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Authors: James K. Decker

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EMBER

James K. Decker

N
EW
A
MERICAN
L
IBRARY

Published by the Penguin Group

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Copyright © James Knapp, 2012

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E-book ISBN: 978-1-101-62186-8

PUBLISHER'S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

 

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

 

Excerpt from THE BURN ZONE

ONE

I stood before the conference room door, only half aware of the feeds being piped in through my brain-band implant. Rows of projected, palm-sized screens arced across my upper peripheral vision to create a haze of security intelligence I'd become numb to over the years. I looked past the ghostly windows and their real-time displays of troop movements both foreign and friendly until the markers blurred, wandering like tiny insects on glass.

“She won't live. Please . . .

The memory surfaced again, and again I pushed it down.

As I waited, I scratched at the shirt cuff of my uniform where the blood stain had been. It had been cleaned days ago, but I kept seeing it out of the corner of my eye and I didn't know why. I'd spilled plenty of blood over the years, too much maybe, but sometimes the border zone demanded it. I hadn't done anything that would be classified as wrong. The men who waited for me on the other side of the door understood that, and I wouldn't be penalized for my actions. They only wanted to analyze, and record. At the end of it, I might even get a commendation. I hadn't done anything wrong.

Still, I stood in front of the door trying to rub away a stain that wasn't there and imagining a young girl's profile as a slow breath plumed up from her parted lips.

Go inside. Get it over with.

I made myself open the door and step into the conference room to find six unit leaders seated at the table. Some I recognized, some I knew by name only. One, Lieutenant Bao Ông, I'd served under. He sat across from the one empty chair, his thin lips drawn into the closest thing to a smile the room had to offer. I gave the group a crisp bow, and Ông nodded to me.

“Have a seat, Sergeant Shao.”

“Yes, sir.”

I sat and waited as the others consulted their tablets. A few of them wore that look I sometimes saw when an officer realized that he not only had a former Pan-Slav in his ranks, but that I had served at our northern border holding back the rest of my kind. I could tell at a glance who approved and who didn't. When I'd first signed up I'd thought I might encounter the most resistance from the old timers, the gray dogs who were set in their ways, but it was the younger ones, always, and I found no exception today. The slick-haired Lieutenant Li. The bald, square-jawed Captain Hao. Older men and women had seen the shift happen gradually. They, or their parents, remembered a time when things had been friendlier between our two nations. The younger officers had grown up with starving, desperate foreigners pushing at their border and raiding their feed lots. They'd grown up hungry, and fearful. To them I'd always be Pan-Slav, a dirty
máo zi
, no matter how many commendations I got.

They also knew that, now that my latest tour had been completed, I'd filed for discharge which was the worst of all. Their narrow eyes watched me, glinting under the fluorescents like ice.

“We're going to keep this brief,” Ông said.

“I appreciate that, sir.”

Of them, I think Ông might be the only one who understood my decision to leave the United Defense Force. The others made little effort to conceal their contempt. I didn't completely blame them.

“Would you state your name for the record?” Ông asked.

“Dragan Shao.”

“You've been a citizen how long?” the bald man, Hao, asked. Ông waved one hand at him, which he ignored.

“I came over as a refugee at age eleven, sir. I was naturalized at age fifteen. I've served in the UDF since age eighteen.”

“Like I said, we'll keep this brief,” Ông said, shooting a look at Hao. “We just want to go over the specifics of your last mission before your official discharge. Sound good?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ông leaned back in his chair. He had his tablet in front of him, no doubt displaying every detail of the mission in question, but he didn't look at it. He looked at me, instead.

“Tell me what you recollect from your time at the barricade,” he said. “Specifically, tell me about the young man you encountered two weeks ago, on the seventeenth.”

I looked to the other men who watched me, stony and not speaking. Of course, encountering the young man had been the only real thing of note to happen during what had otherwise been a long, cold stay watching mostly empty streets. We'd only been engaged five times during our two month deployment. I'd had to kill three, but only two had been clear threats—the first two. Not the man of whom we now spoke.

“He approached the barricade on the second to last night of our deployment.”

“I understand you shot and killed two other hostiles who attempted to bomb the barricade. Was this man carrying an explosive device?”

“No, sir.”

“Was he armed?”

“Yes, sir, although I didn't realize that at first.”

“Your report said he called you out, specifically.”

“He did, sir,” I said. “I believe this is because he recognized me as a Pan-Slav native and he thought I might be more apt to help him.”

“And did you?” Li asked.

The young man, who had been barely a man at all, hadn't had his weapon drawn when I first spotted him. In fact, his initial approach toward the barricade had been very cautious. I remembered how his hands had shaken as he held them up at either side of his face. How scared he'd looked when the other soldiers noticed him, and raised their weapons.

“I ordered my men to stand down,” I said, “to hold their fire.”

“What did he want?” Ông asked.

The young man had ignored the others, and focused on me.

“My name is Olek Salko.”

“Step away from the barricade and go back the way you came, Mister Salko.”

“Please . . . we are starving.”

“He wanted food,” I said.

When he'd stepped into the floodlights, I'd seen the hollowness in his cheeks. Despite the cold he'd worn only a light jacket over threadbare clothes, all of which hung from his bony frame.

“So you left your position, and entered Pan-Slav territory,” Hao said.

“Briefly. I thought if I could reason with him face-to-face I might avoid any bloodshed.”

“You wanted to avoid bloodshed?” Several of the officers looked bitterly amused by that statement.

“Yes, sir.”

“Your unit quelled an uprising at a refugee camp last year,” he said, peering down at the details on his tablet. I couldn't see them but I didn't have to. Under the table, out of sight, I scratched at the spot on my sleeve again.

“Yes, sir.”

“Before that you were sent in to secure a border town near Shenzhen and I see no evidence in these reports of any hesitation to—-”

“Sergeant Shao's record is well documented,” Ông interrupted. “Each situation is different. You said you hoped to avoid bloodshed in this case?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how did you proceed?”

“I broke from the barricade and approached the young man, ordering my men to lower their weapons. He was frightened, and again, he appeared unarmed at that time. When I approached him, he spoke to me.”

“And what did he say?”

“He had a sister in Lobnya who he said was too weak to travel. He begged me for just one ration. For her.”

Handing out food to locals held a stiff penalty. I could understand why, because it would encourage more to come, and a desperate crowd could turn ugly fast. I knew I could have made an exception in that case, though. He'd been alone, in an area where we hadn't seen much activity. In another week we would be repositioned, giving him no reason to return.

“Come on, you're one of us. Please.”

“I can't, I'm sorry.”

“She won't live. Please.”

“Look, two weeks ago a man about your age rushed the barricade carrying an explosive device. My men are tense. Go back—”

“Please, wake up. Shake off their control.”

“When did the situation turn?” Ông asked.

“He began to insist I was under the control of the haan, that they were the reason I was refusing his request.”

Ông nodded. Everything always came back to the haan, in the end.

When the haan crashed in the middle of Hangfei fifty years ago, the impact had vaporized a quarter million people. The echoes of that tragedy still lingered to this day, but in spite of the horror of the event their arrival ultimately proved to have advantages. The creatures that eventually emerged from the ship—and their technology—were the only reason we wouldn't one day share the same fate as the Pan-Slavs. The earth had been straining under the pressures of overpopulation and disease for too long. The haan and their tech had upped food and water stores, cured disease, and undone environmental damage that had reached a critical point. Not to say that it hadn't all come at a steep price.

“So he was an anti-haan fanatic?” Hao asked.

“He thought that the only way we would turn our backs on them so completely was if the haan somehow controlled us,” I said. “That they made us do it.”

“Is that how you feel?” Danger lurked underneath the question.

“The haan don't control us,” I said. “This man, Salko, didn't understand. I tried to explain to him that there was a bigger picture, that the haan might be our world's only chance and if we don't keep them alive then it's possible that none of us will make it.”

I shook my head. These men couldn't be blind to the fact that our shunting so much food to the haan when we were in a position to provide aid made the rest of the world crazy. Foreigners didn't understand that the haan tech was the only reason we had as much food as we did. Not that our rations were much more than we needed to survive, but we did have enough to survive. They only knew that they suffered from starvation, and disease, and all the while we gave over seventy percent of our food to the haan. From their perspective, we'd chosen the haan over them, over our own kind. That anger had begun to boil over. When a man began to starve, first he foraged, and then he begged, but when he got desperate enough, he took. How could he be expected to do any less?

Yet the penalty for raiding UDF food stores at the border was death, and I'd carried that sentence out. Many times.

“Is that when he turned violent?” Ông asked.

He hadn't at first, but did shortly after.
“We're trying to help you, don't you get it?”
he'd said.
“You were from here, once, part of you must—”

“Help us? By pointing weapons at us? By bombing our feedlots? By joining with the westerners and amassing fleets off our shores? This is how you are trying to help us?”

He'd stared at me, looking angry and helpless. In the cold, his breath blew from his nostrils in clouds and I saw how tired he was. It took an effort for him not to sway on his feet.

“Wait here,”
I'd told him.

I'd turned, and started back toward the barricade to get a ration for him, just one ration. Halfway back, several of my men had raised their weapons again.

“Stand down,”
I'd said, but the rifles didn't go down.

“What are you doing, sir?”

“I said stand down.”

“May I ask what it is you think you're doing, Sergeant?”

They'd known what it was I'd intended to do, and I saw they meant to shoot the man. They'd shoot him before they let me give him what he wanted. I didn't know if their motivation had been to protect me from myself, or if they'd acted out of spite, but it didn't matter. The young man saw it, too, and he acted.

I turned to see the gun that had come out of nowhere, and I raised my own in response. Behind me, I'd heard more of my men take aim, and again, I'd told them to stand down. I'd stared at the man down my rifle sights as the barrel of his pistol quivered.

“I won't go back with nothing. I won't watch her die,”
he'd said

“I warned him to lower his weapon,” I told the assembled officers, “to lower his weapon and go back the way he'd come.”

“And did he?”

“No sir, he did not. I was forced to take action.”

I remembered his finger tightening on the trigger. The hammer raised a notch, and I fired. The side of his head had erupted, and splashed onto the cold ground. After he'd fallen, steam rose from the pool that formed around his head. He'd been eighteen, if that.

I'd killed two people with that shot.

“I feel that if I'd maintained my position,” I said, “that if I hadn't approached him, then he might have turned back.”

“He might have,” Ông said. “Or he might not have. You didn't do anything wrong, Sergeant, he threatened you and you reacted. That's all.”

“Yes, sir.”

He switched off his tablet.

“As I said, this is just a formality.” He paused for a minute. “Your request for discharge was unexpected.”

“I know, sir.”

“I can't help but feel the request is linked, somehow, to this event.”

I looked around the room at the men's faces. Most wore their contempt openly, by then.

“No, sir.”

Ông sighed. “Thank you for your time, Sergeant.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He got up, and I rose as the rest of them stood as one. As I followed Ông out of the conference room, I heard Li behind me.

“Good riddance,” he said under his breath to one of the others. “
Máo zi
coward.”

TWO

A week later, I was on my way home. The transport could have sat thirty but had only me as a passenger, and as I rode alone I found myself missing the military feed and its constant influx of white noise. The brain band would have access to local channels when I got home. I'd have to watch the border on the news, I supposed, like everyone else.

When we touched down, I stepped out and hoisted my pack onto one shoulder. Cold wind sheared across the concrete platform as I closed the hatch and thumped it twice with my palm. At the signal, the pilot wound up the graviton emitters and the vehicle leaped a foot off the pad then rotated one hundred eighty degrees. It lifted off, dwindling to a dark shape in the sky which then flitted back the way it had come with a low sonic clap.

The gate hub's glass doors parted as I approached and I headed inside where soldiers and civilian contractors milled together, some sitting, some standing. At the far end of the terminal a haan jump gate had been fixed to one wall, its opening twice as tall as a normal doorway and three times as wide. Thick cables ran down along the sides of the metal frame, trailing into shielded boxes of haan technology that we weren't, as of yet, allowed to see.

Two guards flanked the gate, and a jump-suited technician sat behind a counter next to it watching a small, wall-mounted television set where an anchorwoman reported on the movements of the European Union naval fleet. A window to the left of her showed several huge warships on their way toward our southern border.

When I approached the counter and showed my jump ticket, the technician stood and picked up a heavy flat console by a grip on one side from the chair next to him. A bundle of cables trailed from connectors on the opposite side, across the floor to the frame of the jump gate.

“Greetings soldier,” he said. “Heading home?”

“Yes, sir.”

He looked at the ticket information.

“Destination is Hangfei, Ginzho Terminal,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Very good. Just give me a minute to clear it with control.”

I waited while the technician propped the console up on the counter and tapped at the screen with a stylus. Hanzi characters scrolled past, along with long number sequences as a waveform appeared and began to oscillate. Energy began to crackle around the gate, and my hair stood on end as the controller spoke rapid fire into his headset.

The plain white wall on the other side of the gate frame warped as the field activated, and then it disappeared. In its place appeared a view of another terminal where crowds of people milled by from either side.

“Gate successfully established,” a female voice chimed over the intercom. “Connection to Ginzho Terminal, Hangfei, is now active.”

“You're cleared to jump, Sergeant,” the technician said.

I nodded, but didn't step through right away. I stared at the bottom edge of the field that divided the two terminals which were, in actuality, thousands of miles apart. Ginzho Terminal had a gloss of wealth to it, full of neon and tinted glass. Shops ran the length of the throughway, and the people there were dressed in high fashion. They wore stylish haircuts, and carried bulging shopping bags.

I looked back toward the exit, through the glass doors to the borderlands again. Scrubby plants shook in the wind beyond the landing platform and it suddenly felt strange leaving. The Hangfei on display through the gate felt unfamiliar, even though it had only been three years.

“Sir?” the technician prompted.

I had an urge to turn around. To head back to Lobnya, and to try and find Olek Salko's sister, as if that were possible. I would never be allowed over the border. Even if I were, I wouldn't get far before being captured or killed. I would never find her and even if I did, and she was alive, what would I do then? Give her a ration, and some water, and hope that absolved me of killing her only brother and leaving her alone in this world?

“Sir?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I'm ready.”

“What will you do when you go back?” he asked.

“They set me up with an apartment,” I told him, “and a job with Hangfei security.”

“You should take a vacation,” he suggested.

“Job starts in a week,” I said. “Maybe I will.”

I stepped forward, through the gate.

Passing through a jump gate didn't feel instantaneous, although the haan had assured us that it was. Traveling from the northern border across the entire country to the southern shore seemed to take a beat that lasted a few seconds. This lag, the haan told us, was manufactured by our brains which were not accustomed to spontaneous travel.

Real or imagined, it was unmistakable. Stepping into a gate field always felt to me like stepping into a wall of cold, loose gelatin. All momentum slowed and then stopped, and for those few seconds I had no sense of up or down. The bustle of the terminal ahead froze like a paused video feed, and I stood suspended in mid-stride, weightless. Before I could get my mind around it, my foot came down in the Hangfei terminal as movement and sound erupted around me. The cozy heated air that had taken the chill from the border cold became crisp, cooled air to fight the Hangfei summer's jungle heat. I turned and looked back, but the field had collapsed after I'd passed through, leaving only the Hangfei gate and a cinderblock wall. Next to it, a row of screens displayed ads for the haan-human surrogate program. The ads showed a beaming young woman who smiled down toward a bundle of blankets. She had one finger extended toward the swaddle, from which a tiny gray hand reached. The foster infant's long, spindly fingers clutched hers.

“Welcome back, sir.”

I looked up, disoriented as one of the gate's two guards nodded to me.

“Welcome home, sir,” he said again.

“Thanks.”

I adjusted my pack, and made my way toward the exit. The border zone had been quiet by comparison, and it took me a moment to get used to Hangfei's constant buzz again. I hadn't gotten halfway across the terminal before being swarmed by peddlers who milled through the crowd looking for marks. Information and advertisements crawled along electronic marquees that ran the length of every wall, while A.I.'s called to me whenever I passed by an interactive screen or ad box.

“Dragan Shao, our records indicate you have been out of country for three years, may I interest you in . . .”

“. . . may need new furnishings . . .”

“. . . attractive leases on next generation aircars and . . .”

It didn't take long to slip back into the groove of tuning it all out. You had to. I ignored the babble, and the bustle, and made my way forward without slowing until I reached the main exit. Near the automatic doors a Reunification Church member, or “gonzo,” as the kids called them, knelt near the exit in front of one of their shrines. Her white robes draped onto the floor around her as she fanned the sticks of incense with one hand while bowing to the wax apple that spun above them, suspended in a graviton field. The incense and ashes represented the impact site. The spinning apple, which had been a real phenomenon at the site shortly before the impact occurred, represented the haan's arrival. Or maybe it represented the haan themselves. I wasn't sure.

“Are you seeking reunification?” she asked, without looking up. Off to her left an amber fly strip hung covered in scaleflies, the pests which the haan had brought with them when they crashed. One still struggled to free itself, its hooklike forelegs peddling in front of its single compound eye.

“No, thanks.”

“Only He can move the stars,” she said, without offense.

I stepped out and as soon as the glass doors opened, the heavy, humid heat hit me along with the brilliant sensory overload that was Hangfei's Ginzho district in early evening. The border zone had been all squat military structures and arid, frozen rock. Even Lobnya, while quite large, didn't even begin to approach Hangfei. Buildings towered all around me, monoliths of brilliant light and color stretching up past the canopy of flashing, blinking signs that extended over the congested streets from either side. Signs in hanzi, pinyin, and English filled every available space, competing for attention with sparkling light shows. Street traffic flowed around the central traffic star, floodlights in the center aimed up at the bronze statue of Military Governor Jianguo Hwong. High above, streams of air traffic painted streaks of light across the night sky as they zipped along three layers of skyway. Crowds of people milled around me as I got my bearings, in waves of pedestrian and bicycle traffic that flowed among shop fronts and street-vendor carts.

A group of protesters, larger and more rowdy than I'd been used to seeing before my tour, had assembled on the other side of the street. I could see their signs sticking up above the mob. Down the main drag in front of me, off in the distance, the faint blue light of the haan force-field dome glowed. Behind it, looming above even the tallest buildings, sat the haan ship, a dark mountain with only a handful of flashing lights to mark its outline.

“Dragan Shao?”

I turned and saw that an ad box mounted on a lamppost had targeted me, the A.I.'s logo bobbing on its screen.

“Excuse me,” it said, “but it appears you have been on a military tour at the border zone for three years now.”

“That's true.”

It lowered its voice. “Do you know what many returning military men crave more than anything?”

“What's that?”

“Female companionship,” it said in a sotto voce. “My records have you down as heterosexual, is that still accurate?”

“I'm all set for now, thanks.”

One of the protesters on the other side of the street hollered something, waving his fist. They were calling on Governor Hwong to evict the haan, I thought. Or maybe to cut off their food supply or to trip the failsafe graviton lenses that surrounded their ship and destroy them. I'm not sure they knew what they wanted. They were tired of being hungry, and they were wary of the haan. I remembered what Olek had said about the haan controlling our minds, something a lot of foreigners thought. If that were true, everyone would be complacent, and docile. I wished he could have seen these people, and their anger.

On one of the big screens above the protesters, an image of a haan appeared. They began to boo even as others slowed down to watch. The haan looked down, his big saucer-shaped eyes an interesting shade of glowing orange-yellow. He bowed his wide head a little as the three dark pupils in each one did a slow revolution.

“Only three months left until the official release of Phase Three technologies,” he said, his voice box flickering as his smooth, calm voice issued forth. “Our most exciting package yet.”

“Go back where you came from!” one of the protesters screamed. Someone threw an empty can at the screen, but it fell far short of its target.

The haan wore the same style of suit that they'd been wearing when I left several years back, with a draping jacket that hung almost like a cape. The top buttons of his shirt had been left undone to show his chest and the honeycombed cage of ribs visible beneath the skin there. Behind the delicate bones, which were as fragile as they looked, the mass of his heart pumped. Safe on the other side of the screen, he opened his graceful hands like a magician performing a trick.

“Of particular interest are new advancements in brain band technology . . .”

He began running down specs, to the delight of the younger onlookers and the fury of the protesters. Beneath the dome of his skull, his brain-pair shifted. The larger one shivered in its bath of fluid while the smaller, second one dropped a little, and stirred the cottony tissue around it.

They're really not so ugly,
I thought as I watched him. I remembered being a little shocked as a kid the first time I'd seen one, but once you got past the obvious stuff they were actually kind of elegant. They certainly weren't disgusting, or horrible as so many foreigners liked to say.

Another protester threw something. A bottle, that time, which shattered on the sidewalk. People began to shout back and forth as a pair of uniformed officers made their way over, black helmets shining under the neon lights. Before they'd even reached the crowd, one of them drew a stun gun.

I turned and headed down the main drag in the opposite direction to lose myself back in Hangfei.

THREE

The apartment they set me up with was located in the warren district of Tùzi-wo. It wasn't a bad setup. With two bedrooms, a half bath, a living room, and a kitchenette, it had a lot of space for Hangfei—and it beat a military barracks any day.

After a week, though, I realized I'd barely left it. I sat staring at the television feed while the sun faded and the apartment turned dark. When the faint glow of neon began to bleed in through the window, I stood, unsteady, and my pistol slid off my lap to clunk down onto the floor. I took the remaining half bottle of 'shine from the coffee table, then picked up the weapon and tucked it into my waistband as I made my way to the kitchenette. I took one of the rations from the cupboard, and headed to the window, standing close enough that my breath fogged it.

The place had an amazing view. The entire northern wall was glass, with a glass door that opened out to a small, railed balcony. I opened the door and stepped into the humid air and the white noise of faraway street sounds. Hangfei sprawled below as far as I could see, a sea of colorful electric light that blazed up the night sky. Streams of headlights coursed far below through the streets, while the air traffic streaked through the air between the buildings. Looking down over the balcony's railing I saw vehicles whipping past maybe thirty stories down, layers of air lanes crisscrossing one another.

I unwrapped the ration puck, some kind of processed scalefly, and stuffed the foil in my pocket. I took a bite, and chewed the crunchy, slightly bitter cake which I found I liked better than the salty krill. I chewed, staring at the metropolitan wonder displayed before me, but my mind was back in Lobnya. Maybe it never left. The lights below made the memories of the Pan-Slav city seem even more bleak, with its cracked streets and its once great buildings shelled. Lobnya could have rivaled Hangfei, once.

“She won't live. Please . . .”

I took a pull from the bottle and swallowed hard. The border had to be controlled—I had no doubts there. Lobnya and border cities like it had become occupied by their own armies. The foreigners launched terror strikes from there against our people, bombing our feed lots, and our ration reclamation centers. They were a threat and they had to be held back, but things were different at the border than most people down below thought. I'd seen how they lived over there. They experienced a collapse that hadn't touched us yet. It had taken decades for things to get so bad. Things hadn't been like that when I'd lived there as a child, and at the time no one believed they ever would be. Younger people in Hangfei believed that if push came to shove and war did come, then the Pan-Slav Emirates would crumble before us, but the PSE kept their military strong while their people starved. I could understand why because they bordered other, even more desperate countries, and their military was the only thing that let them keep what little they had. It was also the only leverage they had to take what they needed, should it come to it, from one of the only places left that could still provide for them—us.

“You didn't do anything wrong, Sergeant. . . .”

The memory of the dying girl, Olek's sister, kept cutting through the haze. I'd never seen her, of course, but I imagined her as young, and pretty before the starvation had taken its toll. I imagined her lying on a mattress in the cold, waiting for her brother to return.

“. . . he threatened you and you reacted, that's all.”

It was true, but she and her brother weren't the only ones I had to answer for. Faces I'd tucked away while serving at the border had begun to reappear in the quiet of my new apartment. Faces full of hatred, and anger. Scared and desperate faces that stared back at me, knowing that their end had finally come. I'd seen it, in some of their eyes.

I swallowed the last of the ration and washed it down with a mouthful of the shine, feeling the scratch of stubble on the back of my hand as I wiped my mouth. While it warmed me, I leaned against the rail and opened the pack of cigarillos I'd bought a week ago from a street cart while on my way home. I'd never smoked before in my life but the box promised a profound lack of worry, and by that point I'd begun to feel reckless. I shook one out and held it between my lips, tasting the paper's sweet anise flavor. The tip had been infused with Zen oil, a powerful, supposedly nonaddictive synthetic opiate which they'd legalized during my time away.

I sparked the lighter I'd bought along with them and puffed on the cigarillo until the end lit and crackled. I took a drag and immediately coughed it out again. My eyes watered as I gasped for air, almost dropping the smoke over the balcony rail in the process. When the fit passed, I tried again, ready for it that time. I sucked in a mouthful of smoke, then breathed it in and held it as long as I could.

It wasn't long, but long enough. Even as I fell into another coughing fit, I felt the opiate kick in. It eased down over my brain, turning it pleasantly fuzzy in seconds. A mellow sort of disconnectedness came over me, so I took another drag, and that time my lungs didn't complain. I held the cigarillo between two fingers, then put down the bottle and pulled my pistol out from my waistband. I held it, one finger against the trigger guard as I leaned further over the railing.

These people have no idea what's coming.

Things would get worse before they got better. In spite of everything I'd done, they'd get worse.

“Sergeant Shao's record is well documented. . . . you hoped to avoid bloodshed in this case. . . .”

The end of the barrel felt cool against the heat of my forehead as I leaned forward, resting my head on it and looking down at the streets far below.

“You have no idea what's coming,” I breathed, and the view beneath me began to blur.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, but I didn't answer it, not at first. I just stood there, the pistol's grip in both hands now with the barrel digging into the skin between my eyes. The phone rang three more times before I stood up straight, wobbling a bit, and picked up.

“Shao here.”

“Shao, this is Chief Inspector Ling, Hangfei Security.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise, and took another quick drag from the cigarillo.

“Good evening, Inspector. How can I help you?”

“I just wanted to welcome you to the team in advance, before you start your new job.”

Right. The security position the Reintegration Department had set me up with. With the opiates tamping down my defenses, I had to admit that on some level I think I'd had no intention of showing up there. I wondered if he hadn't somehow sensed that after speaking with Ông.

“You sound a little off,” he said. “Everything okay?”

“Just getting acclimated, sir.”

He paused in a way that made me feel sure he could picture me there, slipping into stupid numbness. When he spoke again, the formality had left his voice.

“Look, Shao, I understand things are a little gray at the border zone.”

“With respect sir, I don't think you quite—”

“I want you to know things are more black and white in Hangfei.”

Black and white. I used to think, a long time ago, that to see things as black or white indicated a lack of thoughtfulness, or imagination. Maybe I still did, but when he said it I found that it appealed to me. It sounded simple, and simple sounded good.

“Is that so?”

“We uphold the law here. We protect the innocent. You can do some real good.”

“What did you have in mind?” I winced at my familiar tone, but the cigarillo had me dopey.

“I've got an important mission and we're moving soon. I could use a man with your skills, and it would make a big first impression for you. No guard duty or running in petty thieves . . . something big. Something important.”

“What is it?”

“We're taking down a scrapcake factory. I won't lie; it's going to be dangerous. Your combat experience would be a plus.”

Scrapcake. That meant human meat, to be sold to those who could afford it, usually the rich. I'd been sent in to recon a few of those sites in Lobnya. That was about as black and white as things got, but I balked a little at the idea, and Ling sensed my hesitation.

“These aren't desperate civilians,” he said. “These are bad guys, dangerous predators that take innocent lives.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Shao, I've seen your record, and I've dealt with guys like you before. Put down the bottle. Get your head back on straight, and come to the precinct tomorrow.”

I thought about it for a minute, then nodded.

“Yes, sir.”

“You get one chance, so be there.”

“Understood, sir.”

He hung up, and I slipped my phone back into my pocket. For a while, I leaned back against the wall and gazed off toward the haan force field dome and the bright star of Fangwenzhe that hung in the night sky above it. I held the pistol by my side, and rode the opiate's wave until it peaked and began to trickle off.

Later, when the cigarillo's cherry finally burned down to my fingers, I snapped out of it. I squashed the stub out on the concrete, then went back inside and tossed the gun down onto sofa. I threw the rest of the cigarillo pack away, and headed for the bedroom.