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Zoey Ashe surveyed the carnage and said, “Sorry we’re late, it was my cat’s birthday.”
The man who greeted her on the sidewalk was named Hank Kowalski. He was bald and had the eyes of a man whose favorite joke is just a shrieking child falling down a flight of stairs. He wore a jacket with a flashing logo that said ASHE SECURITY—WILL USE DEADLY FORCE.
Looking a little too amused for the occasion, Kowalski said, “So, the good news is, the hostage taker knew to ask for you by name.”
“Why is that good news?”
“If it’s somebody you know, that raises the chance this ends in disaster and creates a cool scene for when they eventually make a movie about my life. Maybe the guy’s an old boyfriend? You like psychopaths, right?” He stuck a finger into the air. “He’s up there.”
Zoey looked up and then down, then up again, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. All of the buildings downtown were skinned with display panels and synced so that a giant, obnoxious ad could scroll down the whole block. For example, right now an animated banner was hopping from building to building promoting the beginning of Halloween Month in Tabula Ra$a, warning/promising that the city would not be enforcing public nudity laws for the duration of October. But the panel on the building in front of her was dead, leaving a dim gap in the display. That was presumably because of the ragged hole in the glass a few floors up, like a Godzilla had stooped down and taken a bite.
Directly below the hole at ground level, the main entrance was blocked by an overturned food truck. Zoey was familiar with the truck, just by its shape. It sold lightly charred strips of Korean barbecue on little sizzling, self-heating metal plates with a side compartment of melted cheese for dipping. It was one of the five best food trucks in the city, so this incident had already taken a terrible toll.
“Did … the food truck fly into the building?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Kowalski replied. “A guy knocked over the truck with his bare hands, then shoved it across the door there, to barricade it. Then he ripped a parking meter out of the ground, jumped straight up, and, while dangling from a ledge with one hand, smashed out the glass on the fourth floor, using the parking meter like a club. Then he entered the building and declared that everyone inside was his hostage.”
Then, Zoey thought, he’d demanded to speak to her. This time last year, she’d have been restocking the muffin case at the coffee shop where she’d worked for minimum wage plus tips.
“Oh. Well, that’s, uh, pthththhbb,” said Zoey, fear causing her mouth to just give up halfway through.
“I agree,” said Kowalski. “I’m thinking either he’s gotten some implants to make him stronger or else he’s really pissed off.”
“Not an old boyfriend, then. I don’t think I could make somebody that mad.”
“Maybe you gave him a disease.”
Kowalski took a bite of a hot dog. There was a nearby vendor who was doing brisk business with the crowd of gawkers who’d shown up to watch the hostage situation unfold. The hot dog guy, who’d apparently acted quickly to seize the Korean BBQ truck’s territory, had a grilling apparatus strapped to his torso, complete with a rack of condiments. He wore a beat-up metal exoskeleton to help him carry it all and Zoey thought he looked like an old-timey one-man band. On the side of his grill was a looping animated logo of a smiling, sentient hot dog happily taking a bite out of a smaller, regular hot dog. Zoey tried to puzzle out the grossly unfair rules of the society depicted in the hot dog logo, then realized she was still a little bit high.
In words filtered through chewed hot dog, Kowalski said, “Nice outfit.”
He didn’t mean it. She was still wearing her party clothes, a black pleated skirt that an asshole at the party said made her look like a table lamp (he was right) and a black T-shirt bearing a symbol of a Jolly Roger, only the skull was replaced with a cat’s face, and the two crossed bones were a pair of fish skeletons. Her black hair was in pigtails because she had thought it was funny earlier, but it now seemed inappropriate for the situation. She had arrived in a leopard-print BMW convertible, though she could never put the top down as it made her huge, fat head a target for snipers, according to Will Blackwater and her other advisors, who did nothing but sit around imagining worst-case scenarios all day. The car could be any color she wanted (she’d sprung for the programmable skin) but she’d left it leopard print for the last month only because it seemed to annoy Will, who at the moment was emerging from the driver’s side. Will was an unreasonably white man in his late thirties wearing a suit the color of a wet sidewalk and the expression of a man who’s just realized the wetness is piss.
Will “suspiciously fake-sounding menacing surname” Blackwater shot an annoyed look at the crowd of gawkers behind him, each one representing a potential complication, and asked, “How many hostages?”
“Sixty-eight employees,” said Kowalski, “and fifty-two sad-sack customers.”
Those numbers punched Zoey in the gut. It would not be good if she got sick here in front of the onlookers and their many cameras. Not good at all. It should be noted here that no one involved in this conversation was a police officer and none were coming. In Tabula Ra$a, you got the policing you paid for. And sometimes not even that.
The building the pissed-off guy with superhuman strength had smashed his way into was the Night Inn Cuddle Theater. For $250, an attractive member of your preferred gender would curl up with you in pajamas and watch a movie in a small private room with a wet bar, snacks, and a fireplace. There was no sex. That theater was down the block and they actually charged a lot less.
Kowalski took another bite before speaking, as if he preferred to talk while he chewed. “Entrance from the parking garage is blocked, too, from the inside. We can unblock it, but the guy says he’s got a sonic device that will scramble the brains of everybody in the building if we try.”
Zoey, utterly failing to sound unsettled by this, asked, “Is that a thing?”
“Who can say? They’re inventing new things all the time. I even remember an era when a guy couldn’t jump thirty feet in the air carrying a parking meter he’d plucked from the concrete like a dandelion. Are we waiting for the rest of your people to get here?”
Will said, “They’re getting into position.”
They were all in the process of executing a plan that had been hastily thrown together after they’d gotten word that the hostage taker would talk only to Zoey. Will had advised against her coming to the scene at all and the sensible part of Zoey’s brain enthusiastically agreed. But then a key piece of information had been relayed to her: much to her surprise, she apparently owned the Night Inn Cuddle Theater. Thanks to a large inheritance, Zoey owned a lot of things she still wasn’t aware of, some of which were just incredibly illegal. So this was in fact her problem and there was just no getting around it. Still, they intended to stretch the guy’s “Only talk to Zoey” rule as far as possible. Will said hostage situations were like bad marriages, one party trying to subtly force the other to surrender, inches at a time.
Kowalski said, “I’m gonna finish my hot dog and then go supervise crowd control, unless you want me to climb up and shoot this guy real quick.”
Will and Zoey both glanced back at the gawkers. The crowd was being kept in check by large men in suits with black pants and bright yellow jackets. They weren’t Zoey’s people, they were from a popular security service called the Vanguard of Peace, its logo a glorious sunrise over the silhouette of a waving child. They’d been called in to help control the crowd and billed by the hour. They also were quick to get brutal with anything they arbitrarily deemed to be a “riot” (those yellow coats really showed the blood). The prospect of this turning into a night of car-flipping chaos was part of what was turning Zoey’s insides to jelly.
Will said, “Yeah, control the crowd. And the VOP.” Will noticed something over Zoey’s shoulder and said, “He’s here.”
A second vehicle pulled up, a panel truck with an animated ASHE DEVELOPMENT logo on the side, cartoon workers assembling the letters out of girders. The truck parked and the rear door lowered like a drawbridge, revealing its cargo to be a gleaming black metal object roughly the size and shape of a crouching rhinoceros. A butterfly-sized drone buzzed in front of Zoey’s face, bearing a tiny camera that was probably one of five hundred tiny cameras watching her at the moment. If you enjoyed livestreamed human tragedy, Tabula Ra$a was an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Zoey smacked the drone aside with her hand and said, “Can everybody hear me? Are you all in your spots?”
From a nearly invisible earpiece in her right ear, four voices spoke at once, rendering all of them an indecipherable jumble until one person finished their sentence with “hot link.”
Zoey said, “Let’s try that again, one at a time. Budd?”
A man with a Texas drawl said, “The hostage taker’s name is Dexter Tilley. Twenty years old. Frequent customer of the Night Inn. You’ve never met him. Inherited a house from his gramma, sold it a week ago, and used the cash on bootleg skeletal and musculature Raiden implants. Can’t find anybody who’ll admit selling him a brain zappin’ contraption but they do exist.”
Will said, “We’re obviously going to assume he has it.”
Budd said, “Echo’s with me.”
The voice of Michelle “Echo” Ling chimed in. “Every time Tilley came here, he requested the same girl, a nineteen-year-old named Shae LaVergne. She is currently in the room with him. So you’ve got over one hundred hostages but it’s looking like this is about her.”
Oh, god, Zoey thought. The guy fell in love with one of the professionals. She now feared the sheer awkwardness of this encounter more than death.
“Well, that all sounds terrible,” said Zoey. “Where are you now?”
“Budd and I are both inside. Trying to keep the inn’s staff calm.”
“You are? How did you get in?”
Zoey had been told they were waiting at the scene, but didn’t know they were, like, in the scene.
Budd said, “We were here before Tilley. Been tailing him all day.”
“You were tailing him, but arrived before he did?”
“You do your homework,” Budd said, “and you can tail from in front.”
“All right, way to earn your paycheck. Wu, you in position?”
Wu was Zoey’s personal bodyguard, who the hostage taker had specifically demanded not accompany Zoey to the meet. Again, they intended to push the envelope as far as possible on that demand.
A hushed voice in her ear said, “I am.”
“The fourth floor of the Hyatt, across the street.”
Zoey turned and looked behind her, the front of the hotel flashing an animation of a waterfall cascading and breaking over the main entrance. There was a world-class seafood joint on the top floor and there were animated fish swimming around up there. Occasionally one would go leaping out of the “water” and a shimmering silver tuna would break the boundary of the roof and soar into the actual night sky, a projected hologram picking up the animation as one smooth motion. The tourists loved stuff like that.
Wu said, “When you turn to look at me, anyone watching will immediately know why, that you are looking to your sniper.”
“Oh. Right. Andre?”
From her other ear, she heard, “I’m right next to you, getting a hot link.”
She turned and there he stood, a large black man with a shiny bald head, squirting mustard onto a sausage he’d just bought from the one-man band.
He said, “See, now you’re giving away my position. Already this thing is a train wreck. And did you see that Halloween Month ad that ran up there? Since when has this city had public nudity laws?”
Andre actually was in position. His job was to remotely pilot the shiny black thing in the back of the panel truck.
Zoey looked it over. “I thought you were supposed to get the scariest drone you could find? This just looks … fancy. It’s piano black. It looks like a sculpture some old rich guy would have in his parlor.”
“It’s scarier in motion. SWAT teams in Israel use ’em for hostage negotiation all the time. Well, they don’t really do all that much negotiating…”
“So the hostage taker can talk to this thing and I can talk back through it?”
Will said, “Even better, it’ll display a live hologram of your face to the front end there, that way he gets facial expressions, too. That’s important for building rapport. When I talk, it’ll switch to mine.”
It sounded like Will had used one of these before. Zoey would have to remind Will to never tell her that story.
There was a scuffle in the crowd behind them, some of the spectators getting roughly shoved back by the yellow jackets. The agitators were mostly guys in their twenties, and they were mooing at Zoey, like cows. Zoey was well known in the city, but not necessarily well liked, and at some point her detractors had decided she was a cow. They sold T-shirts and everything, depicting her head on a cow’s body, only drawn to mimic Zoey’s in cartoonish yet hurtfully accurate ways (they even included her missing tooth). The first time she’d seen one of the shirts, she’d been eating at a cafe with her mother and bodyguard. She had rolled her eyes and snickered and actually made it all the way back to the car before she burst into tears.
Zoey said, “Can we push those people farther away or something? And by ‘something’ I mean have Kowalski shoot them? In the crotch?”
Will looked surprised. “I’d bring them closer if I could. If the guy is near that opening, I want him to hear the chants.”
She thought about asking why, but ultimately decided against it. Will liked to hear himself explaining things a little too much, so she tried to ration it out.
From her earpiece, Budd said, “Get to a screen, looks like the hostage taker is about to make a statement.”
As Will went for his phone, Wu spoke from Zoey’s earpiece. “He has reentered the room. He has the girl with him. He just moved behind the window frame, trying to stay out of view.”
Will brought up Blink, a searchable network of just about every running wireless camera on Earth. The top trending stream was titled “Night Inn Hostage Crisis, BIG Death Toll Assured—ALERT: POSSIBLE COW SLAUGHTER!”
Dexter Tilley appeared on-screen. Well, sort of. He was using a digital “mask” to cover his face on the feed and it replaced his head with a fairly realistic animated skull. Unless the guy actually was a talking skeleton, which if so, Zoey thought it was weird that Budd and Echo left that out of their summary. When Tilley spoke, his voice had been filtered, too. It was a high-pitched, taunting tone, about what you’d expect from a skeleton possessed by some kind of evil spirit.
“I see you down there, bitch! No negotiation, no tricks. You hear me? I’m ready to die, I’m ready to take everybody with me. Are you?”
Reading the concern on Zoey’s face, Andre said, “I think they all say that.”
Will said to her, “I’m in contact with a rapid entry team, they’re ninety percent sure they can take him out before he triggers whatever device he’s got, if he even has one at all. They don’t even want to get paid, they’ll do it for the exposure. Last chance.”
“Ninety percent? Would you board a plane that had a ten percent chance of crashing?”
“I once boarded a plane that barely had a ten percent chance of not crashing because, like now, my other options were worse.”
“And what are the odds the hostage makes it out of a raid intact?” Shae. That was her name. “I’ve seen what those ribbon guns do. No, this requires finesse. Andre, send in the giant robot monster.”
Andre tapped some icons on his phone and the shiny black thing in the truck blinked to life. It whirred and beeped and birthed itself from the cargo hold on unseen wheels. Once free, eight mechanical legs sprang from the sides, lifting its body six feet off the ground. Every inch was covered in that reflective black shielding, like it had been sculpted out of a moonless night. It was the most terrifying thing Zoey had ever seen.
Andre said, “It’s patched into your phone. It’s calling you now.”
Zoey dug out her phone, then physically recoiled when a full-color hologram of her face appeared where the spider’s head would be.
Andre said, “Whoa, that’s actually even creepier than I intended.”
“Private military groups also use these things to take out tanks,” said Will. “The two front legs have plasma cutters that will slice through two inches of armor. It can take a direct hit from a railgun. Skin will heal itself from damage, you could riddle it with fifty-caliber fire and watch the holes disappear in ten seconds.”
Zoey stared at the thing, transfixed. “Wait, where did you get this thing, again?”
Andre said, “Rented it from a friend. Though you wouldn’t know he was a friend based on the deposit he demanded.”
“Do I want to know how much?”
“Can you really put a price on something like this?”
“Oh god. All right. Let’s do it.”
Copyright © 2020 by David Wong.