The corridor outside, leading to Bill’s office, was almost empty. The gunmetal walls resembled a marriage of a hospital and a prison, being foreboding but surgically clean and tidy. Apparently it was intentionally coloured to make both prisoners and failed agents uneasy, like being called to the principal’s office at school. The rumour mill said Bill had based the colour scheme off an old internment camp called Auschwitz, and even had his own “Little Red House” for executing incompetents and captives.
The entire underground carried a very authoritarian feel, like the sort of bunker you’d expect the President to hide in when the nukes start flying. In truth it had once been an extensive fallout shelter, created a century ago during the Korean March, repurposed now as the headquarters of the Obsidian Guild.
I hated it.
Too many nights spent in bomb shelters when I was young gave me an impassioned distaste for living underground, feeling like a lab rat stuck in a lockbox. I’d been close to the shelter in Johannesburg when its central module caved in from enemy ordnance, thanking whatever God lived upstairs that I wasn’t currently crushed under tonnes of burnt metal and fractured concrete. Being underground wasn’t always a sure thing when it came to war, especially in this day and age.
On the way to Bill’s I came across one of the Whites, a young lad named Squire, stepping out of the Cold Lab. He’d just been transferred from the Miami Arm with rave reviews from its coordinator. He looked like one of the Whites you knew wouldn’t be around for long, with that kind of enthusiasm.
“Andrew!” he called jovially, striding over. “How’s it going?”
It baffled me sometimes who the Guild saw fit to hire. Someone this cheerful belonged either in a children’s ward or as a punching bag for manic depressives. “Not bad, Squire. Just on my way to Bill.”
He didn’t seem to get the hint. “Yeah? I’ll come along too, got to talk to him about this Kyoto op.”
“You anticipating a problem?” I asked, trying to mask my irritation at his presence.
“God no! Just need to finalise some specifics, wanna make a good first impression, you know?”
Unless his personality had undergone a drastic shift recently, I doubted there was any way Bill could be impressed unless the sprog could give him a naked Yolanda Russo on a platter. “I do.”
We were silent until just before we got to the office, when Squire held up a hand as he approached. “I think he’s on a call.”
I had seen the faint yellow hologram glow coming from under his door before we’d arrived, so I already knew he was busy. I decided to indulge the White anyway. “Alright. He’ll only be a minute, he knows we’re coming.”
Before Squire could reply I quickly slid out my gun, twisting it around my finger to rest in my palm in one fluid motion. The White was taken aback a bit, but seemed to relax a little when I simply ejected the clip to check on the ammo count. I kept it out, hoping it’d stop any more questions.
Most Whites won’t say a word when a gun’s handy, especially the optimistic ones like Squire. Perhaps they think we’ll put a bullet in them. Fucking kids.
The door opened after a minute and Bill swung his head around to look at us. He caught sight of my hands. “You planning on shooting this guy? Already?” He jerked his head at Squire.
I shrugged. “Not yet. Maybe later.”
I couldn’t see Squire’s face but I could tell he was at least a bit worried; he let out a weak chuckle, and I saw his body fidget a little in my peripheral. I holstered the gun and followed Bill inside, with the White on my heels. Maybe I would kill him later, when he inevitably screwed up Kyoto.
Bill was a tall, lean man with a thinning crop of silver-grey hair and a long, slightly ovoid head. He’d been installed as the Arm Administrator for the past thirteen years, originally from the New York Arm with a passion for our business. He’d come up with the idea to revamp the front door and make our front company a bit more believable – apparently he got the idea from a very old television program that was popular in the Second Age.
He took absolutely no shit from anybody.
Bill sat behind his desk in a large and obviously comfortable magenta armchair at the opposite end from the door, next to a tall and oddly-spacious black wardrobe, and picked up a half-filled tumbler of what I could only assume was some kind of scotch. He eyed Squire cautiously, as if expecting bad news. “What is it, White?”
All trace of joviality and enthusiasm evaporated instantly when Squire spoke. You could tell he was nervous. “All ahead for the Kyoto drop, sir. Just double-checking the specifics.”
Bill looked annoyed. “You go in, eliminate the target, and leave no evidence. What’s there to double-check?”
The White began shifting his weight from foot to foot like a metronome. “Well, sir, it’s just the implant –”
“You got the surgery from the Blacksmith, didn’t you?” Bill cut him off.
“Y-yes, sir,” Squire stammered, “but it hasn’t been…uh, field-tested yet. The Blacksmith was supposed to –”
“Send me a report?” Bill finished for him. He picked up a blue folder lying on the desk and waved it. “Yeah, I got that. He said it was up to you to field-test the implant, and that was three days ago.”
Squire looked dumbfounded. “Sir, y-you want me to kill an innocent civilian just to, to test an implant?”
I could see the thunder clouds gathering inside Bill now. “Squire, you’re an agent of this Guild, aren’t you?”
“And you’re aware that all Arms of the Guild are required to carry out operations that involve necessary executions?”
“Yes, sir, but this is –”
“And that the necessary execution in Kyoto cannot be adequately accomplished without this implant being fully functional?”
He swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Bill suddenly threw his tumbler, still half-filled, at the terrified White.
Instinctively my hand went to my gun, in case Squire decided to do anything stupid to defend himself, but as the glass smashed straight into Squire’s forehead and made him stagger backwards I saw Bill raise his opposite hand at me. I kept tense, in case the situation got out of hand, but if Bill reckoned he could handle it…
The tumbler had shattered all over Squire’s face, and shards of expensive glass were lodged in the surface layer of his skin. The White was suddenly thrown off for a few seconds, small rivulets of blood making their way down his cheeks, unsure whether to cow in acceptance of his punishment or retaliate on his assailant. Bill strode towards him, still very visibly pissed off.
“If this Arm is going to succeed, all my agents need to be ready.” He rolled up his left sleeve, and held his forearm out to Squire. “Use the implant on me. Now.”
Squire blinked away the pain for a moment and shook his head. “I can’t do that, sir!”
I could see where Bill was going with this now; I dropped my hand and hung loose, almost amused.
Bill grabbed Squire’s right arm forcefully and pressed the White’s palm against the exposed forearm. “Now, dammit! Or you don’t have any future outside this office!”
I always hated the sound toxic implants made when they injected their payload; it was the sickening noise of hypodermic needle piercing thick flesh that put you in mind of someone very loudly fondling raw meat in their hands. It wasn’t the piercing of the needle itself that made the noise, rather the technophage itself moving from internal storage canister to deployment device. It only lasted a second or two, but it still made me queasy to hear it.
Squire’s implant must’ve put enough Neural Lockdown technophage in Bill’s bloodstream to give a rhino brain death. The Admin fell, withdrawing his forearm from the needle and collapsing to the ground. Blood began to dribble out of his ears, and his eyes stared glassily at the ceiling.
The White freaked out.
“Oh my God!” he screamed, as if someone else had been driving his body the whole time. He withdrew the needle and fell to his knees. He turned to me, his face contorted with anguish. You’d never have guessed he’d been chipper five minutes ago. “What have I done?”
“What I asked you to do.”
I swear Squire went as pale as his rank colour; he turned his head towards the voice that had come from inside the black wardrobe near Bill’s desk. The doors swung open and a clean, undamaged Bill strode out, clad in exactly the same clothes as the corpse lying bloodied and brain-dead on the floor.
He looked at the body plainly, as if it were all perfectly normal. “I had that one for nearly five years. Probably about time for a reboot.”
I didn’t need my intuition as an agent to tell me that Squire had absolutely no fucking idea what the hell had just happened. This was always my favourite part about meeting new Whites; seeing them find out the one big thing they don’t tell you in the job interview.
“See that?” Bill pointed at the wardrobe. “You could call it a clone closet, I guess. It’s where my physical avatars grow, ready for deployment.”
The White’s hands were shaking badly now. “Deployment?”
Bill nodded, walking over to his desk and reaching for the scotch bottle. “I can’t operate efficiently in my natural state, so I grow clone bodies to walk around in. I find that being a head on a computer screen leaves new agents feeling unsettled.”
Not that it stopped him using it unsettle the experienced ones, too.
Recognition finally began to sink into the sprog. “You’re…an AI?”
“Yep.” Bill filled up a fresh tumbler all the way to the brim. “Seventh generation, programmed for tactical application. Easy install into new bodies, Administrator of the San Francisco Arm for the past thirteen years. Let me tell you, travel through this Arm’s conduits is a breeze compared to the clogged shit they’ve got over in New York.”
I’d been to the NY Arm, and whilst not experiencing the conduits myself if they were anything like the rest of the place – half-functional and covered with electronic detritus – then it must’ve been like trying to move through a choked artery. I was a little surprised the brass hadn’t shut it down; they’d never really recovered from the Bolivian rebel attack.
“So,” Bill continued, starting to gently sip at the liquid, “can you handle this job or not, White? Because if not, tell me now so I can start finding your replacement.”
Squire still seemed pants-shittingly terrified, but he regained a small measure of composure. He straightened up as best he could after another fleeting glance at the corpse. “Yes, sir. I can handle it.”
“Good.” He gestured to the door with the tumbler. Squire didn’t need to be told twice.
After he’d left I let out a quiet laugh. “I love it when they go pale like that.”