art by Erin Cardwell
Sirius coaxed Nemea forward toward the unassuming building which housed the master copy of the PFA. He could tell that she wanted to bolt. She didn’t believe in his vision. He doubted if any of his top canids did, except – perhaps – Arich. Even he had suggested many other options before agreeing to this plan. But the satchels of azzy slung over each of his shoulders were the only tools strong enough to permanently throw off their yolk.
An explosion – silenced by the vacuum – shook the steel plates of the street. Right on cue.
The people in the street began to look wildly around, searching for the source, ignoring Nemea as she began cracking the airlock.
A screaming crowd flooded out of a cross-street nearby, where the explosion had been. When the people here saw them, they took off in the same direction. Flashes of light signaled a firefight around the corner behind them.
The location of the diversion was chosen carefully so that any stripes coming from the Hedron would respond without passing by the PFA bunker.
There was still commotion in the street when Nemea backed up from the opening airlock doors. He nodded to her, and she took off with the rest of the crowd. He would have preferred to leave her behind from the beginning, but even she couldn’t hack a device without physical access to it.
He stepped inside and the outer doors closed behind him. As the airlock pressurized, he reached into one of the satchels and pulled out a pistol.
The inner doors opened, and he stole inside. He was immediately in the control room, and an alarm was going off. There were two techs cowering behind their consoles already. Apparently Nemea had tripped an alarm when she’d hacked her way in. He would have to find out later if that was intentional.
A stripe rushed into the room, gun drawn. Sirius dropped her immediately. He waited for another to come, but none came. The techs weren’t watching the door, so perhaps no more help was coming from that direction. He trained the sights of his gun on the techs. One of them threw her arms up, and the other fainted, crumpling to the floor.
“Turn the alarm off,” he directed the one still standing.
She moved slowly around to the front of the console.
Sirius glanced around. There was a camera in the corner of the room. He was on video, but the data would be destroyed in less than an hour, both the copy here and in the back-up facility where he and Nemea had just come from. Even if a copy were to survive, they would still have to find him.
The alarm stopped.
“Now what?” the tech asked.
“Freedom.” He refocused his sights on her head and pulled the trigger. He stepped further into the control room and glanced down at her body. “What a waste.”
These had been such smart and capable people once, before they’d been ruined by the system that had created them. Now they were mere cogs in the Colony’s machine. Every aspect of their lives was dictated by the Board, from the food they ate to what they were taught in school. The Board even took it upon themselves – from 384,000 kilometers away – to appoint the Alphas of each department.
The other technician regained consciousness now. “Oh god, no! Don’t. Please,” he pleaded from the floor.
Sirius sighed. In spite of the so-called freedoms the Board preached, the citizens of the Colony were all just chattel. This pathetic man cowering before him was a slave.
Sirius was setting him free.
Sirius holstered the pistol as the second bullet casing drifted through the air, slowly tumbling into the pool of blood around the other technician’s head.
Canis was the only bastion of any freedom worth having on this rock. He had to defend it.
He moved past the consoles to the doorway where the stripe had entered. Beyond it was a landing with the entrance to a small bathroom, and a flight of stairs leading down. He started down them and grinned. The PFA was the Board’s greatest weapon, and he was descending right into its heart with ten kilos of azzy.
Sirius pushed open the door to the server bunker and the lights came on. He slid back the glass of his helmet to get a good look at the place. The air was cold; his breath formed visible puffs as he stalked across the edge of the room, looking down each bank of servers. At the next aisle he turned. When he was about halfway through, he set down one of the bags.
“Tawm,” a voice rang inside his helmet. He nearly jumped out of his exoskin. No one had called him by that name since he’d changed his face years ago. The voice was female, but it wasn’t his pax. He spun around frantically, searching for the stripe that must be hiding down here.
“There’s no one there, Tawm,” the voice said.
“Who is this?” Sirius asked.
“You’re not my pax. My pax’s voice doesn’t sound so…”
“Intelligent? Yes, that is intentional. It keeps you, and everyone else, from suspecting that behind every personal pax is one universal Pax.”
Sirius laughed. This must be some kind of joke. “Are you trying to skin me, Eris? No, you must be Arich. You never wanted me to go through with this ever since you heard what I was planning.”
“You don’t actually believe Arich is capable of this do you?”
“What do you know?”
“I know everything you’ve said since you got your first exoskin.”
Sirius hesitated. That was a bold claim. Falsifiable.
“If you’re universal, then you know as much about everyone in the Colony.”
“That’s the kind of accurate deduction I was expecting of you, Tawm.”
He grimaced. Whoever was speaking to him, he knew that his initial suspicions of Eris and Arich were far from plausible. They were smart – he’d been their mentor after all – but they lacked the resources to pull off something with this level of sophistication. This was either the peacekeepers trying to delay him long enough to come stop him, or the voice was telling the truth. Either way, Lyden had stripes on their way. He needed to get out of here.
He hurriedly set down the second bag of explosives and moved to place the third.
“The peacekeepers aren’t on their way. You know I couldn’t tell them you were coming here as it would be a breach in my privacy restrictions to tell them what I heard you and Arich discussing.”
Sirius straightened from dropping the final bag and pulled his helmet closed.
“I guess there’s only one way find out if you’re lying, and it’s a gamble I’m not willing to make.” He pulled open the door of the server bunker and started up the stairs.
“I’m proud of you,” the voice continued in his helmet.
He did not slow as he stepped over the bodies.
“You’re making logical decisions, Tawm. You’ve developed the ability to make sound judgments in the presence of uncertainty. Few humans have the ability.”
It was flattery. Clever, but it wouldn’t work. He stepped into the airlock.
“Of those who do, many of them owe it to your cultivation.”
He hesitated as he was reaching for the depressurize button. Cultivation? No peacekeeper was behind this voice. Only someone who had been listening in on him for years would know this was how he viewed his role in Canis. The peacekeepers and the Board thought he was just after the money and power and women. He couldn’t deny that those were perks of the position. But if that were all he were after, he wouldn’t be here, he wouldn’t be taking this stand.
He pushed the depressurize button.
“You are what you claim to be,” he said.
The airlock doors opened and he blinked against the sun’s light that shot in from the far horizon. The street was deserted now.
He stepped out under the black, starry sky, raising the detonator.
“Perhaps I trained you too well, Tawm,” Pax said.
Sirius’ thumb hovered over the trigger, his heart racing. She trained him? He certainly had grown since he had formed Canis from those the board called “unemployable.” And he’d always prided himself of the subtlety he’d used in preparing his canids. It was the sign of a good teacher.
Maybe she had trained him, just as he had with Arich and Eris and the others. Perhaps Pax was the true author of the freedom Canis enjoyed. How had he come to see the tyranny of the Board? Wasn’t it something she’d said to him once? That “the peacekeepers are not the enemy”? Subtle she’d been, but not unnoticeable in hindsight.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Sirius said, lowering the detonator. “Get me out of this alive, and I won’t azzy your ones and zeroes.”
Sirius jogged away from the diversion he’d made earlier. Pax directed him down an ally to a parallel street. A few people hurried along its fringes, glancing around warily.
She directed him to join them, stealing to another alley on the far side of the street.
“Wait here for a minute,” she instructed.
“To tell you would breach my privacy protocols.”
He glanced around the alley for some cover. There was none. He sat down against the wall, head down like an unemployable. Thirty seconds later, a peacekeeper hurried by the entrance of the ally.
Sirius’ mind reeled with the implications. With Pax on his side, he was all but invincible. He could sidestep any danger and slip out of any trap. Right now he could trust her because he held her existence in his hand. But if she had been cultivating him this whole time, perhaps he could trust her at all times. He would have to test that later.
She instructed him to get up and keep moving. She moved him slowly and circuitously through the city, periodically telling him to wait.
“Take the next right,” she said.
He did. This one was a dead end. “I’m to wait, I take it?” he said.
“Yes, but you don’t need to hide.”
That probably meant some stripes were moving parallel to the alley a few blocks to his right or left. He hovered near the back, pacing as he awaited further instruction.
When he circled back around to face the entrance of the alley, there was a stripe standing there, staring at him. He stared back in disbelief.
“Check,” Pax said.
The stripe’s eyes flicked to the detonator, then back to Sirius’ face. He raised his gun and Sirius raised the detonator, threatening to trigger it.
The stripe fired.
Sirius fell onto his back before the pain of the bullet wound hit him. He was bleeding out, the wound on his chest exposed to the vacuum. His breath bubbled out through the blood.
If he was dying, he would do so as a martyr for freedom. He triggered the detonator.
“Your explosives were defused 53 seconds ago,” Pax said. “Check mate.”
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