The small community that calls themselves Company People can be surprisingly convivial, at least insofar as a loose gathering of social misfits benefitting/suffering from massive surgical augmentation can be. We’re all in the same boat, and it’s nice to have someone who understands and isn’t – at that moment, at least – trying to kill you. All the same, we do have a few rules designed to keep those infrequent moments when we run into one another peaceable.
The first rule is not to talk about work. We all hate it, so what’s the point spending a rare moment with a kindred soul indulging in a bitch-fest about our employers? The second rule, related to the first, is to avoid anyone who enjoys their work. That ought to be fairly self-explanatory.
The third rule is never to trust Marguerite. It’s the one rule that I keep on breaking.
The last time I met her was in a hotel room in Madagascar. My hotel room, to be specific. She burst in on me, wild-eyed and elegantly dishevelled in a lilac evening gown, and closed and locked the door behind her.
I was on the bed, sleeping. I sat bolt upright when she came in and then flopped back down again once I realised who it was. “Oh god,” I muttered under my breath, all my hopes of a quiet exit from the country suddenly shredded.
“Jason? Jason, I need your help,” I heard her say, just the right tone of nervous pleading in her voice. No one really knows who Marguerite was before she was hired and wired. There are all kinds of dark hints of course, but I’m pretty sure she was an actress. Her ‘ware isn’t what makes her dangerous.
I sat up straight again and looked her over as she leant with her back against the door. Her hair was long and dark, her favourite style, framing that pale oval face and clear blue eyes. Her mascara was just a little smudged, enough to be noticeable if you looked for it. Her expression was that of someone trying not to show how frightened they were. Despite myself, I felt my grip on rule number three slipping.
“Forget it, Marguerite,” I growled as convincingly as I could, stamping down on the treacherously sympathetic parts of my brain. “You can’t be here. You’re leaving now.”
She flinched as though I’d punched her, and I swear that tears welled up in her eyes on cue. “But Jas-”
“Forget it,” I repeated. “Whatever it is, I don’t want to know.”
She left the door and walked towards me, her arms outstretched. “How can you be so cold after all we’ve shared?”
That helped my state of mind somewhat. I held up a warning finger so that she wouldn’t come any closer. “The last time we slept together, I woke up minus a kidney.”
She pouted. “You got it back.”
“Only after killing an organ smuggler who’d put a six-figure bounty on your head.”
The delighted smile that she couldn’t quite hide made her look all the more enchanting. Fortunately, my common sense was just then beating my libido to death, as per my instructions. “I knew you’d be able to help me,” she insisted, resting her knees at the foot of my bed. “Just like I know you can help me now. You know I couldn’t just ask you.”
Of course I knew that. The Company doesn’t waste its assets on unprofitable endeavours. However, retrieving my kidney – which counted as Company property – was a valid excuse for a little gunplay. All the same, that wasn’t an excuse for postcoital surgery. “This isn’t a discussion. I’ll forgive you for the kidney, but only if you leave now.”
It was a weak rejoinder, and she knew it. She grabbed my outstretched hand and held it in her own. “They’re going to kill me, Jason,” she pleaded. “If you don’t help me, I’m going to die.”
So preoccupied was I with trying not to think about how soft her hands were that I entirely forgot not to look her in the eyes. The problem was that even though I knew she was trying to use me, that didn’t mean that she wasn’t telling the truth. Marguerite has precious little of the combatware that I benefit from; even less than those Company People who specialise in infiltration. What she has is a subtler package, all of it designed to confuse her targets into sympathising with her and becoming appropriately suggestible.
It’s not supposed to work on someone who sees it coming, but as I said, it’s not her ‘ware that makes Marguerite so dangerous. As I tried to come up with a way to get her out of my room short of resorting to violence, my earware picked up clattering and clumping sounds from a nearby stairwell: sounds that my tacware broke down into six or seven armed men making their way swiftly in my direction.
I gave her what I hoped was a particularly withering stare. It was all that I could manage at that moment.
One hour and three near-death experiences later, we were both sitting on a bus rattling its way to a small airfield south of the city. It’s not easy getting out of a country in the middle of a coup-d’etat, but I couldn’t really blame Marguerite for that. Most of it was the Company’s fault, courtesy of yours truly. Besides, she was the one who’d sweet-talked the bus driver into letting us on and taking us to the airport.
Just then, she was leaning against my shoulder, apparently asleep, the smell of her perfume a haze around my head. I was exhausted too, though not injured, but I didn’t particularly want to sleep. The rational part of my brain was reminding me how much trouble I was – and would be – in, and was telling me to ditch Marguerite as soon as possible. I ignored it. I was feeling better than I had in months. Since the last time I’d seen her, in fact.
Marguerite has that kind of effect on you. Unlike everyone else serving the Company and its competitors, she seems to regard the life that she’s fallen into as a game, one to be played with a smile. She comes across as a little naive, with an edge of wickedness, and even if it’s all an act, it’s different enough to be enticing. When she tells me that she really cares, I believe her, and that’s something precious.
It’s how she works, I suppose. Everyone’s lonely; company people just a bit more so than most. Marguerite waltzes into your life and persuades you, just for a while, that it can be exciting and interesting and worth smiling about. Then, while you’re smiling, she picks your pocket, stabs you in the back and waltzes off again. Most of the time, you don’t even notice when she does it.
Right then, I just wanted to enjoy the smile; hold on to it for a moment. However, I couldn’t be so lucky. The bus suddenly screeched to a halt and my ‘ware went into alarm mode, earware picking up shouting and the sound of yet more booted feet and signalware tapping into nearby radio chatter.
Marguerite woke up smoothly from her snooze, laying a hand on my chest as she looked past me to where a roadblock had been set up, manned by half a dozen soldiers, all armed and quite angry about something. Beyond them lay the airfield, which wasn’t much more than a dusty runway with a couple of beaten-up old planes resting near a ramshackle control tower. For all that, it was very valuable amid all the chaos, and somebody clever in one of the factions currently in a bloody struggle for control had figured that out.
I wasn’t nervous. A lot depended on situation, but my training had taught me that if I switched my ‘ware into full active mode – that black, inhuman state where I’m more a Company product than a man – I had a better than even chance of taking down six soldiers without being disabled. These soldiers didn’t look trained, which was a factor in my favour, but they looked nervous, which wasn’t. Complicating the whole thing was the fact that it was broad daylight, there was no cover and there were quite a lot of witnesses, all of them as eager to get out of the country as Marguerite and I.
The soldiers ushered us out of the bus and lined us up along the broad side. To their rear, one of them with a captain’s insignia was fiddling with a piece of machinery much more complicated than a gun. Even with eyeware zooming, I couldn’t be sure, but it looked very much like a handheld bodyscanner, designed to pick people like Marguerite and I out of a crowd.
Marguerite had seen it too. She leaned in towards me as we stood there. “This could be trouble. What are you going to do?”
I almost laughed. “You’re planning on leaving it all up to me, are you?”
“You’re the expert at these situations, not me.”
She had a point. Almost all of my training and augmentation was aimed at dealing with hostile people with guns. However, that didn’t mean I was invulnerable, so having a plan before that scanner picked us out of the crowd was something of a necessity.
“Do you remember Prague?”
She looked at me with some surprise. “I’m hardly dressed for that kind of thing right now, Jason. In any case, these men don’t look like they’d be too receptive.”
“I imagine you’d surprise us all, Marguerite. Anyway, I wasn’t thinking about the night of the opera – I was talking about the trick we pulled just before you disappeared off down the Vlatva and left me to explain to a crowd of angry Czechs just why I was dressed as the president.”
“Oh. I see. It’s just that I have fonder memories of the night at the opera and, well, spending time with you afterwards…”
I swear she blushed on cue. I had my own memories of that night, carefully filed away, but I wasn’t about to get distracted. “Never mind, Marguerite. Are we on the same page here?”
“You’re not still mad about me running out on you, are you?”
“Now’s not the time – just be ready to play your part, okay?”
She smiled the smile of someone who’d just won an argument and crossed her arms, waiting for the soldiers. We didn’t have to wait too long. The captain finally finished his work and came forward, flanked by two of his men, brandishing a black handheld device about the size of three mobile phones taped together. I didn’t recognize the model, but it certainly looked like a bodyscanner, and the way he waved it up and down in front of the woman who was first in line confirmed that guess.
As the captain made his way down the line, Marguerite sighed and swallowed. As he got closer yet, she wavered where she stood, beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead. Evidently the ‘ware that allowed her to look perfectly at home in any situation had an on-off switch. As the captain scanned the man standing directly to her left, she sagged towards me, said “Jas-” and went limp, her eyes rolling back in her head.
I caught her as she fell and lowered her to the ground, even as the soldier nearest us thrust a submachine gun in my face and yelled at me to stand back. I raised my hands and played the terrified tourist. I’m not the actor Marguerite is, but some parts you only need to play for a couple of seconds.
In my line of work, you make the most of confusion wherever you can. Marguerite had timed things perfectly. The captain had finished his scan and had been about to move on to her. Now the soldier in front of me was blocking his sight and that of the soldier behind him. Which meant that there was only one gun pointing at me.
The switch in my head that keeps me human flicked over with the clicking sound that isn’t real but which I always hear nonetheless. Everything around me slowed down and went grey. Sounds descended into the bass register and my tacware projected displays directly onto my retina, telling me everything that I needed to know about the situation I was in.
My outstretched hands stretched out just a little further, one of them to grab the gun the soldier was brandishing, the other to thrust him away. Carbon-fiber muscles pack a lot of strength into a small space – the gun’s shoulder strap split and I felt ribs snap as I threw him back into the captain and his companion.
I ignored them as they went down in a heap. There were two other soldiers still at the roadblock and a third to my left. I turned to the latter first, juggling the submachine gun in my hand and flipping off the safety as it landed in my grip. I squeezed off two shots. One caught him in the shoulder and the other in the chest. As he went down I was already turning towards the roadblock. The soldiers there were only just noticing the problem, and now I had more time to aim. Two more shots, two more bodies in the dirt. There are times when I’m glad that my ‘ware kills all emotion dead when it’s active. Killing shouldn’t be so easy.
I’m not sure why I let myself get distracted. Half the soldiers were dead and the other half had landed in a tangled heap, one on top of the other. Perhaps I thought it was all over. It wasn’t. The soldier on the bottom of the heap still had his gun, and I saw him level it at me even as my tacware informed me that I couldn’t move quick enough to shoot him before he shot me.
There was one shot, and it didn’t hit me. It took the soldier on the ground directly between the eyes. At my feet, Marguerite lay where I’d left her, propped on one elbow, her free hand holding a tiny pistol, smoke drifting from its barrel. I looked down at her and our eyes met. It might have been the most honest look she’d ever given me.
I walked over to the two survivors, shutting down most of my active ‘ware as I did, leaving just enough to allow me to judge the exact force needed to knock someone unconscious with the butt of my gun. When they were out, I smashed the scanner under heel of my boot and retrieved its memory chip. There was probably nothing on it, but the Company paid me not to take chances.
Only when I turned back to the bus did I realize that everyone was looking at me, most of them with expressions of fear. That’s what it means to be a Company Person: you’re not the same as the rest of humanity, and once they know what you’re really like, they either hate or fear you. The worst thing was, I’d seen the same look in Marguerite’s eyes just a moment before.
She walked towards me, still elegantly disheveled in her lilac evening gown, now accompanied by the pistol that was still in her hands. I looked down at it, then back at her.
“Where did you hide that?”
She shrugged. “In my garter. You didn’t have time to search me properly.” Her smile was vintage Marguerite – enticing, mischievous and knowing. It also wasn’t real.
I looked around at the devastation I’d wreaked in the past sixty seconds. “I’m sorry about all of this. I-”
“Hush.” She put her finger on my lips, then stood on her tiptoes and kissed me. Then she hugged me, her head on my shoulder, leaning on me as though she might fall over if I weren’t there. For a moment, I put my arms around her, then she pulled away.
She smiled up at me and nodded back towards the bus. “Not in front of the normal people. Later?”
I nodded and followed her as she returned to the bus, ushering everyone else back on. As always with Marguerite, I didn’t know where I stood.
There was only one seat left on the plane when we got to the airport. I’d love to say I did the gallant thing and gave her the seat – in fact, that’s what I’m going to tell anyone if they ask – but I didn’t. That damned woman hit me with a microhypodermic. I felt a slight sting in my shoulder and I woke up an hour and a half later in a closet. Outside, I could hear the rumbling engines of at least twenty military vehicles closing on the airport.
In the dim light, I could make out a note pinned to my jacket. Below the short message written on it – “No time for surgery. Such a pity. See you another time.” – there was a smudge of lipstick, the faint scent of perfume still lingering. I swore under my breath and switched my ‘ware to active mode to plot myself a way out of this mess. As I tucked the note away somewhere safe and went to work, I promised myself I’d never break rule three again.