could think how to use it. He was surrounded by people…
Alec couldn’t help but smile. The professor in him wasn’t such an idiot after all, even in matters of survival. Turning the corner into the college’s central library, a vast space of ceiling-high shelves spaced with rows of kiosks, he began another search. It was easier this time. He knew exactly what he was looking for, and found it almost immediately.
Hans Bruhl – Berlin College of Peace Studies (Head of Building Security) – roving NNL link <RESTRICTED ACCESS LINK>
He requested a speech link, marking the message ‘urgent’.
The name was a misnomer because you didn’t have to speak, just think as if you were speaking, and the NNP did the rest. It was another aspect of the astonishing technology in his head that Alec had always avoided, if only because it was alarmingly akin to how he imagined multiple personality disorder. Sure enough, he had to struggle against panic when a mental voice not his own said, “Whoever you are, this is not the time. We are in the middle of a security crisis…”
“I am the crisis,” Alec interrupted.
There was no response, only silence, the mental equivalent of bated breath.
“I’m a lecturer, that’s why I’m here, but I’m also an ambassador for the Peace Council and I’m speaking at the UN summit next week, arguing for unilateral disarmament, and there’s a very real chance I’ll succeed in that, and as you can imagine there are plenty of people who don’t want me giving that talk, who’d rather see me dead, very powerful people who are trying to kill me right here and now, and I need your help.”
With no need to breathe, it was all too easy to babble in speech links. “Do you understand?” he added hesitantly.
This time, the reply came straight away. “I understand. Now, listen. Two of my security staff are already dead. I am in contact with the police and they will be here very soon. But perhaps not soon enough to avoid more casualties, including your own, unless you are prepared to do what I tell you.”
“Of course.” thought Alec.
“Where are you?”
“In the fifth floor library.”
At that precise moment, contrary to Ennis’s advice, he was hiding, crouched behind a bookcase in the shadow of a thousand texts on military history. Having made it to the library, he’d realised he had no idea where to go. The maps in his mind made no difference to that. Nor could he watch where he was going, concentrate on the speech link and follow the optically projected diagrams all at once. He was trying to keep calm because it was crucial to the link, but he had no idea if his assailant from the stairwell had followed him. Panic was welling in his stomach.
“Ah … military history, seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.”
“Wait. Yes, I have you on the cameras.”
Though he hardly dared entertain the thought, he had to know. “Is anyone else here?”
There was too long a pause, and he was beginning to wonder if the link had been somehow broken when Bruhl replied, “Yes. Move now. Straight ahead. Run.”
He was expecting the sound of a shot, or even the impact of a bullet. Neither came. He sprinted as straight as he could, darting round shelves and tables with no idea where he was going, until Bruhl’s voice began again.
“Stop, stop. I don’t know if he’s seen you. Some kind of augmentation but – I can’t tell. Do you remember where you came in, where the door is?”
“No,” thought Alex. He barely knew anything for the fear and adrenalin hammering in his head.
“I think perhaps you could make it. The police are nearly here, if you can get to the ground floor – a moment – now, to your right.”
Alex was moving again almost before the sentence finished, his feet pounding against the carpet. All he could think, and he didn’t know anymore which thoughts he was transmitting to Bruhl and which were his own, was, even if he can’t see me he must be able to hear me, any second I’ll turn a corner and he’ll be there…
Yet for all that, the gun barrel came as a surprise.
It seemed to fill his entire view, although the man was a good twenty metres away. He was dressed in black from head to toe, and Bruhl was right, he was augmented, so blatantly that even Alec recognised it for illegal technology. Where his right eye should have been was only plastic and glass. That was all Alec could see of his face, his eyes: one real, one artificial, both utterly without expression.
Even then, it was hard to focus on anything but the gun barrel. It was a black hole filling his view, seemingly drawing him in, because he couldn’t stop running. His conscious brain wasn’t doing much beyond waiting for the oblivion it knew must come at any instant.
He wasn’t sure what the unconscious part was doing. On some level he was aware of muscles clenching, hands drawing into fists, his balance subtly shifting. The distance between them was closing. Where was the shot? Was it possible that this man, this killer, was as alarmed as he was?
Closer and closer, and it seemed like an eternity had passed between them, a lifetime of waiting to die. His arm moved forward, up. The impact sent pain tearing through his wrist.
The next Alec knew, his attacker was sprawled on the floor, the hand that had been holding a gun an instant ago now clutching a shoulder visibly out of joint. The man was actually whimpering with pain. Had he done that? The sense of power was astonishing, like nothing he’d ever felt. Had he really done that?
“Damn it, the gun, take the gun!”
It was Bruhl’s voice. It didn’t register at first. Then he saw it, close to his foot, an innocuous black lump of metal. How had he been so afraid of that? It was nothing. He bent to pick it up.
“Shoot him! Damn it, Alec, he will kill you.”
Sure enough, the man was struggling to his feet, a jagged knife in his hand now, its edge glinting beneath the strip lights. Alec pointed. He had no idea how to use a gun, but the programming in his brain evidently did. All he had to do was relax and let things take their course.
Only, the academic in him was fighting for attention again. He could feel his finger contracting, ever so slowly, but something was wrong. He was aware of a thought struggling to surface, like a bubble through water. He could feel his finger tightening.
“Bruhl, I don’t remember telling you my name,” Alex said aloud. But his voice was muffled even to his own ears by the thunder-peal of the thing in his hands.
His hand unclenched. The gun dropped to the floor. He couldn’t hear anything at first except for the ringing in his ears; and then only his own breathing, unnaturally loud. He realised suddenly that his legs wouldn’t support him, so he sat down. As the tension began to ease from his muscles and his mind, he realised how much he wanted to cry.
“I never told you my name.”
“Didn’t you?” The voice was different now. “Damn, I think you’re right.”
“I saw you die. I still have your blood on my face.”
“You saw what you needed to see, I’m afraid.”
“Would it be stupid to ask why you’d do this, Ennis?” Alec tried to keep his mental voice steady. The anger was muddying his thoughts, and he didn’t want to lose the fragment of calm he had left – not before he got some answers.
“Not stupid, but I’d like to think you could work it out. Still, I guess I owe you an explanation.” Ennis’s tone was relaxed, conversational. “You know, they said they wanted you dead. You can imagine the kind of people we’re talking about here, Alec. They tracked me down, and they offered me an astronomical amount to kill you. They told me the only other option was that they’d find somebody else, someone better than me, and he’d kill us both.
Of course, I said I wouldn’t. Hell, we’re friends after all. They weren’t so unreasonable, though. All they really wanted was to make sure you couldn’t speak next week. And I have to admit, that struck a cord. Because, you know, all those theoretical debates we had, did you ever think for a minute that there’s no place for someone like me in your brave new world?
So in the end, I offered a compromise. I don’t think anyone will take you quite so seriously now you’re a killer, do you? Would you even have the balls to get up there and speak after what you’ve just done?”
“What about Bruhl? Does he even exist? And how did you know one of your thugs wouldn’t just kill me?”
“They had orders not to shoot, or if it came to it, just to wound you, Alec. That was the deal. Hospitalising you was an option, but discrediting you, getting you into such a corner that you finally pushed back – well, I convinced them how much more appealing that could be. Worth the loss of a few hired grunts, at any rate. This way they hurt you, your cause, and your opinion means shit from now until the end of time.
As for Bruhl, it was a stroke of luck that you thought of trying a link-up – and impressive, by the way. I’d already hacked the local security, so it wasn’t hard to intercept your link and mask my voice. You could do just as much and more with the software I gave you. You made it easy. In the end, I didn’t have to make you a killer, just stand by and watch you get on with it.”
More than anything, this last line twisted sharp and cold in Alec’s gut. It wasn’t true. He’d been tricked. He couldn’t possibly have known. What control had he even had? “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t, it was the software.”
“The software, Alec?” There was something awful in Ennis’s voice.
“That garbage you dumped into my brain.”
“Ah. You’re talking about the dummy files, aren’t you?”
“What? You’re lying.”
He could hear hurried steps on the stairs. It had to be the police.
That meant it was over. That meant he was safe.
“You have a cheap commercial NNL. Do you really think you have the capacity for military dirtware? No, Alec, I’m afraid the killing was all you.”
“Damn you, you’re lying!”
“I’ve no reason to. So live with it, Alec. If you can.”
Alec turned to the stairwell door, watched as a half-dozen uniformed figures burst through the door. He was safe. It was over. Yet there was something cold in their eyes as they surveyed the scene: The body sprawled broken on the ground, the blank angle of the gun, himself.
“Down on the floor,” one said in clipped English. “On the floor, your hands behind your head.”
He did as he was told. What did it matter? It was over. Lying on his belly, seeing nothing now but carpet and blood, feeling the chill of metal as they cuffed his wrists, Alec closed his eyes and listened to the voice in his mind, a murmur over a serpentine hiss of static:
“It’s like you always told me,” whispered Ennis, “it’s not about the tools. It’s how you choose to use them.”
And the link went dead.
David Tallerman’s science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories have appeared in over thirty markets, including Lightspeed, Bull Spec, Digital Science Fiction and John Joseph Adams’s zombie best-of anthology The Living Dead. Amongst other projects, David has also published poetry (in Chiaroscuro), various film reviews and articles, and comic scripts through the award-winning British Futurequake Press. David’s first novel, comic fantasy adventure Giant Thief, will be published in early 2012 by UK publisher Angry Robot, to be closely followed by two sequels. He can be found online at http://davidtallerman.net/ and http://davidtallerman.blogspot.com/.