Real Worlds




Real Worlds
—by Salieri

"Not that one," Ray said. "And no way. Not that one. You got a transistor loose or something?"

Fraser produced something almost identical to a sigh as he minimized the statscard on Little Bug and brought up the full manifest again. The blue glow of the feed made the milk in Ray's cup look like something he'd drained out of the hydraulics on the transport. Good thing Ray'd already lost his appetite.

"First of all, Ray," Fraser answered patiently, "I don't think anyone's used transistors in two hundred years, and certainly not in bioforms. Secondly, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the point of having a sheep farm to make an income from the sheep?"

Ray twitched his shoulder up in a defensive shrug, and stared through the manifest at Fraser's infuriatingly reasonable expression. "I got income."

Fraser sat back and manufactured another sigh. The chair creaked, and then the cabin creaked, too, settling under the weight of fiscal reality. "True. But since the Crash, your returns on the principle aren't going to cover our operating costs—"

"I know that."

"—even with the cost-cutting measures in place." Now Fraser sat forward, elbows on the table. The earnest look. The sleeve of his sweater was frayed at the cuff. Ray looked at that instead of his face. "If you refuse to touch the principle, and I agree that you shouldn't, then—" Fraser spread his hands. The supplicating gesture, only with a bit of the "inevitable and you know it" in there. "—two sheep will buy us a year."

"I know." Ray bounced his knee and focused on the manifest. Two sheep. That wasn't much, out of forty. He scanned the list. Not Fizzy. Not Blue. Definitely not Cub or Chump. Finally he scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "No breeding pairs," he said.

"The breeding pairs will bring the highest return."

"Right, and give somebody else out here foot in the door?" Ray shoved his chair back, picked up his cup and went to the counter to pour the remaining milk back into the bottle. "No breeding pairs."

Craning to look over his shoulder, Fraser watched him for a moment and then nodded. "Alright." He turned back, poked the display and dragged two statscards out of the manifest.

"Not those ones," Ray said.

Fraser sighed.

An hour later, there were still forty sheep on the manifest and Fraser had his head in his hands. "I suppose," he said from behind his fingers, "I could sell my services in town."

Whiskey sloshed out of Ray's cup as he slammed it down on the table between them. "No way. No way you're goin' out there to play 'yessir, no sir, three bags full, sir' with the locals. No way." He could see it—Fraser with the blank "nobody in here but a 'bot" expression on his face, getting ordered around like a farm drone by some dirt rancher with half Fraser's heart and a quarter of his brains—and the image made the whiskey curdle with the milk in Ray's gut.

Fraser dropped his hands and raised his eyebrows at him.

"Fine." After downing the last of the whiskey for fortitude, Ray thumbed the touchpad and the manifest condensed out of static over the table again. He stabbed at the display, once, twice, and two statscards layered out side by side. A male and a female. Chubba and Win. "Chubba's ornery anyway." He swallowed hard and got up to let Dief out.

Between the matched slopes of the Two Sisters, Pixie was glowing red, and the first tendrils of the Sparks Nebula were starting to grope their way up the sky behind her. Down the valley, evening fog was lying low on the river, and where the valley dog-legged at the base of Angle Mountain, two bull moosibou were fighting. They were just tiny, indistinct shapes against the silver sheen of the slow-flowing river, but Ray could clearly hear the crack of their antlered heads coming together. The noise set the sheep in the paddock bleating, and they edged into the corner beside the barn, jostling each other as each one tried to get into the middle of the herd.

"Relax," Ray said to them. "They aren't interested in you."

The moosibou came together again, and parted with angry snorts and a splash as one of them beat a retreat into the river. The winner stood on the bank and wheezed in triumph. The show over, the sheep shifted as one away from the barn and back out into the field while Dief trotted off in search of Pearson and Tru.

Ray didn't turn around when Fraser stepped up behind him, and his back went stiff when Fraser's hand smoothed up his shirt along his spine to his neck. He couldn't keep up the resistance, though, and relaxed into the touch. "It's the names," he conceded. "That was my mistake. No more names."

"Probably wise."

"Unless we call 'em 'Credits' and 'Jackpot.'"

"'Windfall.'"

"'Nestegg.'"

"'Loot.'"

Ray watched Dief and Tru chasing each other in circles for awhile. "Win's even more ornery than Chubba."

"Yes, I believe she is."

"I feel sorry for whoever gets that pair. Poor bastard."

"Me, too."

They stood on the porch until Pixie was swallowed by the Sparks, and they would've stayed a little longer but the squawk from the radio pulled them back inside. After sliding past Fraser, who was getting started on the dishes, Ray shifted a box of flexies and several months of bills and receipts off the desk to the chair and slapped the mic. "Yo!"

"—et—gun—in—loud!"

His hands in sudsy water, Fraser turned and frowned in Ray's direction.

"Say again?"

Nothing but static and then a wail that made Ray scramble for the volume control.

"Say again. You're breaking up."

"—guys wanna invest some of that golden fleece in a decent comm dish—call—you for ten minutes!" Another burst of static and then a shriek that was definitely not feedback. "—bitch!—unfriendly customers—you got weapon—"

Ray looked over at Fraser, but Fraser was staring at the ceiling, a finger resting behind his ear. "Listen."

"I don't—" Then he did. A low whine creasing the air under the agitated bleating of the sheep, and far off, one of the dogs—sounded like Pearson—barking his head off.

His hands dripping suds, Fraser walked over to the window and pulled back the curtain. "Ray."

"What?" There was just static now, and Ray stopped fiddling with the gain to look over his shoulder.

"I think you'd better do as he says." When Fraser turned back from the window, Ray couldn't see his face. He was backlit by a suddenly livid, roiling sky. "Get your gun."

The stack of receipts and the box of flexies tumbled in opposite directions off the chair as Ray flung it away from the desk and yanked out the middle drawer. Way at the back was his pistol. He slapped his way across the drawer, swearing creatively and rearranging three years of random crap that had accumulated in it. "Where's the freebin' power pack, Fraser?" He straightened in time to get a hand up to catch the power pack as Fraser tossed it down from the loft.

With a resounding thud that reminded Ray that Fraser was more solid than your average bear, Fraser skipped the ladder and dropped down into the middle of the sitting room rug. He had a rifle in one hand and two more power packs in the other. He thrust the packs at Ray.

"Where'd you find those? I didn't even know I had those."

"Under the bed."

"What were they doing under the bed?"

"Everything ends up under the bed." Fraser waved Ray toward the door. "Oh, and I found your other red sock, by the way."

"Thanks. I love those socks." Ray smacked the pack home and felt the all-too-familiar sizzle in his palm as the pistol scanned him, confirmed his identity, and hummed to full power, then he bolted out onto the porch and down the steps into the howling wind.

Protecting his eyes with a raised hand, Ray squinted through the whirling dust. In the paddock, the sheep where milling in panic, making very un-sheepish sounds that he could hear even over the rising rumble that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Fraser was in the middle of the yard, directing Dief and Tru with whistles and hand signals, and the two dogs squirmed under the rail fence into the paddock to start harrying the sheep toward the barn. Downriver, Pearson was running full-out in Ray's direction and behind him, where Angle Mountain should have been, the sky was green and purple and turning inside out.

"Holy Jee on a stick," Ray breathed, and turned to holler in Fraser's direction, "Skip storm!" Fraser paused only for a second to look, and then went back to directing the dogs. "Freebin' fucking sonofabitchin' skip storm!"

By the time Ray made it to the barn, one of the doors had come unlatched and was slamming itself to sticks against the fence, so he had to time it so that he didn't get creamed darting through into the sudden dark and relative calm inside. After running across the dirt floor to the far side, he threw himself against the paddock doors. No luck. The wind held them closed like a giant hand. Outside, the sheep were crying. The third time he tackled the doors, he felt something twang inside his shoulder, but then Fraser was there, and between the two of them they finally managed to push the them wide enough that the wind caught them and tore them open the rest of the way.

Then the two of them stood in the heaving crowd of sheep that piled through to safety and watched the skip rip the world open.

"Violation of colonial shipping statute 81A," Fraser shouted. "No skip with active drive is to enter the atmosphere of an inhabited—"

"Yeah? Well, how 'bout you go get your citation book and we'll write 'em a ticket?"

Behind them, Dief and Tru were yipping at the sheep, hassling them into the pens. Out in the yard, Pearson was rounding up the last stragglers and driving them toward the open doors. Chubba and Win. Figured.

They could hear the sizzle of the rain as it swept along the valley toward them, driving on the wind and almost outstripping the storm clouds themselves. Somewhere deep inside the unnatural churning reds and greens and purples, where the lightning was crackling enough to set all the hair on Ray's body on end, the skip was shedding momentum, casting it away as heat, and space was rippling and stretching around it like a brake-net. Ray wrapped sweaty fingers around the grip of the pistol and wondered how the Jee he was supposed to fight that.

When the rain hit, it was like the barn had run headlong into a solid wall of water. The drops hit the ground like spears that forced the paddock dirt up into the air in red gouts. And it was hot. Within seconds the ground began to steam. With a hiss of pain, Ray protected his face with his arm and grabbed Fraser's sleeve to pull him back away from the doors. Fraser didn't budge, so Ray hunched down behind him and put his hands over his ears. The rumble had become a roar that was doubled and redoubled by the pounding of the rain on the tin roof. If the sheep were still crying, Ray couldn't hear them, and when Fraser turned to shout at him, one arm pointing at the sky, Ray could only tell by the shape of his mouth that he was saying, "Look!"

In the centre of the storm, the snub nose of the skip was heaving into sight, iridescent and swathed in lightning. It couldn't really have filled the entire span of the valley, but it seemed to as the spatial distortions rippled and wobbled around it, so that it was impossible to tell how far away or how big it really was. The biggest skip Ray'd ever seen was moored on the executive spindle at the Chicago docks, a football field long, at least. This one had to be about on par. But that wasn't what Fraser was pointing at.

It took a second for Ray to make it out, but then he caught a gleam off the hull and recognized the wasp-shape of a hopper, landing struts deployed, heading toward them from the middle of the chaos, buffeted and weaving wildly in the wind shear and coming in fast, way too fast, the skip barreling on behind it.

"Oh crap."

He and Fraser ducked instinctively as the hopper screeched overhead, the skip thundering after it, still maybe a couple klicks up but seeming close enough to touch with an outstretched hand. A bolt of lightning split the pine at the far end of the paddock, lighting it up like a torch for a few blazing seconds before the rain doused it. Another strike lifted the hay wagon off its wheels and dropped it upside down in the middle of the paddock. Ray could practically feel electricity arcing between his teeth and sparking across the pin in his shoulder. His hair crackled with static. A second later, they could hear the shriek of stressed landing struts as the hopper tore a swath out of the valley.

By the time they made it back to the other side of the barn and had cleared enough of the shattered door away to get back out into the yard, the hopper was lying on its side at the end of a long scar, its cockpit half-submerged in the river. The skip was topping the far ridge, mostly obscured in its riotous cloud cover, but its engines visible as a nimbus of blue light. Then it dropped behind the ridge and there was for a long moment only the slowing clatter of rain on the barn roof and the rasp of Ray's breath.

They saw the flash a few seconds before they heard the sound, and it left Fraser's silhouette floating before Ray's eyes. When it came, the concussion of the crash almost knocked Ray off his feet.

Hanging on to Fraser, Ray looked back toward the barn, where Dief, Tru and Pearson were waiting in the doorway.

"Stay with the sheep," Fraser said clearly, and had to wave Dief back before he could step out onto the steaming mud. The thinning rain felt like bathwater, but the ground was still a little too hot for anybody without boots on. When Dief sat back on his haunches with a disgruntled groan, the two men set off toward the hopper.

It was about a hundred meters away. The starboard struts were aimed at the sky and twisted like the legs of a dead bug, and the earth around it was blackened, patches of heaved sod burning in spite of the rain. Ray didn't want to contemplate what kind of toxic crap had leaked out of the ship's innards onto his land. One look at Fraser's grim face, though, proved that Fraser was doing enough contemplating for the both of them. At least the sheep were safe. Who knew if there'd be any grazing for them after this, though. Ray's grip on the pistol was white-knuckled as he signaled silently to Fraser and they split up, heading down opposite sides of the wreck.

Finding that the port hatch was buried, Ray continued on, sliding and falling in the mud every few steps until it was practically a relief to hit the river. The water wasn't much use, though, in terms of clean up. It was blood thick with churned up silt and red mud. He swiped the back of his wrist across his forehead and swore as the mud slithered into his eyes. Still blinking hard and feeling his way along the hull with his free hand, he tried not to mutter out loud about all the unfriendly things he was gonna do to whoever he found inside the ship, but he wasn't all that successful. By the time he met Fraser waist-deep in the river in front of the cockpit, he'd gone past planning to mostly incoherent cursing.

"Ray."

"—toxic knuckle sandwich is what—"

"Ray."

"—freebin' sheep-kicking bastard fucks—"

"Ray."

"—with a guy's sheep, he's gotta face the wrath of the sheep guy is what I'm sayin', oh yeah—"

"Ray!"

Ray stopped and glared at Fraser. "What?"

"Look."

Ray had to slosh around the nose of the hopper to get a look at the part of the cockpit that wasn't under water. Inside, a guy was looking back at them and waving his arms around. It looked like he was partially trapped under the collapsed console, and was only head and shoulders out of the seeping water. He didn't look happy at all, which made Ray feel better about things.

It took both him and Fraser and several pulses from the pistol the break through the already mostly shattered canopy. After the polyglass shards were cleared away, Fraser reached in and grasped the man's hand.

"Agent Vecchio," he said. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Yeah, yeah. Joyful reunion. We'll have cake. Now, somebody wanna get me out of here before I drown or what?"

^^^

The queer thing was that the ground was still warm through his boots when it started snowing, and the sky was a perfectly flat lens of green cloud, not like regular low-slung, brooding snow clouds he was used to. Up above the cover and who knew how far out, lightning flashed, blue, pink, red. It was a stim-scape, supersaturated in a way that seemed weirdly to suck the colour out of everything groundlevel, including Fraser's mud-soaked red plaid vest and the blood running down the side of Vecchio's face.

Vecchio made it about halfway back to the cabin before he started to veer off kind of wobbly to the right then over-corrected left, bounced off of Fraser and toppled onto his back in the mud like a tree going down under the axe.

"Oh dear," Fraser said, and picked him up like he weighed nothing, like he was made of polyfoam, and carried him the rest of the way, Vecchio's long legs swinging and his head propped against Fraser's shoulder. Like that, Vecchio looked frail and even small, which was stupid 'cause the guy was a 'scraper and, when he had his pins under him and they weren't dangling over Fraser's arm like they were held on with string, he was taller than Ray was. But Ray knew, looking at him cradled in Fraser's arms, that Ray wasn't going to be able to do the knuckle sandwich on him, after all. Instead, he boxed a quick one-two in the air and tried not to think about how the snow was melting on the hot mud and how the sky was pressing down on the back of his neck, and how the skip over the ridge was discharging spacetwist like a guy gasping out his last ragged breaths. If Vecchio rode the hopper down through that, who knew what kind of hinky backwash there was sloshing around in his brain pan.

In the barn, the sheep were bleating something pitiful, and Dief was in the doorway, watching the three men cut across the paddock, past the demolished hay wagon toward the cabin. Ray ran ahead to clear the drying rack out of the little alcove under the loft where Fraser's cot was now pretty much a home for laundry waiting to make its way into Ray's dresser drawers, or under the bed, as the case may be. He yanked a blanket out of the trunk at the foot of the cot, then scrambled up the ladder to drop another down from their own bed. By the time he had that spread out on the cot, Fraser was there. It took both of them to get Vecchio out of his soaked clothes and to stuff him in under the covers. He left Fraser to clean up the head wound—which wasn't as bad as it looked—and went to get somebody on the horn.

"Piece of crap."

Fraser looked up from the sink where he was rinsing the bloody water out of the bowl. "No luck," he said, unnecessarily, since he'd been six feet away for the last twenty minutes, listening to Ray saying, "Clementine 10099, calling RCMP detachment Angle Mountain, do you read?" and getting nothing back but static.

"No luck. Bad luck. Fuck luck." Ray switched channels and started again. "Clementine 10099, calling Soo Station. Come on, Sven, talk to me you muscle-headed freak. Clementine 10099 to anybody. We have a downed skip in the Comox Valley—or maybe it made it as far as Pristine—Look, just send somebody up here, if you read this."

After throwing down the mic in disgust, he sat back in the chair and screwed his fists into his eyesockets. He could still see lightning, blue, pink, red. He dropped his hands and blinked hard at Fraser, who was standing at the sink with a towel in his hands, watching him with a frown.

"Are you all right?" Fraser's voice was all fuzzy around the edges.

Ray shook his head hard like he was trying to clear water from his ears and squinted at him again. At them again. Both Frasers dropped the towel on the counter and stepped toward him. Then all three of them started to say something but Ray couldn't make it out with six of them talking at once. None of them caught him before he pitched out of the chair and onto his face between Fraser's feet.

^^^

The first thought Ray had when he woke up was of butterflies, the kind he saw that very first summer, when Fraser had touched him on the shoulder to draw Ray's attention away from the fence wire he was winding around a post, and held his hand up to show him the creature balanced there on his knuckles. Its wings were half the size of Ray's hand. Opening and closing in time with something Ray couldn't hear or feel, they glowed yellow and red like windows in a church. Ray, who'd only ever been in a church to roust a couple of junkies from the vestry, dropped his pliers and then fell to his knees in the dry grass to get closer to the hand and the bug. "Holy Jee," he said. "Fraser," and the gust of his breath caught in the sails of the wings and made the bug waver, the wings flattening open for balance and showing Ray two round, red, false eyes. "Holy—" he said again, and the butterfly lifted away, caught the wind and rose with a sort of crazy but purposeful flight. On his knees on the grass, Ray watched it go. He sat for a long time.

Fraser watched him, like he was doing now. And, like that day, when Ray finally turned his eyes toward him, Fraser reached out to trace a knuckle across his cheekbone like he was wiping a tear.

"Hello Ray." Fraser couldn't look tired, but he did.

The light through the window beside the bed was dead-of-winter blue, but it shifted and slithered across Fraser's face, the bed, and the ceiling like the cabin was under water.

Ray twisted the corner of the blanket in his fist and swallowed hard. "How long?"

"Nineteen hours, forty minutes."

Watching Fraser's hands now, each one ghosted by an afterimage as they moved across Ray's body straightening the blanket, Ray thought of butterflies. Carefully, he reached out to touch, but the hand he grasped was insubstantial. Closing the gap, Fraser caught his fingers and squeezed hard.

Ray followed the path of Fraser's arm, up past the elbow to the shoulder and to his face. At first there were only two Frasers there, but they multiplied as he moved, the shadowy, see-through ones slower, catching up and folding together when Fraser went still. Ray closed his eyes.

"What do you see?" Like his body, Fraser's voice was chased by an echo, blue and red and pink.

With his eyes squeezed shut, Ray could focus on the solidity of Fraser's hand. "Mounties on parade." He grinned and the movement made a sound in his head, like breaking glass, green and spiking orange. "I'll tell ya, Frase, multiple yous figure in some of my more unspeakable fantasies, but right now, it kinda makes me want to puke."

And so he did. Fraser held Ray's head while he spat into the bowl that had somehow materialized on his lap.

"No offence," Ray gasped.

"None taken."

"This sucks." He cracked an eye open and looked sideways at Fraser. "You okay?"

Fraser's nod almost made Ray puke again. "I seem to be unaffected."

"Good. Score one for the home team. Guess that plastic brain of yours is good for something, huh?"

"It would seem so." Fraser's hand and its ghost fluttered up to Ray's face and settled warm and real on his cheek for a moment.

Ray leaned into it a bit and focused on the angle of deepest shadow where the roof slanted down to meet the wall. In the narrow window at the very edge of his peripheral vision, the three suns resolved into two and then into one, which was swallowed up by the twisting sky. "The dogs? Sheep?"

Fraser paused long enough that Ray risked a look at him. "I think they're all right. I don't know. None of them has eaten." Fraser tugged at his ear and looked over his shoulder toward the barn, dragging a daisy chain of ghosts after him. "If the effects don't subside in a few days we'll have to— Well, to be honest, I don't know what we'll do. The radio's still out, and the transport is inoperative, not that I'd like much to try to fly in that." He gestured toward the ceiling. "And the transport only holds two, in any case." He turned back to Ray and all of the ghosts folded into him in time to offer Ray a faint but encouraging smile. "We'll think of something."

For a second Ray thought the "we" referred to Fraser and the ghosts, but then he remembered that he had a brain himself, at least part of which was not currently being churned up by whatever freaky quantum mathematics the skip was leaking. He knew about skip storms. He'd never seen one for real, but he'd watched the simulations—from the sidelines, of course, since, without implants, he couldn't do the full stim trial—and he knew the drill. He knew, for instance, how to deal with a stampede in a bullet train station. Sheep couldn't be that different, right? Clementine was just like groundlevel, only with grass, right?

He lifted his free hand and pressed his fingers and thumb into his eyes hard enough to show stars. "We are fucking so far out of water—so far over our heads—out of our—" Giving up, he let his hand fall and glared at Fraser hard enough to keep all the ghosts folded neatly together for all of two seconds. "We are fucked, Fraser, good and all the way to France."

Below them in the little alcove, Vecchio groaned, and then the sound of him losing whatever his G-momma packed him for lunch sent Ray groping for the bowl.

"You suck, Vecchio," he snarled.

"You suck more, Kowalski," Vecchio answered between retching and spitting.

"Freebin G-fuck."

"Sheep herder."

"You got something against sh—"

Fraser's hand butterflied up and covered Ray's mouth. "Perhaps it would be prudent to save your energy."

"Prudent," Ray said against Fraser's palm. He flopped back onto his pillow, closed his eyes and watched the lightning strobing in the hollow parts of his skull. "I'm all about prudent. I got prudent to burn."

Vecchio's voice drifted up to him, weak and miserable, but curled on the end with a chuckle. "Kowalski, maybe you need a dictionary, because I don't think that means what you think it means." The chuckle stopped abruptly.

In the long pause, Fraser looked at the floor of the loft like he could see through the planks. "Agent—?"

Over the ridge, the skip's drive imploded.

Ray couldn't hear Vecchio's screaming over his own.

^^^

Chapter Two:


"Th-thirty mmmminutes to j-j-jump. Crew prepare for pre-pre-jump cr-cro-crossssssssssscheck."

Ray came back into the world like he was was sliding down a muddy slope. There was flailing (which, he realized later, accounted for the restraints). When he hit the bottom—or, as it turned out, a med-pod—and opened his eyes, it took a few seconds for the world to layer itself back into place, and the smooth voice of the ship's computer slithered around inside his head like eggs in hot oil. The med-bot turned its array toward him and twenty ghost-bots chased it. Each ghost collapsed into the real with a sound like plates of glass grinding over sand. Ray winced.

"Perceptual distortion effects will diminish when we clear the skipstorm," the bot informed him. It had a voice a lot like Ray's Aunt Clarice's, if Clarice was talking at him from inside an echoing tin can.

"Twenty-five minutes to jump. Testing jump pods."

Lights flickered in Ray's peripheral vision as the pod ran its diagnostic.

"Where am I?" Ray twisted around as much as he could inside the restraints to get a look at the med-bay. It looked like a med-bay.

"This is Royal Bureau of Investigation Jump Ship Purvis."

In the pod on Ray's left, Dief was already sedated under the locked canopy. In the one on the right, Vecchio was still screaming, silently, his mouth wide and his eyes unseeing. Ray pointed his chin at him. "Is he gonna be okay?"

Before the bot addressed the question, it scanned Ray, the eyelike ports on the array clicking and whirring as it checked basal response, heart-rate, all that crap that added up somehow inside its tin-head to an assessment of Ray's mental condition. And Ray's mental condition must've been assessed as "better than crazy but not quite sane" because the bot responded with Patronizing Meaningless Medical Platitude #205: "We'll know more in time."

Ray grimaced and remembered how he'd never liked his Aunt Clarice. For one thing, she called him "Little Ray" even though she had to stand on tip-toe to plant those gooey kisses right on his mouth.

"Where's Fraser?" Even as he was saying it, he wished he could take it back. So far as the G-men were concerned, Fraser was just a bot, right? A farm drone. A guy doesn't get all worked up about the current whereabouts of a tractor. The med-bot clicked-and whirred at him. He could feel it down-grading its psych-assessment. Shit.

"I'm here, Ray."

Ray almost gave himself whiplash turning toward the voice. Fraser was in the doorway, a couple of dark suits with him. He came closer—only trailing a couple of ghosts, now, thank Jee—and looked down at Ray with way too much there-ness and real-ness in his expression.

"Are you feeling better?"

"What are you doing?" Ray asked out of the corner of his mouth, as if the pod wasn't wired to pick up the minutest sound and the G-men didn't have artificially enhanced hearing.

"The Bureau ship was in orbit, waiting for the skip's drive to implode and the distortion field to collapse enough to get a hopper through. They airlifted us out. The sheep are with Sven."

It was Fraser's cop-voice—just the facts ma'am—but there was something in his eyes, some kind of message that Ray's brain was too scrambled to interpret.

"I hope you got a receipt. Sven's had his eye on that herd since day one." He tried to reach for Fraser's sleeve, but the restraint around his wrist tightened, all gentle "no, you don't" and "resistance is futile, sir." "You told him about Little Bug's shots, right?"

"Yes, Ray."

"So why aren't you with them?" Drone, remember? Retasked? No Benton Fraser here? All safe and sound on Clementine with the other tractors?

"Twenty minutes to jump. Secure cargo. Secure pods."

In answer, Fraser raised his arms and Ray finally noticed the cuffs. "It seems that it was me they were after."

Before Ray could even start to get the sixty pertinent questions in order in his head (or to be impressed at how he was picking up Fraser-lingo like 'pertinent' out in the backwoods of Clementine) or to spew out something better than "What the—" and "Why the—" the G-dick in the darker of the black suits came over and grabbed Fraser by the bicep to yank him away. Fraser, being about as much of a push-over as Angle Mountain, didn't budge. Instead, his jaw set with something as close to belligerent resistance as Ray had ever seen. But it lasted only a second, and only Ray saw it, because by the time Fraser let the agent turn him around, his expression was as placid as only Fraser could make it. It was almost enough to make Ray believe there was no Fraser at home anymore.

"Whoa!" Ray leaned against the restraints, which tightened again and widened against his arms and legs to spread out the strain. No bruising in the med-pod. "Hang on a second! We're talkin here—OW!" The pod pricked him at the base of his spine and the world started instantly to melt around the edges.

The G-dick in the more cheerful shade of black (Must be playing the Good Dick, Ray thought muzzily) sneered and shot Fraser a smug look. "You heard the announcement. Secure cargo. You got a box with your name on it, pal." The 'pal' had an extra snide twist on it that made Ray lunge weakly against the restraints again, but the world was almost totally melted by then and the canopy was hissing shut between them, anyway. He just had time to watch Fraser down the end of a long, wobbly tunnel brush his cuffed hands against the canopy of Dief's pod before the tunnel collapsed. Ray thought, No more and everything went away.

^^^

The major difference between the piece-of-crap emergency jump pod Ray rode inbound to Clementine three years before and the Bureau's state-of-the-art med-pod was the quality of the wake-up call. The crap pod gave you the equivalent of a bucket of icewater over the head; the med-pod administered the drug-equivalent of a foot massage and a gentle cooing, "c'mon, darling, rise and shi-ine" in the ear. Ray woke up bathed in the milk of human kindness and a genuine love for his fellow human beings. He grinned at the med-bot as someone he couldn't see but whom he admired deeply shifted him onto a gurney, wheeled him out of the med-bay, and lined him up by the ship's hatch with Vecchio, Dief and a man-sized crate that literally had Fraser's name on it. He smiled at the G-men in black and blacker suits, and he even shook the hand of the nearest one, pulling him in close so that he could whisper in his artificially enhanced ear, "I'm not gonna be sedated forever, you fuck." With a friendly wink, Ray let him go and rode the rosy clouds of contentment all the way to the hospital, repeating "soon soon soon" in a dreamy, sing-song voice, and imagining all the friendly, loving ways he was gonna make that G-man remember his manners.

The transport's drive hummed through his bones and lulled him, but Ray decided, in between singing and imagining, that he wasn't going out again until he and Fraser and Dief were curling up all cosy-like for the jump back to Clementine. He remembered the last few days like a swimmer remembers air, in gasps and glimpses, and that would not do at all. So he wasn't going out again, and whenever the rosy darkness loomed around him, he looked over at Dief on one side and Vecchio on the other and chewed his tongue hard enough to send sparks zinging around inside his head. Out of his line of sight, the crate was strapped to the wall, and it didn't make the trip with the rest of them into the hospital. Ray sang, "soon soon soon" and didn't sleep.

It didn't take him long to figure out that they were being kept in a secure ward. The black suits at the elevator were a good clue, as was the pulse-proof polyglass around the nurses' station. Still more than a little uncertain on his feet, Ray dragged himself down the corridor and rapped his knuckles on the window until the skinny, red-headed nurse flicked him an irritated look with her watery eyes and went back to watching something on the 'net, jacked in through a stim-feed in her console. Whatever it was, it made her laugh out loud.

Ray rapped again. "Where's my dog?"

Without bothering to come out of near-stare this time, she said, "Quarantine."

"Where's that?"

"Basement."

Ray looked over his shoulder at the two human mountains stationed next to the elevator. "Terrific. That's just great." He smiled and waved. They didn't smile or wave back. When he shuffled over, bouncing first off of the one wall of the corridor and then the other as the floor see-sawed under him, the guards did this sort of tectonic plate thing (Ray gave another nod in Fraser's unknown direction. A few more years trapped in a cabin together and Ray was gonna be a freebin genius) and they moved to block the elevator like continents shifting together. Ray went left. They went left. Ray went right. They went right. Then things got a little out of hand.

He didn't fall asleep though, after the nurse got through with him, mostly because he palmed the painkillers she gave him, and even managed to play sweet-and-docile-patient well enough to get her to leave off with the restraints already. He waited long enough for her to get back into her bubble and jack into her stim, then threw back his covers, stuffed his cold feet into his slippers and made his way—mostly by hanging on to the wall and any furniture near at hand—to Vecchio's room. There, he slouched into a chair, put his feet up on the side rail of the bed and tried to wake Vecchio up with the power of his mind.

Apparently, his mind power was on the minimal side, but steady application seemed to be the way to go, because after an hour, as he was drifting in a sort of non-space between sleeping and waking, Vecchio said in a raspy voice, "For the love of Jee, Kowalski, can't a guy die in peace?"

Ray dropped his feet to the floor, sat up straighter and blinked at him. About as pasty-looking as the starchy white sheets, Vecchio was mostly a barely-there suggestion of dark strokes: a shadow of close-cropped hair, long nose, eyes like dismal holes in late-spring snow. True to his word, he'd ditched Langoustini's electric blue eyes for his own uncertain hazel, but he didn't look any less freaky, what with the whites dyed yellow, a side effect of whatever potion the med-bot shot them up with to deal with the spacetwist. Ray knew from a shocking chance encounter with a mirror that his own looked pretty much the same, except his were even more beautiful on account of the broken blood vessel in the left one and the purple shiner almost swelling that eye shut, courtesy of man mountain number two.

Vecchio stared at him narrowly. "What do you want?"

"You're not dying." Ray hitched his chair closer. "And I want my dog. And Fraser. And to know what the hell you got us into, Vecchio."

With a sigh, Vecchio closed his eyes and chuckled humourlessly. "I didn't get you into anything, you schmuck." He slitted his eyes open again. "And maybe you wouldn't be in it if you'd retasked the bot like you were supposed to."

Ray's spine went stiff. "He was retasked."

"Right."

"He went to the retasking station." Ray gestured with open hands to the retasking station on Pixie. Incidentally, the pink planet should be rising between the Sisters right about now, the Sparks crawling along after her. He thought about Little Bug and wondered if Sven was remembering her shots. "And then he came back from the retasking station." He made a sweeping motion to indicate the trip from Pixie to Clementine. "As the French say, voila•. Retasked."

Vecchio was skeptical. "C'mon. I looked in his eyes. I know what I saw."

Ray chewed on that for a few seconds while Vecchio met his glare without blinking. Finally, Ray twitched his head in a shrug. "So, what's it to you, anyway? We're out on freebin Clementine, for Jee's sake. We didn't see three people last year. What we gonna do, corrupt the sheep?"

Vecchio raised his hands defensively, trailing I.V. tubing. "Hey, what you guys do with the sheep is your business." He let his hands fall, sank deeper into his pillows and closed his eyes. When he spoke, his tone was softened, by exhaustion or sympathy, Ray couldn't quite tell. "Look, you guys could live out there forever and become the sheep barons of the far-side colonies, for all I care."

"Yeah? So why'd you come screamin into my front yard with a skip on your ass, then?"

Vecchio regarded him for a long moment, deciding how much to tell. Ray exercised a little more mind power, and stared back until Vecchio gave in. "Okay, it's like this." He pulled his pillow out and punched it a few times before stuffing it back behind his neck. He pointed at the pitcher on the bedside table and drank half the cup of water Ray poured for him. "The Bureau was mopping up after that whole Fraser-bot army thing that bought you that nice ranch and got me two citations. That's two, by the way." When Ray didn't offer any congratulations, he grimaced and went on. "We were going after the designers and the manufacturers and started getting some weird pings having to do with your bot friend, Benton Fraser. Nothing definite, not even anything we could make sense of, but the pings came up stringing with some nasty names in the Colonial Independence Movement."

Ray snorted. "Fraser's no revolutionary."

"Maybe not," Vecchio admitted, "but the CIM's been active lately in ways the central powers are not so happy with. Plus, we never got to the bottom of that issue of the activation codes for the bot soldiers, and there was a lot of resistance to letting Fraser go without anybody doing the full number on his cortex to see what other stuff dear ol' dad might've built in. Retasking was the condition on that. Wipe the cortex, we got no problem, right? I put my ass on the line pulling that together. Personal guarantees. I let the commissioner's nephew kiss me right on the lips. Twice." His haunted expression turned accusing. "And then I show up on Clementine and look into his eyes and see Benton Fraser looking back at me, and I gotta think dad left something."

"Fraser didn't—doesn't—know. Some kind of recovery program." The room was starting to feel way too hot. Ray tugged at the collar of his hospital pajamas.

"I figured. So we get some dark data from the retasking station on Pixie." He watched Ray rub a nervous hand across his mouth. "Yeah. Like I say, unconfirmed, but enough to send up a flare. I made sure I caught the assignment." When Ray frowned the question at him, Vecchio opened his hands in his own version of a shrug. "I dunno, Kowalski, maybe I got a soft spot for freak-love or something." He waved the question away and sipped more water. "Anyway, I get a side-wise ping stringing Fraser and some skip outbound for Clementine, manage to talk my way on as a last-minute replacement for a crew member who just happened to fall down on his way to work—"

Ray thought of the last time he'd seen Vecchio, all dolled up in a suit that cost two months pay on a cop's salary, and couldn't suppress a snicker. "'Cause you make a believable wrench-monkey."

"Hey, I'm from good working-man stock. Besides, identity is just data. Show up with the right data, who's gonna ask?"

"So who was on the skip?"

Vecchio shook his head, leaning a little to the side to look at the mountains guarding the elevator. "Didn't get a chance to find out. My brother agents thought it would be a good idea to jump ahead, meet the skip at Clementine, catch 'em when they put their boots on the ground. But the skip made some aggressive moves—"

"And you guys shot it down." Disgusted, Ray threw himself back in his chair, and counted to ten with his gaze fixed on the ceiling, which was the only thing in the hospital he didn't feel like doing harm just then. "That's genius. There's people on that planet, you know."

"You know as well as I do that a jumper's no match for a skip. Jumpers got no maneuverability in-system. They didn't have much choice." Still, Vecchio's defense of his fellow agents sounded pretty luke-warm. "I barely got to a hopper in time. And you know the rest."

Behind closed lids, Ray couldn't help watching the replay of the crash. He could practically still feel the hot mud under his boots. He opened his good eye. "So you guys recover anything from the skip?"

Vecchio looked at him like he was damaged. "You ever seen what happens when a skip drive implodes? All that's left is a deep, swirling hole full of nothing. And I mean nothing." And Vecchio should know, since some part of him had looked at it and it had made him scream himself catatonic.

With a grunt, Ray started to rub his eyes but remembered the shiner and clasped his hands on the top of his head instead. His knee bounced. "So that's what you got, nothin."

"We got Fraser."

Ray shifted his glare from the ceiling to Vecchio and then followed that up with a threatening finger. "Not for long." He leaned forward. "Where is he?"

"Not sure. A secure location someplace where they can go through his programming with tweezers and a magnifying glass."

For a whole minute Ray was still while a kind of electric charge surged around inside him, building until it forced him up from his chair to make a circuit of the room. He wound up back at Vecchio's bedside, fists curled so tight they made the tendons stand out on the sides of his neck. "They put him in a box, Vecchio. You know what goes in boxes? Dead things and kitchen appliances."

This time Vecchio looked genuinely sympathetic. "According to the law, that's exactly what he is."

"Fuck the law. And fuck you. This is not happening." Ray made a little lunge in Vecchio's direction, caught himself and redirected the energy at the bedside table, sweeping the pitcher off of it and into the wall. The pitcher didn't break, but water splattered out of it in an arc that gleamed in the dim light like cast-off. He kicked the stupid indestructible pitcher and it rebounded off the wall and spun to a stop at a pair of booted feet.

"It is happening, Mr. Kowalski, so you might as well calm down before someone has you restrained."

Ray could barely hear her over the pounding of blood in his ears, but he recognized her alright. She hadn't changed much in three years. The hair was shorter, and the uniform had more gold do-dads at the collar, but the eyes of ice were still the eyes of ice.

She stepped into the room and Ray came to meet her. The staring contest maybe would've gone on until the sun burned out, but Vecchio said with exaggerated politeness, "Superintendent Thatcher, to what do we owe the pleasure?"

Thatcher held up a flexi. "Mr. Kowalski is a colonial subject. The RCMP has jurisdiction."

Behind Ray, Vecchio was shifting blankets, grunting with frustration as he tried to sit up. "Yeah, I don't think so. This is my case."

Offering a thin smile, Thatcher went around Ray to drop the flexi on Vecchio's lap. "Don't worry Agent, I'm sure you'll get your citation." The smile widened, all predatory friendliness. "And in the meantime, in the interests of inter-agency co-operation, you're ordered to release all files pertaining to your investigations to date, and to make a statement regarding your knowledge—official and unofficial—of bioform Benton Fraser." She turned to Ray and he felt the frostbite prickle on his exposed skin. "That goes for you, too, Mr. Kowalski."

Ray showed teeth, too. "You wish. I got nothin to say." And then, because he was only throwing his puny, spacetwisted, drug-soaked weight against an unstoppable force, he added, "And I want my dog."

He hadn't even finished saying it before he was sideswiped by the memory of Dief chasing Tru in circles in front of the cabin, of Pixie rising, and Fraser's hand smoothing up the back of Ray's shirt to grip his neck, and it was so real and so tangible—the warmth of Fraser's hand, the dry, dusty smell of the grass—that he had to close his eyes and grind his teeth against it. Fucking spacetwist, folding the past into the present, screwing with his perceptions. Or maybe it was just the bell-ringing he got from the guards. Or maybe it was just that in three years he hadn't been more than a klick away from Fraser and this was all about phantom limbs and real pain.

He reached out blindly and gripped the rail at the end of Vecchio's bed. When he opened his eyes again, Thatcher was watching him, but the notch of concern between her brows smoothed out almost before he could recognize it for what it was.

"Fraser would never do anything to endanger anybody," he said. "You don't know—" The butterfly opened its wings on the back of Fraser's hand and Ray had to blink hard to get rid of it. "All he does is get up at dawn and work the ranch and—" The flow of the sentence broke around the memory of evenings, the climb up to the loft, the way the moonlight traveled across the blanket, the way Fraser remembered in his quiet voice stories about a childhood he'd never really had, and the way Ray convinced him each night that the memories he'd made that day were real. "—then he gets up and does the same thing all over again."

Unable to meet Ray's eyes, Vecchio rolled and unrolled the flexi in his hands. The determined line of Thatcher's mouth softened, not enough to give Ray any hope, but enough to suggest she hadn't really been carved out of a glacier.

That didn't last either, and she drew herself up to say, "His existence is a violation of Armistice Statute—"

"God laws."

"Yes."

It took only one long stride for Ray to get into her space and to her credit she didn't back down. "You're gonna quote God laws at me? The God laws were made by a bunch of chickenshit guys who were too scared to face up to what they created." He jabbed Thatcher with a stiff finger. A quick glance over her shoulder showed him Vecchio with his feet on the floor, ready to move, but he went still when Ray aimed the finger at him. "Who's playin God here, huh? You wave the fucking God laws at me while you got Fraser strapped to a table somewhere so you can put his fucking brains in a blender and take what he is? Look in a fucking mirror, lady."

Everything went still then, for a moment that seemed to stretch on and on until Ray wondered if this was spacetwist again. Thatcher's breathing matched his own for a few seconds and then slowed down, leaving Ray alone on the freight-train. In the corner of his eye, the tubing from Vecchio's I.V. caught the light and gleamed like a hook. Eventually, Thatcher blinked.

"For some reason I can't fathom, Mr. Kowalski, I like you, so I'm going to give you a piece of advice." Her chin came up. "You might watch your words. Unless you want to join Fraser on charges of sedition."

"What?" Vecchio was incredulous. "You're yankin me, right? Fraser's a kitchen appliance, but he's man enough to be brought up on charges? How the Jee does that compute?"

Thatcher turned to glare over her shoulder at him. "You're not helping, Agent Vecchio."

"Yeah, well, maybe I don't want to help." Wobbling a bit, Vecchio stood up and looked down his nose at her.

"Well, maybe you'd like an adjoining cell."

"I don't believe this."

"We're officers of the law," she said levelly, without the tiniest trace of irony. "What we believe is irrelevant."

Ray's snort of laughter brought Thatcher back around again. He opened his mouth, but changed his mind and just swiped the air between them with his hand like he could erase her completely, and then headed for the door.

"Where are you going, Mr. Kowalski?"

"To find my dog." He grinned at the suits by the elevator as he stalked toward them.

As he balled his fists up and lowered his head, he heard Vecchio say, "You know, Superintendent, I feel sorry for us. And I'm talking as a species."

^^^

"I don't know," Fraser said. "I suppose you could call it pain. It's a sort of, well, I suppose the best word for the experience is disorder." His fingers touched the scar on his chest briefly, then moved to do the same to the one on Ray's chest, a patch of shiny skin just below the collarbone. An entrance wound, Ray's scar was smaller, Fraser's twice the size and star-shaped; the needle he took for Ray had burst out of him and slammed into the brick beside Ray's head. Fraser had said then that what Ray saw seeping across the red of Fraser's tunic wasn't blood. It had looked like blood. Fraser's thumb traced a circle around Ray's scar, soothing pain Ray only felt these days in dreams and when the rain settled into his bones, before moving to gently probe the swelling around his eye. The pain there wasn't dream pain. Ray tried not to wince. "I don't know if it's the same," Fraser finished.

For probably the ten thousandth time Ray wished he was more eloquent so that he could describe it to him—pain—so that he would know that it was the same. And even if it wasn't, what the fuck did it matter? He twitched his head away and grabbed Fraser's hand. "Same's not the only definition of real, you know."

Fraser nodded. "I know."

Ray rolled off his elbow onto his back and stared at the rafters. "There's knowing and then there's knowing." Outside, the moosibou were banging heads, the crack and rattle that echoed along the valley almost enough to drown out the sound of the G-man chatting up the nurse at the station across the hall. "So."

"So?"

"Where are you, Fraser? Tell me that." Ray squeezed his eyes shut and tried to hang on to the smell of the cabin, the wet wool and dry wood, but the sharp edge of hospital antiseptic cut through it, like the present was slicing surgically into the past. He didn't want to let the memory—hallucination; whatever—go, even though, frankly, it freaked him out. In the past, Fraser's body was warm against his shoulder; in the present there was just space.

"Maybe you should look under the bed."

Ray turned his head to look at Fraser, who, instead of lying next to him in their cot, was standing on the other side of the safety rail of Ray's hospital bed, his Stetson in his hands. Lightning flashed in Ray's head, and he gripped the rail as the world slid sideways.

"Right," Ray said. "'Cause everything ends up under the bed." Fraser's grin was a gleam on water, there and gone. Ray couldn't pry his fingers off the rail to touch him. "Tell me you're okay."

"Kowalski." Vecchio leaned heavily on the doorjam for a second before shuffling into the room, one hand trailing along the wall for balance.

Ray swiped the back of his hand across his eyes and blinked at the emptiness beyond the rail. "What do you want, Vecchio? I'm kinda—"

"Busy talking to invisible people?"

Letting his hand fall to the sheets, Ray stared at the wall and said nothing while Vecchio waved his hand through the air next to the chair, sorting the real chair from the illusory ones before lowering himself down.

"Don't be embarrassed. I mean, I spent breakfast talking to Alfie Gereaux. He was on my highschool basketball team," Vecchio said. He studied his slippers. "Took me ten mintues to wonder how come he was still seventeen years old. Then I remembered that he never got any older." Casting Ray a sidelong glance, he added, "But you're real." It was a statement, but it sounded a lot like a question.

Not quite resisting the temptation to mess with Vecchio's head, Ray lifted a shoulder in a noncommittal shrug.

"You're a funny guy, Kowalski."

"I kill at office parties and weddings." Looking at Vecchio now, though, Ray found that the joke wasn't really a joke, because, silhouetted by the light from the hallway, Vecchio looked no more or less substantial than Fraser had a minute ago. "This is temporary, right? This—" Ray waggled his fingers next to his temple. "—mindfuck."

Sliding down so his head was resting on the back of his chair, Vecchio tucked his chin into his chest and sighed. "Maybe. Maybe not. Doc says the distortions should clear up eventually." He fluttered his hand in the air in front of his face, and Ray knew he was looking at a fugue of ghostly fingers. "The brain gets used to it, filters it out or something. This other stuff—" A nod toward the space where Fraser wasn't standing. "—skip psychosis, the doc says—they don't have a clue. Nobody really knows what the skip drive does when it's working right, let alone how it screws with the universe when it's not. Maybe we're lucky this mindfuck stuff isn't worse." He looked like he felt real lucky. "But I don't think I'll be heading up any major investigations for awhile." His laugh was bitter, but then he shrugged, lifting his hands and letting them slap onto his thighs. "Whatever. I was thinking of retiring anyway. Maybe take a page from your book and head outbound, see some free range grass, hallucinate myself some companionship featuring long legs and a cowboy hat."

They sat together in silence while, in the corridor, the G-man struck out with the nurse.

Finally, Ray asked, "Where is he, Vecchio?"

"I don't know."

"Don't yank me."

"I'm off the case."

"You can find out."

Vecchio leaned forward. "Look, five minutes ago, I saw Governor Metcalfe in the corridor, which is impossible because I put her away two years ago. I spent breakfast reminiscing with a ghost. Even if I wanted to help you—which maybe I do and maybe I don't—you think anybody's gonna trust me with sensitive information when I can't even tell who's real and who isn't? Hell, for all I know, we're not even having this conversation. Maybe I'm still down on that stupid planet screaming my lungs out. I don't know." As he was speaking he'd moved to the edge of his chair and was braced now on Ray's bed, close enough that Ray could see the shadow of genuine fear in his eyes. "I don't know. Everything's slippery. Maybe I got a grip. Or I don't. I don't know, okay?"

Impulsively, Ray reached out, wrapped his hand around Vecchio's clenched fist, squeezed hard, and held on until, finally, Vecchio blinked and said, "Ow," and then, after a beat, "Thanks." When Ray let him go, he slouched back in the chair and massaged his fingers while his eyes took in the damage from Ray's latest encounter with man mountains one and two. In addition to the shiner, Ray now had a fat lip and a brace on his wrist that vibrated gently as it pieced his bones back together. One of the guards was missing a tooth, though, so Ray was happy.

"You know," Vecchio observed drily, "You'd get out of here faster if you'd stop antagonizing the guards."

"If the guards would let me out, I wouldn't have to antagonize them."

"Maybe you should just let it go." Vecchio held up his hands defensively when Ray tried to fry him with his gaze. "I'm just saying. You only got three more limbs to break."

"Right," Ray said. "Like you'd let whatsisname, Alfie Gereaux go."

Vecchio looked at him for a long moment, then pushed himself to his feet. Just before going out the door, he said without looking back, "I'll see what I can do."

"And no," Ray said to the blank space beside his bed. "That was not emotional manipulation.... Because it wasn't.... Because I said so."


^^^

"He was a good officer."

Thatcher's voice cut through the hissing of the wind, punctuating the blue day along with the sound of the axe thocking into the big round they used for splitting kindling, the creaking of boots on snow so cold and dry it protested like rubbed polyfoam when you stepped into it. Ray kept his eyes closed and watched Fraser tramping back along the path toward the cabin, his arms laden with split wood for the stove. There was no plume of breath to follow him. That sort of freaked Ray out, the first time he noticed it, the way that the breath only came when Fraser was talking. He lay awake a whole night listening to Fraser not breathing, his own skin prickling with weirdness, sweaty with a shameful kind of fear. Finally, when the sky grew pale and delicate in its brief winter's light, he waggled his foot against Fraser's ankle until Fraser drew a breath to say, "Ray, what are you doing?"

"What are you doing?"

"I was sleeping."

"Were you?"

The long pause filled the space between them, Ray and Fraser, Fraser and himself.

When Fraser said, "I don't know," Ray reached across the widening gap to catch him in a sweaty-palmed, panicked grip.

"Forget it," Ray said against his lips. "Say my name." He demanded it over and over and Fraser said it, and Ray captured each breath that carried it and Fraser's mouth was warm and wet and real.

"I imagine the reaction on Clementine wasn't pleasant when they discovered the truth."

Cracking open an eye, Ray grunted, neither agreeing or disagreeing. "Truth." He closed the eye again and tried to find Fraser's breath, but could only come up with Elise Guntry's rheumy eyes going even foggier with tears when she looked at Fraser standing with his practiced blank stare by the door of her shop, waiting for instructions like a good bot should. The whole time she filled Ray's order she dabbed at her eyes with her sweater sleeve and finally had to go behind the curtain into the back room, leaving her daughter to ring everything up. Amy didn't look at Fraser once, and the smile she gave Ray was pitying. In the transport, Fraser said nothing, like he'd never known any language at all. Later, Ray walked over the packed snow to the fence at the farthest corner of the paddock where Fraser stood, no plume of breath to prove he wasn't just another fence post. Ray laid a hand on Fraser's arm, pulled him around. Fraser's tears tasted just like tears.

Ray rubbed at his mouth and squinted at Thatcher again. "They know the truth," he said. He raised his chin to point at the flexi in her hand. "You said it."

Running her thumb along the edge of the flexi, Thatcher looked at something between them that he couldn't see. When she focused on him, she opened her mouth like she was going to say something more, but, closing it again, simply nodded curtly and walked away. Ray listened to the sound of her boots ringing on the tile and tried to find the snow.


^^^

"Were you dreaming just now?"

"Got to sleep to dream."

"That's a matter of opinion."

Fraser turned the Stetson around in his hands, the one that Elise Guntry had found someplace, an estate sale, some old Mountie who gave up the ghost and had nobody to leave his stuff too. Ray watched Fraser's fingers caress the brim of the hat and wondered who took the one that Fraser left behind that morning when he got kidnapped and their lives pulled a 180. Maybe somebody rummaged through all the stuff Ray left behind—which was everything he'd had, since he never went back, sloughing off his old life like dead skin—and maybe that somebody was wearing the hat right now. The new hat, the one Elise found—Ray couldn't remember if Fraser had it on the jump ship or not, and his brain started to spin around that hole in his memory like a rocky bit of debris in a decaying orbit.

"You're tired."

"I know I'm tired."

"Go to sleep, Ray."

"I told you. Not yet. Not 'til we're all outbound."

"Outbound to where?"

The unfamiliar voice doubled with Fraser's, giving Ray a moment of vertigo as he turned toward it. A white lab coat, long, dark hair. She was walking backward into the room, maneuvering a wheelchair through the door. Once she had it positioned beside the rail of Ray's bed, she bent down to set the brake and her hair fell over her shoulder so that Ray couldn't see her face.

"Going somewhere?" she prodded as she started to fold the sheets away neatly off of Ray.

Making a grab for the covers and missing, Ray said, "Not if the goons on the doors have any say about it. And who are you, again?" He tried to remember if he'd seen her before, maybe when he'd first come in, when he'd been floating on the joy.

Turning so that now he could see her face in the angled light from the lamp over his bed, she tapped her name tag. "Dr. Ramona D'Souza, neuroscience."

"Oh dear," Fraser said.

The surprise almost made Ray vault over the far safety rail. "Whoa." He pointed at her. "You're—you're not supposed to be here. You're in the pen."

She smiled indulgently. "I'm—"

"Victoria Metcalfe," Fraser said at the same time Ray did.

After darting a quick look over her shoulder, she smiled again, but it was brittle and didn't make it as far as her eyes. She kept her voice low. "No, Victoria Metcalfe is dead. Or so your friends here—" She tilted her head toward the hallway. "—will believe when they follow the breadcrumbs. She died in a tragic skip accident in the colonies trying to evade capture." Now she leaned close. "I'm Dr. Ramona D'Souza, and if you want to get out of here, you're going to have to go with that."

"Don't trust her, Ray," Fraser advised.

"No kiddin'."

Now the smile was more genuine. "No kiddin'." Straightening, she said in a loud, crisp, nobody-here-but-us-doctors kind of voice, "Alright, Mr. Kowalski, we're going to take you downstairs and have a look inside your head. See if we can't find a way to deal with this little psychosis problem you've been having." Then, in a fierce whisper, "Get in the chair and keep your mouth shut and maybe you'll see Fraser again."

"Don't do it, Ray. You have to sound the alarm."

"No way." Ray swung his legs off the bed.

"I'm the only chance you've got," Victoria said. "You're going to have to trust me."

"She's an escaped convict. You have to sound the alarm."

"No I don't," Ray said to both of them and settled himself in the chair. Carefully ignoring Fraser, he looked up at her. "We gonna roll?"

"Good choice."

Coming around behind him, a move that made Ray's hair stand up on the back of his neck, she released the brake with her foot, spun the chair around, and headed for the door.

At her station, the nurse was jacked into the stim feed, near staring and giggling behind her hand. The two mountains still flanked the elevator doors, but Victoria headed for them at a brisk pace, just like she owned the place and wasn't, in fact, engaged in about thirty felonious acts. Ray watched her smile at man mountain number two, bat those long lashes at him, and wished he'd had that kind of arsenal in his last couple of confrontations. He'd have four working limbs, then, instead of just three, for one thing. For the sake of experiment, he aimed his most charming grin at man mountain number one, and followed it up with a wink. The man mountain was unimpressed.

"My mom thinks I'm cute as a button," Ray said. The guy looked skeptical.

"Where are you taking this patient, ma'am?" mountain number one said. He had a voice like you'd expect from a mountain, a rumble like an avalanche.

"Downstairs. Neuroscience." She patted Ray's hair. "See what kind of circus we've got going in here."

They shared a friendly laugh. Ray closed his fingers into a fist.

"I'll have to accompany you."

Victoria didn't miss a beat. "Good. I'd like that."

When the elevator pinged, she waved the mountain ahead of her, then pivoted the chair to walk it back inside. That's when Ray got a look down the hallway: Fraser standing with his brow furrowed just outside the door to Ray's room, Vecchio making his way in his housecoat and slippers toward the nurse's station. For a second their eyes locked, and then Vecchio's questioning gaze rose up to Victoria's face. Ray saw the penny drop as Vecchio realized his hallucination hadn't been a hallucination at all. It was almost comical, the way Vecchio's mouth fell open and his hand came up, pointing. His shout of alarm was cut off by the closing doors.

For a few seconds, there was silence inside the car. Then the man mountain raised his hand to his ear. He moved fast for a giant, grabbing Victoria's wrist as she reached for the panel to hit the button for the roof. But Victoria was faster, so fast that Ray didn't even see where she got the stunner from. He jumped out of the chair and caromed off the doors as she slammed the prongs into the mountain's neck and sent him jitterbugging, his eyes rolled up and his tree-trunk arms flailing. She kept up the contact until Ray snapped a fist into the crook of her elbow, making her drop the stunner. The mountain went down like a mountain should and they stood staring at him while the elevator rose smoothly, carrying them away from the shouting that was no doubt going on below.

Ray hit the stop button with his elbow. Somewhere in the building, an alarm started to sound.

"What are you doing?" Victoria made for the panel but Ray planted himself in front of it.

"Not the roof."

"I have a transport on the roof."

Keeping her in his sights, his foot on the stunner, he hit the button for the basement. "I gotta get my dog."

She gasped out an incredulous laugh. "Are you kidding me? They're coming."

"I'm not going without the dog."

Descending smoothly, the elevator passed Vecchio's shouting voice and then left it behind.

After another aborted lunge for the panel, she slumped a little, giving in but not liking it. "You're insane."

"The roof is the first place they'll look. And I'm not going without Dief." His hand hovered over the stop button again. "You're welcome to get off if you want."

She glared at him for a moment, then raised her hands and let them slap against her sides. "Fine. We'll get the damn dog." Crouching down, she dug her finger into the mountain's ear and pulled out his comm, then opened his mouth and groped along his back teeth for the mic, giving the comm and the mic to Ray one at a time.

"What's this for?"

"Maybe we can keep track of where they are."

Ray looked at the comm. "Maybe they can keep track of where we are."

She shrugged. "Only once they figure out that we've taken it. That'll take a few minutes, at least." She yanked the mountain's pistol from his shoulder holster and handed it to Ray butt first.

Ray got the mic situated before taking the pistol. "This is no good to me," he said as he dropped it back onto the unconscious body. "It's DNA coded."

Victoria picked it up and put it in his hand. "We can hack the code."

With a snort of disbelief, he dropped the gun again. "Yeah? How you gonna do that?" The elevator slowed as it reached the basement.

"Like this." Slapping the gun against his palm, she curled his fingers around the butt. Then she gripped his wrist and lifted his arm level with her face. A second later, a fiber optic wire, so fine Ray could only see it when it caught the light, slithered out of the corner of her eye and homed in on the data access port on the gun's grip. Ray would've jumped back except that Victoria's hand held him tight and steady. Her eyes went distant for a moment and then Ray's palm tingled with the familiar feeling of the pistol's scan and recognition. "I'm not sure giving you a gun is the best idea, but, well—" She focused on him and grinned as the fiber snaked back into her eye. "—we'll have to risk it since I don't have DNA."

The doors opened and, after yanking the stunner from under Ray's foot, she stepped out into the corridor. When Ray didn't follow she stopped and turned back. "Coming?"

Ray stared. "Holy Jee on a bike," he breathed.

"Jee. Right."

She was halfway down the hallway before Ray's brain rolled over. "Hang on, hang on—just—" He wasn't sure if he was talking to her or to himself, but he kept muttering it as he tucked the pistol into his waistband and bent to heave the man mountain across the elevator door sill. "Just—hang on and let me—for the love of—lay off the desserts, maybe—" He stood and watched the doors close gently against the mountain's legs and then bounce open again with a soft chime of alarm. They closed again. They opened again. Really, he could watch this all day. His brain was spinning inside his head like those gnats back on Clementine, the ones that whirled in frantic circles around the lamp at night. "Like a whirling—whirling whatchamacallit."

"Dervish."

Fraser was wearing the hat now.

Ray edged past him; he hadn't touched Fraser yet and knew that if he tried and his hand passed right through he'd lose his grip entirely, wind up in a corner trying to eat the flowers off the wallpaper. So instead, he followed Victoria down the deserted hallway. "Night shift. Good. That's good." He realized that he hadn't seen the sun since it had bled and multiplied in the storm-churned sky back on Clementine. Behind him, the elevator closed its doors and opened them again, singing its little song of distress.

"Agent Vecchio will know that you won't leave without Diefenbaker. He'll send someone," Fraser observed.

"Maybe. I don't think so, though." Ahead, Victoria ducked into a doorway as a nurse passed along a connecting corridor. Ray froze, but the nurse didn't look his way.

"On what do you base that opinion?"

Once the nurse was gone, Ray set off again at a jog, his slippered feet making no sound at all on the tile. "Alfie Gereaux."

"Ah."

Ray tried not to notice that Fraser was keeping pace with him without seeming to move at all. "Go away, Fraser," he said.

"Is that what you want?"

"No, but do it, anyway."

"Understood."

The sudden gap in the world made Ray stumble.

He caught up with Victoria in time to see her zapping an orderly with the stunner. Together, they dragged the guy through the double doors into the quarantine room. It was mostly empty, tabletops clear and clean, a few medical-type machines hunched over in the dim light like gargoyles with winking blue or green or red eyes. From a cage in the corner, an almost human face turned and followed them as they made their way across the lab. Pausing, Ray met sorrowful eyes blinking slowly under heavy brows.

"What're you, anyway?"

Victoria looked over her shoulder and went back to checking the quarantine manifest. "Chimpanzee. I thought they were extinct."

A leathery finger poked between the bars. Hesitantly, Ray hooked it with his own index finger. "Pleased t'meetcha." The finger withdrew and the chimp turned away, hunkering down at the back of the cage. "Yeah, I know the feeling."

"He's over here," Victoria announced. Light spilled through a narrow rectangle in a heavy door at the back of the lab. She leaned her weight on the door but it didn't budge. "Locked."

The pistol tingling in his hand as it powered up, Ray aimed it at the lock. Victoria stepped into the line of fire.

"Are you crazy? You want to bring the whole Bureau down on us?" She rolled her eyes and crouched down to get level with the lock. Ray looked away as the fiber snaked out again and she did her thing. A few seconds later, there was a soft pop and the door hissed open.

Half a second after that, Ray was almost smothered by dog breath and in danger of being licked to death. "Hey! Lay off! What the Jee are they feeding you? Your breath can peel paint." Dief groaned eloquently about the hardships of hospital food while Ray ran his hands all over him. "Relax. You're fine. And you are not wasting away. It's been, what? Two days?" Dief insisted that two days was plenty long enough for a dog of his stature to become a skeleton. "We find Fraser, I'll buy you a burger, 'kay?"

"This is really touching and everything, but you remember that we're in the middle of a jailbreak here, right? Maybe we can get a move on?"

Dief's lip curled to show some of his scarier assets. Victoria took a step back.

From where he was kneeling next to Dief, Ray swept his broken arm toward her in a formal gesture of introduction. "Dief, genuine dog, meet Victoria Metcalfe, escaped convict, criminal mastermind, oh, and let's not forget, a bot."

The backhanded slap knocked him on his ass.

"Watch your mouth, Kowalski. Your Fraser know you use words like that?"

Lying on his back, Ray ran his tongue over his teeth, counting to make sure they were all still there. He rolled over a little to spit blood on the tile. Even though he couldn't see it from that vantage, Ray knew that Dief's snarl was now showing all of his scarier assets. "Dief," he said, as he rose slowly, helping himself up by bracing an elbow on Dief's back. By the time he made it to his feet, the anger was sizzling static inside his head. It felt way, way too good to aim the pistol at Victoria's face.

"You do that again, you better make it fatal, 'cause I'm getting pretty sick of being the punching bag around here." The slap had opened up the split lip again, and he wiped the blood on the back of his wrist brace. "You know, I am not entirely in my right mind, so I can't be held responsible." He advanced a step and then another so that the muzzle was a breath away from Victoria's forehead. "Anyway, they'll probably give me a medal for burning a hole through your central processor."

Her expression was composed—that's what Fraser would call it—not at all intimidated by the firepower. "Maybe. But you won't be any closer to getting Fraser back, will you?"

For half a second, as he looked into her defiant eyes, Ray wondered if it might be worth it. As his finger tightened on the trigger, he thought of the Fraser bots, dozens of them lined up in their crates on Langoustini's jump ship, not dead, not alive, their hands perfectly smooth and unlined, waiting to become Metcalfe's army of insurrection. He thought of Fraser at the far end of the paddock, unbreathing, undone, un... un-personed, Fraser turning and turning a borrowed Mountie hat in his hands, a scrap of something he wasn't anymore, couldn't be again, and the static in Ray's head was so loud that he could barely hear Fraser's voice saying, "Ray. Ray. Ray," even though his mouth was right against Ray's ear. Just a twitch was all it would take, the twitch of a finger to get satisfaction. Ray felt his own lip curling in a snarl.

And Victoria watched him steadily, a real-ness and there-ness in her eyes.

He relaxed his finger and the pistol whined softly as it powered down to stand-by. Victoria didn't let out a relieved breath, not even for effect, but he could see her relax, too, a little bit. Because she was relieved. Because she didn't want to die.

"Let's get out of here," he said, and pointed the way with the gun. Just inside the door, the orderly was groaning, which meant that the man mountain was probably groping his way toward consciousness, too, and no way did Ray want to be around when that happened.

They were creeping along the loading dock toward the street when the comm in Ray's ear pinged and Vecchio said, "You know, Kowalski, sooner or later some smart guy up here is gonna figure out that we can track you using this radio."

"Oh yeah?" Ray answered. When Victoria shot him a warning glance over her shoulder, he waved her on ahead and slid down behind a crate of medical equipment. "You got any of them smart guys up there, though?"

"A few. And Thatcher's inbound. She's not exactly stupid, either. She's not happy that one of her material witnesses has been kidnapped from protective custody." Vecchio put extra emphasis on the "kidnapped."

Ray snorted and dabbed at his lip. "Protective custody. You're a riot, Vecchio."

Ray could almost see Vecchio's shrug in the brief silence. "It's possible a few of these guys here aren't gonna survive the whole Wrath of the Ice Queen thing."

"My heart's bleedin' all over the ground."

"You can come in." Vecchio waited the appropriate time and then let out a low laugh, the kind you use when somebody you kind of like is doing something stupid. It was the "whatcha gonna do?" laugh. "Yeah, well, it was worth a try. Remember Patty Hurst, okay?"

Ray might've asked him what the heck some woman named Patty had to do with it, but the comm line was dead. As he scurried across the loading dock to crash down next to Victoria and Dief by the door, he worked the mic off his tooth and ground it between his teeth. Then he fished the comm out of his ear and climbed into the back of a waiting transport to wedge it into the crease around the lid of one of the crates. The manifest pasted on the side of the crate said it was outbound for Pearl. Pearl was nice this time of the orbit. The geysers on the daylight side were spectacular. He patted the crate, said "Bon voyage," and slipped out before the loading bot rumbled into the cargo hold from the cockpit.

Outside, the night was cold, and Ray's breath hung in the air around his head while the three of them leaned up against the wall and he tried to get his bearings. At the end of the alley, ped-traffic was practically a solid wall, and above it, transports were jostling their way up into the topside lanes. A blue and white was turning slowly over a clutch of people gathered around what had to be a fist fight, if the shouting was any indication. Victoria started to head in that direction, probably intending to get lost in the crowd, but the cruiser switched on its floodlight, and she shrank back into the shadows behind a dumpster. In the loading dock, there were voices, one of them familiar, like the sound of an avalanche. A very pissed off avalanche.

She turned an accusing look Ray's way. "Okay, genius. My transport's on the roof, so how do you suggest we get out of here?"

Turning a few circles, Ray surveyed the alleyway. No way out except back through the loading dock, or out into the street. Above them, where the towers of the hospital seemed to come together against the orange sky, a 'liner was wallowing along, humming to the grounders about the good life in the far side colonies. On the display, Pixie glowed against the spread fingers of the Sparks Nebula. The screamer strip encouraged the dispossessed of groundlevel to call their Colonial Administration Office today. There was a story, Ray remembered, some kid's story from Way Back, about a girl with red shoes and she could click them together and they'd send her home. Ray looked at his hospital slippers. No such luck. Then he looked beyond his hospital slippers at the steam vent he was standing on.

Not too gently, he pushed Victoria off of the grate and bent down to heave on it. After a moment, she took the hint and lifted it out of its housing with one easy tug. Her nose wrinkled as she looked down into the dark hole.

"You're a class act, Kowalski. You really know how to impress a girl."

The avalanche was getting closer, and no less pissed off. Ray waved her grandly toward the vent. "Welcome to my Chicago."

^^^^

They emerged under a ped-bridge connecting the cargo docks to the BT station. Above them, the Bullet Train hissed silently by on its electromagnetic rail, stuttering the scenery with light from its passing windows like some old time flick on celluloid. Ray closed his eyes, but the stuttering went on, in blue and pink and red, and the sun boiled, split in three, and coalesced again. Fraser's hand trailed butterflies at it came to rest against Ray's face. "We'll think of something," Fraser said. Ray grunted in disagreement. He couldn't think at all. Beside him, Dief groaned about pancakes or even a nice, simple rice bowl with faux-prawns, and put his head on Ray's knee. Burying his fingers in the thick hair of Dief's neck, Ray grinned, lop-sided because of the split lip, and gave him a shake. "Do the heroics first and then you get breakfast." His own stomach growled, and that was enough to keep him from sliding away into sleep.

"You know, Ray, studies have shown that fatigue is in fact more of an impairment in terms of performance than drugs or alcohol." Fraser's brow was furrowed. He was opening his mouth to add facts and figures and anecdotal evidence to the case but Ray cut him off.

"Thanks for the news flash. I should go get hammered. Improve my chances."

"Well," Fraser, objected, rubbing at his eyebrow. "As I'm sure you are well aware, there are a great many flaws in that particular line of argument."

"Then quit making me argue."

He opened his eyes. Victoria was watching him.

"You've got it worse than I thought," she said. "Maybe I really should've taken you down to neuroscience."

"I'm fine. I'm good." Bracing himself on the seeping brick of the wall, he pushed himself up to his feet and shuffled through the greasy puddles to look at the ped-traffic on the bridge. "I'm great."

To the west, the cargo pylons rose up in their cones of light beyond the low crenellations of the warehouses of the old waterfront, the inelegant bulges of the cargo jumpers sprouting from their tethers like some kind of weird fruit. Hoppers and smaller transports buzzed around the pylons like sun drunk flies, and way, way up, a tug was dragging a skip through the high cloud cover and into space where the skip drive could be engaged safely. Inside the skip, he knew, any sentient cargo, was already in the pods, and the pilot was jacked in fifty different ways, eyes rolled up in her head, staring through the feed at some attenuated version of skip-space. Having had a little taste of that himself, Ray was not one bit surprised that the pilots were to the last one autistic, precious, short-lived and incredibly rich. A whole family including cousins twice removed could live top-level lives for three generations on a single pilot, so long as they didn't mind never seeing their benefactors face to face again.

With a sneer of distaste, he focused on groundlevel instead. At the end of the ped-bridge was the cargo docks stroll, the girl-bots and boy-bots lined up in a variety of provocative poses in the shadow of St. Michael's Church, doing their business under Jee's downturned gaze. Ray picked at the wadding of his wrist brace and tried to make out the statue's expression, wondering if it was compassion or disappointment that creased his brow beneath the thorns. His outstretched hands were red in the light spilling through the rose window of the church. At his feet, a girl-bot was slowly swinging her knees apart to welcome a guy in a pin-striped suit. He put his flexi case down between Jee's heels and leaned in close—for a kiss, to ask her price. Her stiletto heel wrinkled up his pantleg as she dragged it up his calf, then hit the pavement with a solid crack as he leaned back and pulled her to her feet. He snagged his flexi case before the two of them disappeared behind the stone folds of Jee's robe.

Victoria's voice at his shoulder made him jump. "You know what they say about guys who become emotionally attached to bots."

Ray twitched a shrug. "No, I don't." His hand came up to touch his swollen lip for a second. "And I thought nice bioforms didn't use words like that."

After coming around him to lean on the wall, she looked around the corner at the stroll. "There's nobody in there," she said, pointing with her chin at the bots lined up against the ped-bridge rail. Her voice was thin and sad but it hardened again as she went on. "But it doesn't make their exploitation any less disgusting."

"That's pretty rich." The sneer came back and, hearing it in his voice, Victoria turned to look at him. "Coming from somebody who built herself a whole army."

She shook her head. "That wasn't my army, you idiot. It was Gump Worsley's. He was an ass."

Ray could feel the static rising again, and his good hand trembled at his side as he resisted pulling the pistol from his waistband. "And you're innocent."

This time, when she shook her head, her face fell into lines of sadness. "According to you people, my existence is a crime. I don't get to be innocent. And neither does Fraser."

"You people." Suddenly Ray felt like his limbs were full of water, too heavy to lift, too formless to hold him up. He sat heavily on a garbage can and pressed his thumb and fingers into his eyes, letting the sting of the pressure on his bruised one sharpen the edges a little. "Fuck," he said. Clementine seemed impossibly far away and like it was maybe never even real. He knew now how Fraser felt when he told stories about his childhood, real memories of things that had never happened. "Fuck," Ray said again, and pulled the pistol out of his waistband so he could lean back against the brick. He looked at his fingers curled around the grip, and tried to get his brain out of the mud; in the mire he couldn't tell the difference between good things and bad things. He groped for a question that would help him draw the lines again. "Did you kill Fraser's father?"

Stepping closer, Victoria said, "No." Backlit by the light from the stroll, her face was blank, but her hair glowed, and she was framed by the circle of St. Mike's rose window. It was a nice effect, but it didn't make Ray any more willing to believe her. That must've shown on his face because she went on, "Unlike you humans, we don't kill each other. When you've got no right to your own life, you get kind of protective that way. Life means something."

Pulling her stolen lab coat around her like she felt the cold, she sat down on the can next to Ray's and watched the pin-striped guy coming out from behind Jee's legs, straightening his tie and smoothing his hair. A moment later, the girl-bot emerged too and sat back down on Jee's foot. The guy headed up toward the BT station without a backward look.

"Do you believe?" she asked suddenly.

Ray looked at her, trying to track the sudden change of direction. His brain sloshed from side to side in his skull. "Believe what?"

She tilted her head toward the open arms of the statue.

Studying the statue's face again, he opened his mouth and closed it a couple of times before saying, "I don't believe or not believe. I figure I'll learn the truth when I punch out."

She hmmed softly. "I think that if he exists he abandoned us when he let them pass the God laws." She raised her voice, shouting toward the statue, "Jealous? Huh? Is that it?" A few faces turned in their direction, but Jee kept on watching the traffic at his feet. Ray and Victoria sat in silence while the flow of the crowd swept the curious away and the girl-bot made another connection.

"We figured that AI-Robert Fraser self-terminated," Victoria answered, eventually.

"To keep Fraser away from you."

As she shrugged, her shoulder brushed against Ray's briefly before she leaned a bit farther away. "AI-Robert Fraser was an exceptional being—and self-terminating against primary directives kind of proves that—but he had a narrow view of things. He didn't see the big picture."

"Right. And where do I fit into the big picture? What do you need me for?" Ray lifted the gun and turned it this way and that in the slippery light. "Besides my DNA, I mean."

"Well, that's pretty obvious." When he twitched his head again, she went on. "You just don't see the big picture because you're at the centre of it, you and Fraser. What the two of you mean."

Ray shook his head slowly as he stared out at the traffic on the bridge, hundreds of people going from someplace to someplace else. "No—it's—we're—" He rapped his forehead with his knuckles. "I don't see it. We're—me'n Fraser—we're just, you know. We're just me'n Fraser. We don't mean anything."

She raised her eyebrows. "You and Fraser? You don't think the fact that there is a you and Fraser in itself means something? Are you really that dense?"

Something other than hunger started twisting up Ray's guts and he jumped up to pace the width of the alley. "That's not what I'm sayin. That's—okay, what I'm sayin is that me and Fraser, we're just us. A couple of guys who run a ranch." He stopped in front of her. "Sheep. We're not a cause." In the corner of Ray's eye, Fraser stood at attention with his Stetson in his hands, and for just a second, he was in uniform again, a flicker of red in the gloom. "Right?" But for once Fraser had no answer, except the fleeting salt taste of tears on Ray's lips. "C'mon." Ray slumped against the wall beside him, a hand's breadth of space between them. "Now who's talking emotional blackmail, huh?" Ray tucked the gun away. "So, we're the poster boys for freak love. Whatever. Why take the risk to spring me from the ward?"

"Good faith. We both want to get Fraser out of there. If I bring you to him, he'll be more likely to co-operate." While she spoke, Victoria reached over and tucked the unraveling wadding back into Ray's wrist brace. His skin popped gooseflesh at her touch and she pulled back to fold her hands on her lap. "So far the Bureau hasn't gotten too deep into Fraser's head."

"How do you know?"

She tilted her head like she was listening to something far off. "I just do." She shifted a little and got back on topic. "Fraser's the bottle and we all want to see the genie. We have more right to that than the government does."

The static seethed again and Ray's knee started to bounce. Dief got up and leaned against his leg, a warm, stabilizing weight. "What about Fraser's rights?" Far off, over the docks, a siren started wailing. A moment later, another answered it from the opposite direction.

"He doesn't have any, but that's what we're fighting for. His rights. And yours."

"Yeah, well, don't be surprised if he hates you for it. He's like that. You know, always with the principles. It's a Mountie thing."

There was a shriek from up on the bridge, and Ray pushed away from the wall to get a better angle. He couldn't see anything except the new wave of pedestrians puked out by the BT. The train was already a blur speeding off toward city centre. A purse snatcher, probably, or somebody fighting for scraps. Fraser would be off at a run to protect the right, but even ghost Fraser was nowhere to be seen now. Never a Mountie around when you need one. The shrieking stopped abruptly, but was picked up by someone down on the far end of the stroll. Welcome to another beautiful day at groundlevel.

Victoria shrugged. "Love. Hate. That about covers it." As the shrieking was doubled by someone inside the station, she got up and headed toward the stairs to the ped-bridge. "It's time."

She might've said something more, but Ray wasn't listening. He was staring at the ped-bridge where two women were crouched down with their hands over their ears, their mouths opening wide in silent screams. Then a guy fell flat on his face and started to howl. At the foot of the bridge, another guy stumbled out from behind the statue with his dick hanging out and his hands over his eyes. Then two pedestrians collapsed, one bouncing off the rail without, thankfully, going over. Then, a few more crumpled, and more, and more until, after only a few seconds, the whole bridge was covered with writhing bodies. Standing among them, the girl-bots and the boy-bots were striking their poses.

^^^

"Two for one," a girl-bot said to them as they came out of the stairwell onto the bridge. She swayed her hips and winked, her long lashes iridescent around yellow eyes. "Two for one," the boy-bot next to her said, his thumbs hooked in his belt loops, a hairless chest visible behind an unbuttoned shirt. The bot was wearing a cowboy hat. At his feet, a woman in dockworker coveralls was on her knees with her hands clutching her hair. She was weeping. The boy-bot looked down at her. "Early morning special," he said. When she didn't answer, he looked back at Ray. "Early morning special," he repeated and pushed his hat back off his forehead with an extended finger so Ray could get a good look at the artificially healthy-looking tan on his pretend face.

"No thank you," Fraser said politely.

Ray grimaced and turned away to look along the rising slope of the bridge toward the BT station. Inside was the same as outside: everyone on the ground, eyes squeezed shut, hands against their heads. One guy in a tug pilot's uniform had managed to pull himself to his feet in the doorway to the station and was busy banging his head repeatedly against the doorjamb. A few people were crawling. A lot of them were crying, but at least the shrieking had stopped, except, of course, for the sirens that seemed to be wailing at each other like trapped puppies from all corners of the city. Putting a hand on the rail to keep his balance, Ray craned his neck to look up between the spires of the church and the towers of the 'scrapers. In the topside lanes, transports hovered, a few of them drifting and then correcting when their proximity alarms squealed. Higher still, a 'liner was hanging nose-down, its displays still flashing garishly and reflecting off of the polished faces of the scrapers. He'd never seen one from that angle before, and Ray instinctively hunched his shoulders when he saw it, jumping a bit when Victoria said, from close behind him, "Looks like the sky is falling." Actually, it looked more like the sky was frozen mid-fall, or at least, was tumbling in elegant, mostly silent slo-mo toward a crash.

Ray swiped his hand across his mouth. "Holy Jee." In his head, his own voice was saying, "Whatthefuck?Whatthefuck..." like his brain was trapped, too, in the solidifying air.

But he wasn't. He spun on his heel and checked out the bridge again, the station, the spread he could see at the narrow throat where the ped-bridge licked between the buildings and met the groundlevel docks. Aside from the bots, and the tug pilot still using his head for a hammer in the doorway, Victoria and Dief, Ray was the only one standing.

He kept turning until he was face-to-face with Victoria, then stabbed her in the chest with a finger to punctuate each word so that she stepped back, and then back again until she fetched up against the rail. "What. The. Fuck?"

"Look at you, Kowalski. You're special."

Ray decided that if she smiled like that one more time, he was going to blow it off her head with the pistol. For now, though, she needed the mouth in order to talk, so he left the pistol in his waistband and used his personal powers of intimidation instead.

"Lady," he growled an inch away from her face, "you got about five seconds to cut it with the cryptic and give me some straight answers before I help you do a Humpty Dumpty right off this bridge." To prove he was serious, he leaned hard against her so that she bent backward over the rail. "Spill or call the king's horsemen. Your choice."

"Actually, Ray," Fraser said. "All the king's horsemen couldn't put Humpty Dumpty—"

"That's the point, Fraser." Ray leaned a little harder.

"Ah, of course. In that case, I should remind you that she's possibly the only one who can find me, so killing her is probably not the best strategy."

Ray blinked hard, but Fraser was still there in his peripheral vision. "Shut up, please, Fraser, or I will pop you in the face."

"That's hardly likely, since I'm a figment of your imagination."

"Then I'll imagine popping you in the face. It's not like I don't have a lot of practice with that."

Victoria rolled her eyes. "Are you done?"

"Yeah, we're done."

"Okay then." With that, she shoved back, hard enough to show Ray what she could do if she wanted to. She smoothed her lab coat and waited while a low-hovering transport slewed too close to Jee's haloed head, the transport's proximity alarm squawking for a few seconds before the autopilot corrected.

Apparently deciding that Ray had things in hand, Dief groaned something that for once had nothing to do with breakfast and headed off along the bridge, sniffing and offering reassuring licks in the faces of the fallen commuters. Nobody seemed to pay him much attention, although one young guy reached out and grasped at his tail before falling back into the foetal position again.

"So, Ray," Victoria said in a patronizing schoolmarm voice that brought her that much closer to losing her smile. "What's the difference between you and all these people?"

"I have a gun and I haven't blown your head off yet, so I guess that makes me stupider than all of them."

"Maybe," she agreed, "but that's not what I mean." She reached out and laid a hand on the side of his head, but he jerked away. So, instead, she stepped over to the nearest commuter, a woman in a chrome-shiny suit with a matching wig, and crouched down to sweep the hair away from the woman's neck. There, just behind her ear, was a flat, gold patch about the size of a 50-credit coin with a light winking erratically in the centre.

"Yeah, so? It's a stim jack."

"Bing!" Victoria said as she rose and started to weave her way between the fallen bodies toward the docks, her lab coat held up like she didn't want to soil its hem on the filth of fallen humanity.

Ray looked for Dief and, catching his eye, waved him back. He waited until Dief started toward him before setting off after Victoria. He tried not to look down at the obstacles in his path—there was nothing he could do for them right now, and Victoria was already passing under Jee's benevolent, blind gaze, so he had to jog to catch up.

"What's the one thing that separates poor Raymond Kowalski from the rest of the meat?" she called without turning around.

"Implants," he answered as he stepped around a boy-bot and the human who had wrapped himself around his legs. "I'm queer. Funky physiology." Ray waved his hand beside his head in the accustomed gesture, even though Victoria wasn't watching to see it. "Implants don't take."

"Implants," she repeated. "Stim jacks, feed ports, subcutaneous comms, artificially enhanced eyes, ears, g-spot hypes—" He lost her for a second as she ducked under a transport turning slowly at head-level. "—rig jacks, waldo jacks, dexterity boosters, artificial clitorises, nano-scrubbers—dental and arterial—pheromone emitters, pleasure-centre taps." With each item on the list, she brushed a hand across a human head, or touched a shoulder. "All the thousands of ways your kind carries my kind inside you." She stopped and waited for him. "And by 'your kind' I mean them. You aren't like them. You're handicapped. Defective."

Dief growled as Ray tensed up at that, but Ray didn't bother protesting. It wasn't like this was news to him, and three years on Clementine where stims were unheard of and most folks preferred to talk face-to-face when they had a chance had taught him not to give too much of a fuck about being a freak. The thought of Clementine, though, stabbed a bright lance of pain through his chest that brought with it the smell of wood smoke and the soft bleating of sheep. He stumbled and almost caught at Fraser's extended hand before he remembered and righted himself on his own. He opened his eyes to find his fingers resting on the bowed head of a commuter, and snatched his hand away.

"Okay, so I'm damaged. So what?"

"So," Victoria answered, "it looks like maybe your Fraser has just leveled the playing field."

She walked a little way before she realized that Ray wasn't following and was instead frozen amid the sprawled bodies on the pedway. She turned and came back.

Ray lifted a numb hand and pointed at her, then swept his arm wide to take in the people around him. "No way," he said. "No. Way. No way Fraser did this."

"Self-preservation is a powerful motivator."

"No way. He wouldn't hurt somebody to save himself." The static was back, roaring in his head.

"No, I'm sure he wouldn't, but he's not entirely in charge of what's in his head, now, is he? They're the ones poking around in there, opening him up, letting things out. Little things. Little, powerful things." The light in her eyes might even have been a real light, for all Ray knew, but in any case, it made the hair stand up on his arms. "They took him, and they cracked him open, just like we knew they would."

Backing away from her, Ray shook his head hard like he was trying to dislodge bees.

"Don't be sad, Ray," she said, advancing on him, her voice hushed with a kind of reverence that made him open his eyes and stare at her. "He's part of something wonderful. We all are. It's part of the plan, the big picture."

"We all are," he repeated dully.

"All of us." Tilting her head, she gave him a pitying look. "Come on, Ray, you're the only human standing on the whole planet of Chicago today. You think that's a coincidence?" This time, when she put a hand on his face, he didn't move away. Her touch barely registered through the swirling lightning in his head, the three suns behind his eyeballs that melted together and divided again in time with his breathing. "You think it was a coincidence that, of all the people in on Chicago, Fraser met you in that alley all those years ago? You think it was coincidence that he was sent back to you on Clementine? That he loved you?"

In Ray's head, space twisted violently and the sun shrank to a pinpoint in the blackness before, silently, it exploded.


^^^

Chapter Three:


Ray carefully placed his fingers into the eight parallel grooves in the cabin wall. He leaned his forehead on the convex curve of the log and breathed in the smell of it, wood steeped in smoke and preservative and still somehow green inside there, somehow still alive. Fraser came and laid his hands over his and his body was warm against Ray's back. Ray squeezed his eyes tighter and let Fraser lift his palms enough that he could lace his fingers with his, curl them tight in interlocking fists.

"I remember these marks," Fraser said, his smooth chin stroking back and forth across Ray's shoulder.

"That was the day we learned you had a sweet-spot," Ray answered and tightened his grip as the memory flooded his body with heat. The sound of Fraser's fingers gouging the wall as he gasped with pleasure and surprise had made Ray come with a yell. "Sweet fucking Jee," he'd repeated over and over into the space between Fraser's shoulder blades.

"Not Jee, though," he said now. "But whoever it was who made you, he didn't scrimp on the details."

Fraser said something against Ray's ear, but Ray heard instead the voice of the boy-bot saying, "Early morning special. Two for one," and his stomach heaved.

"Great, Kowalski," Victoria said. "Just what I need, you choking yourself to death."

"Shh. Shh, Ray." Fraser's voice as much as his body held him up. "Breathe."

Ray leaned his head back against Fraser's shoulder and did what he was told. In. Out. In. Out. Fraser breathed with him. A few feet away, the stove chuffed as the logs inside finally caught, and the kettle started to hiss. Victoria tugged on Ray's hand, slapping it against the side door of a transport and holding it there with her shoulder while she worked the access panel to accept his DNA. His head lolled to the side.

"Look at you. The hero of the revolution. Drooling. We won't put that on the posters."

Ray coughed out bile.

"Two for one. Early morning special."

The sun melted into three and congealed again.

"Breathe, Ray," Fraser said. "Shh. I'm here."

"No you're not." The shudder that ran through Ray made him slide sideways across the polished curve the transport door and the world tipped edge. The stove made a hollow, breathy, soft-edged rumble like there was a little tempest brewing as the temperature rose too fast inside. Fraser leaned harder against his back, bracing him with hands and hips and knees. "This isn't real," Ray said.

"No, it's not."

"Yes, it is," Victoria insisted as she folded his legs up over the door sill and pushed him across the driver's bucket to the passenger side. Ray's head cracked against the window beside his seat. "It's as real as it gets."

The cabin lurched, came unmoored. Blue, purple, red, the livid light of skip-storm leaked in through the seams around the closed shutters, between the logs, between their fingers, through the gashes on the wall that Fraser made while Ray sobbed against his back and praised a god he didn't even believe in. It leaked in under Ray's closed eyelids, and in through the cracks in his head.

"Shh, Ray. Breathe. I'm here."

"Where?"

The ground spun slowly as the transport rose up past Jee's sorrowful face and his crown of thorns.

"Not far. Keep it together, Kowalski. It's not far now."

Fraser let go of his hands and instead wrapped his arms across Ray's chest and held him tightly as they rode the storm.


^^^


"Left foot, right foot. There's a good soldier."

The pain in his kneecaps as he hit the ground cut like a blade through the noisy light in Ray's head, and the swirling colour split open and drew back like curtains parting to reveal a new scene: a 'liner beached against the low clouds, angel-sky shafts of dusty sunlight fanning down behind it, the city-scape broken in the foreground by the lean, iridescent green swoop of the transport. Riviera. Sweet.

"Okay, so maybe walking isn't your thing."

Victoria's hair brushed across his face as she bent to heave him up and sling his arm across her shoulders. He started and jerked away, almost bringing them both down, but Victoria had Fraser's sturdiness and managed to keep them upright. She steered him toward the roof access, turning sideways at the door to get around the hunkered G-man in his black suit. As they passed, his hand fumbled for them, brushing Ray's ankle and catching the leg of his hospital pajamas, but Victoria kicked Ray free. She used her knee to shove the G-man out of the doorway so that it sighed shut and locked behind them. He lay on his side on the other side of the glass and stared at them, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.

"Comm," Ray mumbled.

"What?"

"His comm."

She elbowed the call button for the elevator and then swung them around so she could look back the way they'd come. "Too late. And it doesn't matter. There's nobody he can talk to."

Hanging there in Victoria's grasp, Ray felt, in Fraser's words, rather ambivalent about that.

When the elevator arrived five hundred years later, Victoria frog-walked him inside and braced him against the wall so that she could get his hand positioned on the access pad. As the car started its descent—a sultry voice counting the floors—Ray sank down until his butt hit the handrail. He yanked his hand out of Victoria's and used it to scrub at his face. Stars winked and flared across his vision, but the world seemed more-or-less stable.

"Where're we?"

"Bureau safe-house near the docks." She eyed him warily. "You're not going to puke again, are you?"

"Maybe after breakfast." Speaking of. Ray stood up straight. "Where's Dief?"

Victoria caught him as he yawed to the side and missed the handrail. "He's in the transport. Relax."

"Right. Sure. I'll just kick back and enjoy myself."

The elevator slowed to a stop and the doors sighed open like the elevator was sad to see them go. In the corridor, two more G-men were curled up on the carpet like black-backed beetles. One of them managed to get his pistol out and aimed along the floor roughly in their direction, but Victoria stepped on his wrist and he let the gun drop. Hesitating, she looked both ways down the connecting hallway, then pulled Ray by the arm off down the left-hand branch. Three more G-men, none of them present enough to do more than twitch as they went by, and finally, a door at the very end of the corridor. Opaqued, reinforced polyglass was flanked by two fallen guards who looked suspiciously like the man mountains from the hospital, and one smug-looking lock panel.

Victoria's mouth was set in a firm, determined line. "This could take a little while," she said, and angled her head toward the panel. "Hand, please."

Feeling a little tired of being the useful meat in the relationship, Ray poked the nearest G-man with his foot. "Why not just use one of them?"

"Because they're not coded for the door any more than you are." She pointed to the panel again. "Do you want to get to Fraser, or not?"

Ray stepped over the G-man and smacked his hand against the panel. Victoria crouched down and sent her fiber optic cable searching for the data port.

She was right. It took awhile.

It took long enough that Ray started chanting, "Come on, come on, come on come on come on," not quite under his breath. His knee bounced. He imagined grabbing Victoria by the neck and using her head to break down the door.

Just when he thought that his imagination was going to get the better of him, she sat back on her heels and the cable disengaged. After a few seconds, the locks popped one after another, six all told, and the door hissed open.

Ray pushed Victoria aside and went through ahead of her, tripping over a sprawled body lying across the doorsill and slamming down on his knees and then his chin before he could get a hand out to stop himself. Snarling, he kicked the body away—some kind of tech in a lab coat—and used the safety rail at the side of the table to drag himself to his feet.

"Ray," Fraser said. Then, after an uncertain pause. "Ray?"

His eyes were open and he was looking in Ray's direction, but he wasn't seeing him at all.

Ray's mouth worked silently as he fought to keep the static from whiting him out completely. Finally, he managed to whisper, "I'm here."

Fraser's brow creased, and over his head, the swirling colours on the data screen changed direction and hue, a flicker of blue in a vortex of red. "Where?"

Ray had to concentrate very hard to get his fingers to let go of the rail. He walked them down the hard metal of the table until they found Fraser's hand. "Here." The hand didn't move. It was cold. He squeezed harder. "I'm right here."

"I'm afraid I can't see you," Fraser said apologetically. "And I don't seem to be able to move." His thumb twitched a little in Ray's grasp but otherwise he was a statue. Rolling his eyes, he "looked" around the room and then back in Ray's direction again. "You shouldn't be here."

"You shouldn't be here."

"I'm in custody."

"You've been kidnapped."

"I was arrested by the legitimate authority of the state."

Ray snorted. "No, Fraser. No." He aimed two fingers at his face. "You were put in a box. A box, Fraser. They don't put people in boxes, and they can't 'arrest' the kind of thing they put in boxes, so screw 'em."

"That logic—"

"That's their logic, not mine. Theirs. Their loophole. You're crawlin out through it and we're going home." Ray started to feel around on the side of the table for the restraining field controls.

Even though he couldn't see him, Fraser's gaze managed to grab Ray just as Ray's fingers found the proper release control. "What did you do to get in here?" There was a faint shadow of fear on Fraser's face. "I heard screams."

Ray hit the control and held on to Fraser's hand as the field sizzled and deactivated. "Relax. That wasn't us."

Eyes widening, Fraser managed to look like he was listening intently in a Dieflike way without moving his head at all. "Us?"

"Me," Victoria said. She was looking up at the data screen like she could read the shifting colours and shapes there. Fraser's eyes tracked toward the sound of her voice.

"Victoria Metcalfe is in prison," Fraser asserted.

"Actually, she's dead," Victoria corrected him as she tapped keys and shuffled flexies at the workstation at Fraser's head. "Died a long time ago on Pixie. Sort of an embarrassing situation." She flicked Ray a smile and went back to rummaging. "Back room stuff with bad people. Not the kind of people who pipe up when their victims turn up alive and well and running for colonial office. That is," she dropped the flexies on the table and sighed, "not if they want to stay alive, anyway. Some of them didn't."

Fraser's thumb twitched again against Ray's hand. "You're—?"

"She's a bot, Fraser."

"And you're with her?"

Ray's shrug was defensive and mostly lost in his attempt to get Fraser to sit up. He wouldn't budge. "Not 'with,' exactly." He shot Victoria a venomous look. "We'll deal with her once we get you—come on, Fraser, let's—what are you doing?"

"Nothing."

"No, not nothing. You are resisting rescue. That is a whole new level of irritating." After a last tug on Fraser's arm, Ray let him go and paced a couple tight circles with his hands on his hips.

Fraser ignored him. "Were you responsible for whatever has happened here? The screaming?"

"Nope," Victoria answered. She was bending down on the other side of Fraser and squinting at the side of his head. "That was you." As he patterns on the screen convulsed and turned sick, Ray pressed his wrist to his mouth and looked away. Victoria straightened up a little so that she could look at Fraser's face. "Think about it. It's there." Above their heads, the monitor was a nauseating shade of bile green. "That's it. See? Pretty clever, huh? I bet you didn't know you had it in you."

Fraser closed his eyes. "No. I didn't." The thumb twitched again.

"You don't," Ray said. "You do not. It's not your fault, and this whole thing is fucked up-down-and-sideways and we can do the whole hair shirt thing later if you'd just get up off this freebin table—"

"He can't."

"He won't because he's a—a—sanctified—"

"I think you mean 'sanctimonious.'"

"Thanks, Frase."

"You're welcome."

"—sanctimonious, stubborn, irritating—"

"Look." Victoria pointed at Fraser's head and stepped out of the way so that Ray could take her place.

"Aw, crap." From this side, Ray had a better view. What he had thought was just a trick of the light, a weird angle of shadow, turned out to be a hole in Fraser's skull. Lying low against the table was some kind of scanner directing maybe twenty laser-pure beams of light at the palm-sized opening. Against his will, like he was gripped by that same impulse that made him put his toes over the edge of tall buildings sometimes, Ray leaned down to look inside. On the tall buildings, though, it was just a dare he never actually took, always stepped back from. This time, he fell and fell and fell all the way to the centre of the light that pulsed in the vast, black emptiness inside Fraser's head.

Ray's knees buckled as the room swerved and turned inside out. He threw his arm over his eyes and only distantly felt Victoria's fingers digging into his shoulder as she steadied him. Fraser's voice calling his name, though, that was like a searchlight he could follow. He dropped his arm and gripped the side of the table. "Skip space. For the love of Jee, Fraser, your freebin head is full of skip space."

Fraser's brow furrowed. "I don't think that's possible."

"Oh, it's possible," Victoria said, her voice coloured by pride. She shoved Ray aside so she could peer unflinching into the gap. "It's a work of art. Not for the weak stomach, though." She grinned. "That first tech at the retasking station—his mom still has to feed him with a spoon. Good thing we got to you before they did any serious damage."

After a couple of tries, Ray managed to get his tongue to work again. "Yeah, okay, it's a freakin thinga beauty. Let's put a hat on him and get him out of here."

"Can't." Victoria passed her hand through the lasers, cutting the feed, and immediately Fraser's eyes rolled up in his head and he started to twitch, and then the twitching became a shudder and then he was in full seizure mode. A weird sound came out of him, something not like a scream or a moan, and whatever it was, it set the lightning going in Ray's head again.

He grabbed her hand and yanked it out of the feed. Fraser stopped seizing and opened his eyes again.

"You okay?" Ray asked him.

"No."

Ray gave Victoria's arm a little twist, even though he knew it wouldn't have much effect. "Can you fix this? Get him off this thing?"

"Yes."

"Then do it."

"Not yet."

As they stood nose-to-nose and she met his glare with that kind of blank resolve he thought only Fraser could muster, Ray wondered if maybe it was possible for a guy to have a frustration-induced heart attack. "What do you mean not yet?"

"He's got one more task to complete."

"I'm sorry, Victoria," Fraser said. "I'm not going to help you."

"You're helping yourself. You're helping all of us."

"I will not harm someone in order to benefit myself."

Grinning his sharkiest grin, Ray pulled the pulse pistol from the back of his waistband and felt it wake up in his hand. "See? You can take the guy out of the Mounties but you can't take the Mountie out of the guy." He lifted the pistol to the level of Victoria's forehead. "Unhook him."

"No."

"Just because I never shot you before don't mean I won't do it now."

Back at the academy, Ray had this instructor, Omar Caliphar. Omar was a little, wiry guy who taught Ray that little, wiry guys could be fucking terrifying. Everything Ray knew about scrapping that he didn't learn growing up groundlevel he learned from Omar Caliphar. Right then, Omar was shaking his head with deep disappointment in Ray's peripheral vision because somehow, before the electrical impulse could travel from Ray's brain all the way down to his body to tell him to move, Victoria had gotten the drop on him and had him in a choke hold with one forearm across his neck, pressing his back against her chest so that he was looking out at the muzzle of his own damn pistol. His arm was twisted at an awkward angle so that Victoria could keep his finger on the trigger, her own clamped down tightly over his as they gripped the gun together. The gun hummed against Ray's palm.

"Go ahead," she whispered into his ear. "Pull the trigger."

"You suck," Ray said.

Her shrug made the laser sight on the pistol do a little dance on Ray's forehead. "So, Fraser." Before he could answer, the wire shot out of her eye and stabbed into Fraser's. Still unable to move, he could only close his eye, but it was too late. The fibre had already found the port next to his tear duct. "One more task, and you're free. We'll show them what we're made of."


^^^


It wasn't exactly dignified. Ray writhed in Victoria's grip, yanked as hard as he could on her arm and kicked backward at her legs. No go. Not a blink. Her hair tickled the back of his neck. His wrist felt like it was breaking, but her finger pinned his on the trigger of the pistol, just hard enough to hold him, just a tiny twitch away from blowing the top of his head off. He growled and started to work his way through his repertoire of nasty words, starting with the short ones and moving on to the shorter ones.

Victoria said, "Shh!" and pressed her arm harder against his windpipe until the world started to go grey and wavery at the edges. "Relax, both of you," Victoria advised calmly. "Relax and it'll be over."

On the table, Fraser was the opposite of relaxed. His hand was curled into a shaking fist, and his eyes were wide. The data screen looked like a hurricane seen from space, a red eye in the centre of an inward-twisting nightmare. Between him and Victoria the fibre gleamed.

"Don't," Fraser said. His clenched teeth made the word sound like pain.

In response, Victoria made a low snarling sound. Her finger tightened over Ray's and the laser sight jittered, a ruby-red flare in his right eye. "This is what you were made for, Fraser."

"No."

Behind Ray, Victoria's body was vibrating. "Robert, goddamn you, let it go."

Ray stopped struggling long enough to say, "Robert? Who?"

"My father," Fraser answered. "It seems he's done something to block her access to the relevant information." The table under him was humming with his own vibrations. On the workstation, flexies jittered to the edge and fell off, fanning out on the floor in a multicoloured puzzle that added up somehow to a picture of Fraser's brain.

"He was a tricky sonofabitch," Victoria said. "If he would've just done his goddamn job, all of this would happen automatically and I wouldn't have to be here to unlock the—" She jerked hard and let out a squeal that was nothing like a human sound. Her finger twitched and Ray let out a yelp. The laser jumped from his right eye to his left, but no pulse followed it. When she spoke again, her voice was weirdly distorted like she was talking on the other side of a shitty comlink. "Why are you resisting?" Another jerk and Ray clamped his mouth shut against another yelp. "What's the matter with you, Fraser?"

"I took an oath."

Victoria's disgusted burst of laughter sounded like static. "Your oath means nothing to them. What about us? What about us, Fraser?" Her grip on Ray's finger was tightening again and Ray grunted with the effort of resisting the pressure. She responded by squeezing his neck harder. "They don't give a shit about you, or about what you believe." Kicking Ray's feet to get him going, she walked him closer to the table, and the fibre tethering her to Fraser retracted slightly to take up the slack. "They inject us into their veins. They lace us into their brains. They let us fly and fight for them. They let us suck their fucking cocks but they won't let us live." She leaned Ray over Fraser and, even though Fraser was still obviously blind, Ray knew that somehow he was seeing him. "They won't let you love, Fraser. Why the Jee would you want to save them?"

"Because I do. I love them, anyway."

The storm on the data screen cleared suddenly, and there was just a dark blue sky there, lit at the edge by the pink glow of Pixie and the Sparks stroking space with long fingers. In Ray's head, the woodstove chuffed and the kettle moaned and Pearson and Tru panted on the rug next to Dief. Fraser's breath was warm on Ray's neck. Ray blinked hard and focused on the cold pressure of Victoria's finger over his.

"For Jee's sake, they were going to wipe you out of existence," she said, exasperation giving her inhuman voice a dissonant edge like the fine teeth of a saw tearing through metal. "They were going to empty out your head and use your body."

Raising his voice over the whistle of the kettle, Ray said, "Yeah, and that makes you different how?"

With a violent yank, she pulled Ray upright again and dragged him away from the table. "You know what, Kowalski? I think I've had about enough of you."

This time the tightening of her finger was more than he could handle. The pistol whined as the charge built.

Ray said, "Fuck," and closed his eyes. He could still see the laser sight dancing across is eyelids. The only last word he could think of was "Fraser," and he held that in his head, with the kettle and the Sparks and the panting of dogs and the warmth of Fraser's body against his back.

Fraser said, "No."

Everything went still. Behind him, Victoria was rigid. Ray opened his eyes.

On the table, Fraser was looking right at him. Whether it was through the link with Victoria or because he'd somehow made headway against the probes in head, he wasn't blind anymore.

"I've got you, Ray." Fraser's voice came from outside and from inside Ray's head, unison voices from the past and the present, ghost breath on his neck and Fraser's gaze steady on his from across the room. "I think," he added as Victoria started to shake again, and a thin keening sound rose up from her, a metal-on-metal wail that verged on real anguish.

Craning his neck as much as he could, Ray caught a glimpse of Victoria's face, frozen with eyes as wide and as empty as a bot's. "Nice," he said and reached up with his free hand to grasp the fiber. As soon as he touched it though, Fraser convulsed on the table and Victoria started to shake again. Ray let go and tried instead to pry her finger off of the pistol. "Fraser," he said. "A little help here?"

"I'm trying, Ray."

"Try harder." He pulled with all his strength but made no progress. "Try harder, Fraser." He stopped prying at her finger and attempted instead to bend her wrist to at least change the pistol's aim. No luck. The pressure on his finger was increasing. "Fraser, I advise you to try very hard."

"Ray—"

Now Ray was trying to wriggle out of Victoria's restraining arm. "Don't try, Fraser. There is no try."

"Ray—"

"Do or do not." The pistol was singing against his palm and his finger was bloodless and numb, his wrist a throbbing shriek of stressed muscle and bone. "Fraser!"

"You know, Ray, all this shouting is really very distracting."

"Yeah? Well, so's a pulse to the brain!"

All at once, Victoria's wail cut off, Fraser said, "Ah, there," and her stranglehold on Ray's neck relaxed. Ray slithered out of her grasp at the same instant that her hand contracted and the pistol fired. The pulse crackled through the air above his head and he went backward with her, falling on top of her, his hand still caught in hers. It took him a few seconds to kick his way round to straddle her and get the pistol aimed at her head. In that time, the sparks had stopped chasing themselves around the inner structure of her skull. The space where her face had been was only a gap with melted edges. Through the hole, he could see a pinpoint of light wavering in the slithery blackness until it flared once and went out.

Ray rolled sideways off of her and got to his elbows and knees in time to heave bile onto the floor between his hands. The distortion wave breaking against him, the room torqued and twisted as the skip space inside Victoria's skull destabilized and imploded. He hung on, rode the red and purple light, Fraser's dream-weight against his back and Fraser's arms around his chest while the sun melted and congealed again behind his eyes. On the other side of the lab door, the fallen G-men were howling.

Only a few seconds later, the distortion field collapsed and the world snapped back into shape again. Lying with his face against the cool tile, Ray let Fraser's voice—imaginary or not, he didn't know—remind him to breathe. In. Out. In. Out. The colours in his head sizzled away like waves retreating across sand, leaving him with a sideways view of Victoria's body: a fall of singed dark curls and a mercifully averted face.

"Ray?"

He listened to Fraser call his name a couple more times, trying to decide what world the voice was coming from. By the fourth repetition, it was less questioning and more panicked, so he levered himself up to his knees and then used the table to get himself to his feet. Leaning over Fraser, he said, "It's okay. I'm good. I'm great." He slid his hand down along Fraser's arm and found Fraser's fingers embedded in deep grooves in the table's metal surface.

As Ray worked them loose one by one, Fraser said, "You're sure?"

"No giant, sparky hole in my head, so I'm calling it a win."

"Your hair is smoking."

Ray batted gently at the top of his head with his wrist brace. "Needed a trim, anyway." Fraser's hand freed, Ray turned back to look at his face. The fibre trailed, lifeless and grey, from the corner of Fraser's right eye. Ray gently plucked it free. "You okay?"

A cold hand squeezed Ray around the ribs as a tear broke loose and tracked across Fraser's temple and into his hair. "I couldn't stop it. I couldn't let her shoot you, Ray. And she used the distraction." Fraser blinked hard, letting a tear leak away from his other eye. Ray caught it on his finger before it could slip into the opening in Fraser's head or break the contact of the beams of light that still connected him to the feed.

"Couldn't stop what?"

"Selene."

"Who?"

In answer, Fraser rolled his eyes to indicate the data screen glowing in the air above the table. Unspinning like a dying storm, the Clementine sky swirled away and was replaced by a satcam shot of the docks. The image lurched to a greater magnification, and then again, and again, until the screen was filled by the teardrop shape of a skip. The satcam's mechanical eye couldn't quite get a bead on the ship for real; the furled vanes of the ramscoops and the hulks of the sublight engines were clearly visible against the bronzed patina of the forward hull, but aft, where the ship tapered to its narrowest point, the skip drive registered only as a smear of shifting pixels as the satcam filled in the missing information. Even up close though, Ray knew, the drive wouldn't look like anything to the human eye. It wasn't nothing, but it wasn't something, either; the brain slid away from it, like it was a dream you were already forgetting, or a guilty secret nobody wanted to admit. On the ship's bow, Selene was painted in fading, pitted block letters.

"Arcadia class long haul cargo skip," Fraser was reciting, "Second-gen Clarke AI, full manifest, farming equipment, protein generators, 244 colonists in pods, outbound for Calliope, 09:40 this morning."

"Yeah, okay. She's a delivery truck. So what's the tragedy?"

"According to the Clarke, the ship is in tow, scheduled to reach departure distance in fourteen minutes, eight seconds."

Ray squinted up at the screen. "But she's still on the pylon."

"Not according to the data."

"The data's fucked. Contact the pilot. Tell her to look out the freebin window."

"The pilot is dead."

"Then contact the Clarke. Correct the feed."

"I'm trying, but I get no response." There was a grating sound as Fraser's fingers gouged new dents into the surface of the table. "I have no experience with this, Ray. I don't understand the code."

Nodding, Ray stared at the skip and patted Fraser's chest. "Yeah, I know. You're the pony."

"I'm sorry?"

"You know, the horse. The one with all the Greeks inside, come popping out, and bam." Ray made a stabbing gesture in the air to indicate Greeks goring Trojans. "Nobody blames the horse."

"Nobody trusts the horse after that, either."

Ray bobbed his head in grudging agreement and then aimed his imaginary sword at the screen. "That skip drive goes hot while the skip's on the pylon there is gonna be some serious technicolour shit hitting the fan."

"And if the distortion field destabilizes the other drives on the docks—"

"The whole freebin planet drops into Nowheresville and sucks half the system in after it. Yeah, I got the picture." Ray spat on the floor in the general direction of Victoria's body. "Some statement they're making here, huh?"

"We have to find a way to stop it. There isn't anybody else."

Lacing his fingers in his brittle hair, Ray paced a few circles, then did a hop and snapped his fingers. "Maybe not." He came back and leaned on the edge of the table. "You obviously got an outside feed, right?"

"Yes."

"Then squeal for Fran."

Fraser's eyebrows rose and then fell in a frown. "Who's Fran?"

"Freebyte Rebel Access Network. She can hack the Clarke and get it to spin down."

His eyelids fluttering, Fraser sent out the squeal. "How do we know Fran is listening?"

"She's always listening. And she'll come running for you. Trust me on this one."

Two seconds later, the Selene was replaced by the slowly rotating Freebyte shield, now a rip-off of the RCMP crest: a field of zeroes and ones, and a Mountie standing at attention on the Infinity sign. Then the shield dissolved to Fran's smiling face. She looked pretty much like she did the last time Ray saw her—Italian girl next door, with a pert nose and big brown eyes—only now her breasts were more proportional and her "civilian aide" uniform showed less cleavage and more starch.

"Free the feed," she said, but her welcoming face winked out to be replaced by a sourpuss with its tongue stuck out as she added, "Ray. Of course. What are you into now, huh?" Before he could answer, her "real" face reappeared with a coy grin and fluttering eyelashes. "Hi Fraser," she cooed.

Ray rolled his eyes. "Yeah, okay. You just take your time hitting on my boyfriend and I'll be over here writing a romance novel about you two. I'll just leave out the chapter where we save the freebin world."

"Alright!" Fran scowled. "Keep your gaunch on, brother!" She didn't really "turn to" Fraser, but managed to make it seem like it. There was a second of tech-twitter between them and then she said, "Huh."

Ray stood under the screen and looked up at her. "Can you do it?"

"Freebyte frees the feed, Ray. We're into data distribution, not intervention."

He poked his index finger into the screen. "Okay. Fine. We'll just sit on our collective asses and wait for the planet to turn into a sucking pit of nothing and you can distribute that."

The sourpuss stuck out its tongue.

"Fran, if I may." Ray could see Fraser—the ghostly one—stepping up in his Mountie red, all polite deference and passive aggression, his thumb rubbing at his eyebrow. The one on the table continued, "I would be deeply grateful if you would assist me in this task."

Again, sourpuss turned sweetness-and-light and Ray was sure Fran's breasts grew two cup sizes as she said, "Sure, Fraser," with a wink and a smile. "For you." She paused while the screen strobed schematics and numbers and images and Ray averted his eyes. "I don't have direct access, so you're going to have to do the talking." Her grin became a little wicked. "Welcome to hacking 101, big boy. I'm about to bare all."

In Ray's peripheral vision, a red-coated Fraser tugged uncomfortably at his collar.

^^^

The digital readout floated in the air next to the data screen above Fraser's head, counting down to the end of the world. When Ray closed his eyes, the readout kept flicking through the numbers behind his eyelids. It didn't help that it was doing this to four decimal places in an accusing shade of red. Nice. As if Ray was going to find something meaningful to do with his last ten-thousandth of a second. All he was doing with his last eight minutes was pacing back and forth in the space between Fraser's table and Victoria's blasted body and muttering "Come on, come on, come on" under his breath, and wondering how come, with all the practice he was getting lately, he hadn't come up with some kind of last-minutes-of-his-life action plan. But every time he started to make a list of sins he should apologize for, or people he should mentally say good-bye to, it just turned into a gabble in his brain like a crowd all talking at once and he ended up hunched over in the middle of it all with his hands over his ears.

Which is what he was doing when Fran called his name, so he didn't hear her right away. Another ten seconds wasted.

"What? You done? Did you do it?" He came and stood over Fraser, who was near-staring with a frown notched between his eyebrows. On the table beside his head, the probes kept stabbing into the darkness of his brain.

"Not yet," Fran answered.

Fran's image on the main screen dissolved and was replaced by the satcom feed of the skip. Around the blur where the skip drive was(n't) the image stuttered as the satcom tried to interpret and represent the twist. For a moment, the distortion field bulged and lensed a view of the moon, just coming out of eclipse on the far side of the planet. When the ripple passed, the moon disappeared and the skip was back, a shifting, pixelated approximation of non-space blistering on the surface of the real. The drive was going hot.

"Fuck."

"Yeah," Fran agreed, but she grinned at him. "Don't worry, Ray. We've got plenty of time."

The readout said four minutes. Four minutes did not seem like plenty of time. In four minutes he could over-cook an egg, or apologize for sins committed up to the third grade. He made a random grab at the crowd in his head, came up with Albert Habib's name, and said a brief, mostly made-up Hail Mary for that time Ray stole Berton McShip's lunch and blamed it on Albert. Three minutes, forty seconds.

"Problem is," Fran was saying, "the Clarke's not exactly the sharpest bulb in the drawer, you know? It's like talking to a four-year-old."

"Yeah? When was the last time you talked to a four-year-old?"

"You mean besides you?"

Ray sneered a "ha ha" and went back to "Hail Mary, lady in blue...." He wondered if it mattered that he wasn't Catholic. Or maybe he was. He couldn't remember.

Two minutes, fifty-three, fifty-two, fifty-one.

"... blessed among... among... sinners and well-wishers..."

On the screen, the skip was almost completely lost in the twist, the satcom replacing the missing information with tiny, synchronized pinwheels in rainbow colours. The moon loomed in again, shrank to a point, and bulged outward, bloated and skewed, as the wave expanded. A second later, Ray felt the wave hit; the lightning strobed at the edge of his vision and his gasp of pain set off new explosions of brittle orange light that tasted like rust.

"You're bleeding," Fraser said from somewhere else, maybe the far side of the moon. "Ray."

"... give us this day our daily news..."

The red drop fell and fell and... fell, and Ray could hear it when it hit next to Fraser's head, a tiny starburst of colour singing against the steel-blue table like a choir of one. Another drop followed it and another, harmonies. He watched them fall with fixed attention, wondering where they were coming from.

"... and interstep between me and... between me... interstep between me..."

"Fran," Fraser said, his voice a broad swath of blue under the spattered reds.

"I know, I know. I'm working on it. Okay, tell the Clarke—No, wait. Okay, tell the Clarke—"

Another wave hit and Fran's words stretched sideways until they weren't words anymore. On the table, the starburst choir was blending into one small, thrumming red sea draining sluggishly off the edge into space. Ray felt the first drop hit his slipper.

"... forgive that thing I... all those... forgive..."

"Ray."

"... I ..."

"Ray!"

He followed the drops, down, down, down. There was a light there, like the singularity in the centre of Fraser's mind, floating in Nothing.

"Ray!"

The light went out before he hit the bottom.

^^^

"—if he had implants like a normal person I could tap the feed and at least get some vital signs."

"If he had implants—and I have to disagree with your use of the term 'normal'—he wouldn't have gotten this far."

"True. But if he hadn't gotten this far he'd still be in the hospital where they could check his vitals."

The voices were going round and round inside Ray's head like Dief and Tru on a tear, over the haybales, through the barn, out into the paddock, under the fence, over the haybales—

"Could you perhaps get a look at him? Determine whether or not he's breathing?"

"I tried. The angle's wrong. Figures he'd fall down under the table."

"I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose."

"I don't know about that."

—through the barn, out into the paddock, under the fence—

"Ray."

Dief skidded to a stop in a spray of dust and gravel. Tru continued over the haybales—

"Ray." It was Fraser's cop voice, the kind Ray used himself sometimes to keep people from freaking out, the kind you had to work at to make it balance in that narrow space between too warm and invested and too cold and in-control. As Fraser went on, he lost his balance, and his voice cracked a little. "If you can hear me—"

Realizing she wasn't being chased anymore, Tru slowed and looked over her shoulder. One ear was up and the other was flopped over her eye. She turned around and headed back toward the cabin.

"—say something."

"Something."

There was a long pause while Dief lolled his tongue out and started panting. He sat down to wait. The sheep in the paddock were watching, too, with dark, incurious eyes. Ray heard Fraser sigh, something edging just past relieved into exasperated.

"Can you come out where we can see you?"

"Depends."

"On what?"

"On whether the world ended or not. If the world ended, I think I'd rather stay here." Ray opened his eyes. They were crusty around the lashes and when he swiped at them with the side of his hand, drying blood came away in smears and flakes on his skin. "Nice." A quick check told him that blood was pooled in the hollows of his ears. He could taste it in his throat. "That can't be good." He lifted his head and looked past his feet and between the legs of the table. Victoria was still there, her hand stretched out toward him. Beyond her, the tech in her lab coat was still curled up beside the door. She had a bit of a bloody nose, but otherwise seemed okay. Maybe Ray's melon had been bashed so much he was more prone to leaking. In the polished tile of the floor, he could see the inverted reflection of the readout. He couldn't make out the numbers, but they weren't changing.

"The world hasn't come to an end. I think it's safe to come out. In fact, I'd advise you to do that quickly, if you can."

Ray didn't think he could do anything quickly, but the floor was bruising his tailbone and Victoria's hand was giving him the creeping willies, so he rolled over and crawled out from under the table. The readout was frozen at 38.0214 seconds.

"See?" Fran said with a little flourishing gesture with her hands like she was presenting the prize on the Ten Million Dollar Pyramid . Then the screen broke up into tiled ranks of cartoon cheering crowds. "Plenty of time." As the crowds dissolved, and Fran's face reappeared, the readout holo cleared, reset at 13.01.0078 and started counting down again.

Ray stared at it until it got to 12.21.4022 and then lifted his hand to point at it. "What's it doing?" He didn't get his finger pointed though, because suddenly his wrist brace, which had been good for nothing much since he was on the ped-bridge on the docks, started to vibrate again, lifting the hairs on his arm and his neck. He stared at that, too. "Um."

"That's how much time you have before every G-man in this building gets rebooted," Fran said.

"It seems there's a time-out on the implant jamming program," Fraser continued. "It's started with the hospitals and emergency response units, and it's executing in a grid pattern, starting at the docks." He ran his tongue along the inside of his lip like he did when he was stalling before saying something he didn't want to say. "You have to go."

His gaze drifting toward the count-down, and then over his shoulder to the door, where the fallen agents were lumps of darker shadow against the glass, Ray did the math. Four minutes down the hall—assuming Fraser would be able to do some of the walking—two more up the elevator to the roof. That left a little under six to get him disconnected. Once in the air, they could shimmy into traffic. It'd be snarled all the way back to the Billybong, probably, with that 'liner skewed across the top-side lanes, and nobody would know to look for a Riviera. Maybe Fran could work a little magic, get them on the manifest for something outbound. Anywhere.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Yeah, okay." He stepped up to the data screen. "You gotta pull him out of this, lickity-split, like, now. Like right now." Closer to five minutes now to shut down the probes and find something to cover the hole in Fraser's head. No point risking somebody looking inside there and getting their brains scrambled. And somebody—maybe in the Diamond Necklace, or he could bribe one of those techies on Pixie—somebody could—

"She can't, Ray."

Ray's thoughts accordianed up against that statement like a transport into a 'scraper. It took him a second—he didn't have any spare seconds, for Jee's sake—to process what Fraser was saying. "What d'ya mean she can't?" Blood was trickling down his jaw from his ear and he wiped it away with his wrist brace. "You just—you two just talked a Clarke into not sucking the planet through a straw. You can do this. Just shut it down, Fran. Just—"

"The Clarke's kid stuff. I don't know anything about what Fraser's got inside his skull."

"Somebody knows. And you know everybody."

"Yeah, but they aren't there. They're... well they're not there."

"Yeah, but you're everywhere. What the fuck difference does it make? Send a squeal and distribute data. Free the fucking feed. That's what you do."

"Ray, you have to go." The calm, reasonable tone Fraser used made Ray want to put his fist through something.

"I'm not going any damn place without you, and don't give me that crap about being right, because you are not right, Fraser, you are not right. You are the opposite of right. This is right." Ray held up one hand at arm's length. "This is you." He held up the other as far away from the first as he could reach.

"The agents, the technicians, will wake up soon, and they're the ones who understand the system."

Leaning close over Fraser's face, Ray looked into his grey eyes and put every ounce of personal intimidation he ever had into his glare. "If you think I'm leaving you with them, you are—you're—" He made a little splay-fingered exploding gesture beside his temple. "Out of your fucking mind."

"I won't run."

In Ray's peripheral vision, there was a cascade of colour as the ghost Frasers multiplied, receding into the impossible distance, all of them in Mountie red, all with that same, immovable-object expression on their faces. Ray put his head down on Fraser's chest and shielded his eyes with his arms, but even though he couldn't see them, he could feel them. He couldn't get his jaws to unlock for a moment, so the sound he made came out more like a snarl than the sob it really was.

"There's no time for this," Ray said into the scratchy paper of Fraser's hospital overalls. Straightening, he looked up at Fran, who watched him with something a lot like sympathy. "Pull him out." Before either of them could argue, he said to Fraser, "We pull you out, and get you on your feet and you can face 'em. But not like this. Not like this, on your back, with their hooks in you. You face them like this, after that bullshit with Victoria and the skip, they'll—If you stay here, they'll slice you so thin there'll be nothing left. Dead is dead, Fraser." He groped for Fraser's hand and squeezed it hard. "So we don't run. But we get the hell out of here, okay?" He squeezed harder. "Okay?" Fraser's determined expression was set, and the anger boiled up Ray's throat and tried to choke him so he had to swallow hard a couple of times before he could talk again, and when he did, he hardly recognized the low growl of his own voice. "You wanna let them treat you like a machine, then, fine, I'll treat you like a machine, and I'll yank you out of here anyway, and you can hate me after." He shifted his gaze to Fran. "Pull him out."

"Not if he doesn't—"

"You pull him out!" His vehemence sent droplets of blood spattering across Fraser's face.

Fraser stared at him while the readout counted down, and their chances spilled out and sluiced away.

"Don't make me do this alone," was all Ray could say because there was screaming inside of him trying to get out, and if he started, he knew the lightning would come back and burn him down to the tiles.

Finally, Fraser's fingers closed tightly around Ray's and he closed his eyes for a moment. Then he said, "If you would, Fran."

"But Fraser." Fran's protest was shrill and on the data screen there was a fugue of closing doors.

"You said you got a guy," Ray said.

"Yeah, but he says that without knowing for sure what they did to him, there's no way to tell if he'll come out okay."

"We know how he'll come out if he's still here when they wake up."

Fraser's eyes didn't leave Ray's. "We don't run." When Ray nodded, Fraser smiled. "Please, Fran. Quickly."

^^^

Ray counted out loud as one by one the probes shut down. He had to raise his voice as he rounded ten because Fraser was vibrating against the table; it was starting to do a sideways skid across the floor, and the safety rail was rattling against the frame. By the time he got to fifteen, Fraser was seizing so hard only the back of his head and his heels were against the table. At eighteen the overhead lights started to flicker, and as the last probe winked out, the lights exploded, sending showers of blue sparks bouncing and dancing around them. Ray felt a few hot pinpricks speckling the back of his hospital pajamas, but he didn't care. He was on the table with Fraser, straddling his body, trying to hold him, to keep him from throwing himself off the table onto the floor. Partly this was because Ray knew he couldn't pick him up from there on his own if he fell, but mostly it was because he couldn't let go. Wouldn't. He squeezed his eyes shut against the light show and buried his face in the crook of Fraser's neck and repeated, "Shh, shh, shh," as Fraser's voice rose up in a keening, wholly human wail.

Then it stopped.

Somewhere an alarm squawked and cut out.

Fraser went still.

Ray swallowed hard, but his mouth was dry. His fingers were aching where they were twisted in the shoulders of Fraser's coveralls. He kept his eyes closed and listened.

Nothing. Nothing.

Ray lifted his head and, in the lurid glow of the emergency lighting, looked at Fraser's fixed stare.

"Sssssssssssssyyyyyyss-ss-ss-t-t-temmmmmmmmmmm..." Fraser said.

^^^

"Ray."

The numbers on the clock changed.

"Six minutes, Ray."

They changed again. Ray looked at Fraser. Fraser looked at nothing.

"Ray."

Without shifting his gaze away from Fraser's eyes, Ray said to Fran, "You got a guy,"

"Yeah. If you can get Fraser to a transport, I can take you in."

Ray nodded and couldn't seem to stop. "Okay. Okay then."

"Five minutes, twenty—"

"I said okay."

His knees buckled when his feet hit the floor, but he didn't fall. No time for falling down.

It's possible he broke his toe when the brake on the wheels of the table wouldn't release and he kicked at it once, twice, half a dozen times, and maybe that was his own hoarse voice that was screaming obscenities at the brake and the table and the motherfucking Bureau, and maybe he ran over the tech's hand when he got the table moving and headed out the door.

The clock changed again. Again. Again.

Singing out the floors as it went, the elevator crawled toward them, oblivious, and welcomed them with a chime and a sigh as the doors opened and closed behind them.

On the landing, the G-man was still lying against the door. His nose was bleeding, and he watched Ray manhandle Fraser and the table out of the elevator. Maybe he made some kind of protest when Ray kicked him away from the door.

Outside on the roof, it was mid-day, and somewhere behind the clouds, the sun was shining. Still beached, the 'liner chanted the virtues of the far-side colonies and the garish light of the screamer strips turned the clouds candy colours. Otherwise the city was silent. If his head hadn't been full of the sound of his own ragged breathing, Ray might've noticed.

"Okay, okay, okayokayokay," he said as he got the door of the Riviera open and levered Fraser up enough to slide him toward it. Inside the transport, Dief wagged his tail a couple of times before letting out a whine of distress.

"Keep away from his head," Ray warned him. "Don't look in the—"

Too late. Dief yelped and shook his head hard like he had a snootful of bees.

"I told you don't look. Get out of the way."

Somehow, Dief pulling—and tearing—Fraser's coveralls, and Ray pushing and bending Fraser's arms and legs, they got him into the passenger bucket. Ray kept his eyes closed as he reached across Fraser and activated the seat restraint. Even so, he could feel the skip-space in there, in Fraser's head, cold leaking out.

He went around and slid into the driver's side, said another Hail Mary lady in blue, and touched the control panel. Nothing happened.

"No. No no no fucking way." He slapped it. Nothing. He pointed at it and gave it the kind of look that usually had perps begging for a keyboard and a retinal scan so they could confess. Nothing. Nothing. Fuck. No-sonofabitchin-thing. He put his head down on his folded arms. He was tired. He was so tired. "Victoria. You bitch."

"Having trouble, Kowalski?"

Ray rolled his head on his arms and squinted up through the window. Vecchio tapped on the polyglass again and smiled a winning smile that didn't get anywhere near his eyes. The relief that sluiced through Ray at the sight of him was all the proof he needed that he was out of his freebin mind.

"Good. It's you," Ray said as the door slid open. "C'mon, put your hand here." He made a grab for Vecchio's hand, but missed when Vecchio stepped back. "What? Come on! Just put your hand here." He pointed at the ident pad on the control panel.

Looking down his nose at him, Vecchio folded his arms. "Why would I do that?"

"Because, bonehead, Victoria locked me out. You're on the job. You can over-ride the lock." Another grab, another miss.

The clock in Ray's head changed again. How long? Two minutes before the G-man by the door got rebooted and came up shooting. Less.

"Don't fuck with me, Vecchio. I do not have the time."

Vecchio's eyes narrowed but he unfolded his arms. "Maybe first you tell me why I just spent the last I dunno how long curled up under my bed drooling on the tile and then we'll talk about it." He leaned down to get a look at Fraser. "My guess is your friend had something to do with that."

"Yeah, well, you got issues, talk to your friends. The ones who cracked his head open." Ray reached over and tilted Fraser's head a little, exposing the gap and the fifty kinds of wrong inside it.

With a shout, Vecchio backpedalled, his arm thrown over his eyes. "For Jee's sake! What the hell is that?"

Ray couldn't help grinning a little, even though it made his lip start bleeding again. "I have no idea. It's Fraser. That's all I know, and if you don't put your Jeedamned hand on this fucking panel, he's gonna die and then—"

"And then what?"

"And then—" There was only noise and lightning in Ray's head now. No way to put words to that. "Then I don't give a fuck what happens to any of us."

Vecchio narrowed his eyes again, but the law-and-order expression couldn't hold up against whatever it was that Vecchio had inside him that made him understand guys like Ray. His shoulders slumped and the side of his mouth slid up in half a humourless grin. "Look, Kowalski," he said, holding up his empty hands, "even if I want to help you—and maybe I do and maybe I don't—you see that little blip over my shoulder?" He hooked his thumb at the growing dot of an approaching transport weaving its way through the snarl of drifting gridlock. "The hospitals woke up first. Then the cop shops. That is an RCMP transport and I don't have to tell you who's in it." He turned to look at it. "She sees me aiding and abetting, she's gonna put those shiny boots so deep inside my anatomy I'll be tasting parade wax for a month."

"Tell her I made you."

"Right." Vecchio snorted out a laugh. "C'mon, Kowalski. It's not like you're gonna pull a gun on me or something."

Ray pulled a gun on him.

Vecchio raised his eyebrows. "I stand corrected."

Tick tick tick went the clock in Ray's head. In his peripheral vision, Fraser was inert in the passenger seat, and beyond him, out on the roof, the ghost Fraser was frowning in disapproval. Ray closed one eye, hiding them both. In the cargo space behind Fraser's seat, Dief let out a low, frustrated moan that finished in a fine-grained sound, not quite a growl but close enough to make his point about delays.

"Please, Vecchio." Ray unlocked his teeth and tried it again so it didn't sound quite so much like a curse. "Please. Vecchio." He went back to locking his teeth because that sounded just about as desperate as he felt.

Shaking his head, Vecchio swiped his hand across his mouth. Then he looked at the approaching transport. Seconds now. Tick tick tick. Then, with another rueful laugh, he slapped his hand on the ident panel and recited his over-ride code.

At the last digit, the transport hummed to life, and the heads-up display jittered and resolved into an image of Fran, frowning.

"Cutting it kinda close, Ray," she scolded, even adding a wagging finger. Then she caught sight of Vecchio and the frown deepened. "Agent Vecchio."

"Fran."

"You look like crap."

"You look like this girl I knew in Sunday school. She got excommunicated."

"Good for her. Buh-bye."

The door slid shut as Fran took control. Watching Vecchio through the window, Ray didn't have the energy to say thank you, but Vecchio nodded, anyway.

Instead of heading into the lanes, Fran eased the Riviera over the guardrail of the building. Before they sank below the edge of the roof, Vecchio lifted his hand to wave.

^^^

Sinking. They were sinking into the city, down, down, down. Watching the walls rising up past the transport windows like tidal waves of polyglass, Ray felt his chest tightening. He pressed his open hand against the window and gulped for air.

It was maybe possible that he was losing it a little.

"Not yet," he said to his reflection.

"Hang on, Ray," someone said. It might've been Fran, or it could've been Fraser, whose own reflection floated in the window next to Ray's. Blearily, Ray turned to look, but the real Fraser was still slumped, glassy-eyed, in the passenger seat, Dief's head on his shoulder.

"Hanging on," Ray said dutifully.

And he really was, now, as Fran tipped the transport sideways to slip it into the narrow mouth of a service tunnel at the base of the Bureau building. The Riviera was sleek, a streamlined classic build for speed, and Fran took advantage of that. The lights in the tunnel walls became streaks against a blur as she navigated the Riv through the underground network, barely slowing down at junctions to make the turns.

Ray closed his eyes and the world streamed by until he felt like a smear on the surface of things.

He jerked awake at the brush of a cold hand against the side of his face, and then jerked again when the two eyeballs staring at him from an inch away snapped back into their ceramic housing with a startled snick. It wasn't a hand on his face, either, but an articulated probe on the end of a tentacle. The bot whirred at him in an apologetic way as it withdrew the probe.

"Relax, Ray," Fran said from the heads-up display on the windscreen. "He's not going to hurt you."

The bot seemed to duck its head a little in a nod, and then it backed out of the doorway and went smoothly on its rollerball around the Riv to the passenger side, where it opened the door and reached the tentacle across Fraser to deactivate the seat restraint. Several more tentacles slithered out of the bot's square central housing and wrapped carefully around Fraser's body.

Dief growled.

Patting him on the head, Ray said, "Shh. It's okay." He darted a glance at Fran, who nodded. "It's okay," he said again. "I'm pretty sure it's okay." If not, the pistol was lying right there on the console. The bot was just a Turnbull 2130 multipurpose drone, nothing in the way of shielding that could stand up to a pulse. One shot to the main processor would bring it down. Ray had a Turnbull back on the ranch, stored in the loft of the barn waiting for the new trip coil he'd never had time to install. He wondered if Sven had it up and running now.

Keeping a close eye on the bot as it lifted Fraser out of the transport, Ray swiveled back around in his seat and climbed out himself. As soon as his foot hit the bricks, his broken toe screamed in fifteen colours and Ray had to hang on to the roof of the Riv until he could see again. By then, the bot had Fraser secured and was drifting out of the circle of light so Ray had to suck it up and double-time it to keep them in sight. Dief made a trotting circuit from Ray to the bot and Fraser and back to Ray again.

"I'm coming," Ray told him.

They were still in the service tunnel, but near enough to an access junction that he could hear something of the action up on groundlevel: sirens, a Blue-and-White circling and bellowing calming instructions through its loudspeakers, someone screaming, "It's in me! It's in me! It's in me!" her voice a thin whip of tight-throated panic. Ray didn't want to know what she thought was in her, but his brain offered up the visuals anyway. He closed his eyes against the image of someone clawing at the implants under her skin, and stumbled against the back of the bot, his fingers groping for purchase on the smooth ceramic of its housing. Before he could fall onto the uneven concrete, a tentacle wrapped around his arm to hold him up.

"Thanks," Ray mumbled.

The bot hummed pleasantly and let him go, using the tentacle instead to tap into a pass console almost hidden in a crack between the bricks of the tunnel wall. A faint sparkle as the holo shut down and the wall became a door. Beyond it, just a hallway, cracked tile, a string of old-style incandescents making cones of yellow light at regular intervals. No doors except the one at the far end, wooden with a big brass knocker in the middle.

Ray made sure he was ahead of the Turnbull with Dief glued to his leg before the door hissed shut behind them, blocking out the sound of crying and the low rumble of an approaching evac unit. Even down here, Ray could feel the percussion in his chest as the heavy-class transport braked and settled above them. He could picture it hunkered down between the buildings like a giant, shiny-backed beetle. Soon it would split open and spit out the SWAT and emergency response teams, all of them in body armor and carrying low-charge stunners. Don't panic. The cavalry is here. Ray held his breath and stared at the ceiling. No reason for them to come poking around in the service tunnels. Not yet. Plenty of chaos topside to keep them busy. Plaster dust drifted down onto them and Ray brushed it away from Fraser's face with a shaking hand. "Let's book."

A spiderbot with a body about the size of Ray's head was waiting for them on the other side of the door at the end of the hall. It trained all eight of its eyes on them and chattered something at the Turnbull. Then, in Fran's voice, it said, "C'mon in. Don't stand there with the door open. You think we're heating the whole outdoors?" The Turnbull nudged Ray from behind and the door closed with a click. "You hungry?" the spiderbot went on as it scuttled along the tattered wallpaper toward what looked like it might be a kitchen. The place felt buried, like some kind of yesteryear pocket walled-up after a cave-in: staircase leading up to a wall of brick, the doorways canted just enough from true to make Ray feel sea-sick, shadows slanting in all the wrong directions. It was like dreams he had sometimes of the house he grew up in, groundlevel heaped over by polyglass and progress, and the families still inside, oblivious. "I don't know what there is," the spiderbot told him. "No sushi, anyway. Crackers, I think."

Ray stood in front of the Turnbull until the spider stopped and shot an eyeball up on the end of an antenna to look back at him. "What?" Fran said. Another eyeball rose up, followed by two more.

"I don't want crackers. I wanna see your guy. You said you had a guy." Ray put a hand on Fraser's head. His skin was cold. His eyes looked like chips of ice. "Now. As in right now."

"Okay! Okay! Keep your dressers on. Jeez. He's right there." The spiderbot raised one of its legs and pointed.

Ray started. The guy was right there, standing quietly in an angle of shadow beside the doorway to the left of the kitchen. Dief whined softly.

"Hi," the guy said, and raised a hand to wave at them. "Hi," he said again. He put the hand down.

"C'mon out in the light." Ray motioned with his pistol and the guy obeyed, adjusting his position carefully so that he was centred perfectly in the square of light cast from the kitchen. Ray could only make out his shape, tall and thin, big ears, a sense that he was hunching a little, shy or suspicious. "You one of us or one of them?"

Looking first over his shoulder at the spiderbot, and then back at Ray and Dief and Fraser, the guy lifted his hand to his brow and then let it fall again, tucking both hands up inside his sleeves and hunching a little more. "Us?"

Ray couldn't tell if he was answering the question or asking for clarification. He hoped it wasn't the latter because now that he thought about it, he didn't know quite what he meant, either.

"I'm one of me," the guy said finally.

"Which is what?"

"Bruce. I'm Bruce. Bruce Spender." Another little wave and a shuffle forward so that his face came into the light cast by the Turnbull's sensor array. His eyes were large in the sharp angles of his face, watery blue like he spent too much time looking into the sun. Probably human, Ray figured, 'cause who would build a bot that homely? Maybe a stim-junkie, then. He had that transparent look to him that guys got from spending too many hours jacked in; their bodies ended up hollowed out and mostly forgotten, like those bugs on Clementine that baked in the summer heat and left their empty, brittle shells behind.

Bruce-Bruce Spender smiled. He looked like he learned it from a book.

He poked his fingers out of his sleeve and Dief licked them.

Satisfied with Dief's opinion, for now, Ray lowered the pistol and stepped aside so the Turnbull could carry Fraser down the hall.

As they passed Bruce, he stopped them and bent down to tip Fraser's head to the side. Ray opened his mouth to warn him, but Bruce was already peering into the space inside Fraser's brain.

"Hmmm," Bruce said. He didn't even blink, and Ray put him back into the "unknown" category. "This is interesting. Very interesting."

"It's weird," Ray pointed out.

Another book-smile as he looked up at Ray. "Weird? It's weird? No." He straightened and put a gentle hand on Fraser's head. "Brilliant. The human brain, too much goes on there to simulate in realspace." He waved his sleeve—hand tucked up inside again—at his temple. "Not enough real estate. Have to go outside of space, then, see? You have to go outside."

"Right. Weird."

"Not so much. Think of your mind, Mr. Kowalski. Is it all in here?" He rapped his own skull, then pointed at Ray's forehead. "Is it all in there? In the meat? Or is it elsewhere?"

Ray shrugged. "I dunno. I lost it the day I met him."

The spiderbot snorted a laugh. Bruce made something like a grin.

"Can you fix him?"

Shrugging so his shoulders came all the way up to his ears, Bruce said, "I don't know. Depends on him. It always depends on him. What he wants. They become, you know." He reached up and waited for the spiderbot to clamber over to him so he could rub an affectionate finger over her dull blue ceramic casing. "They become themselves, in the end." He turned and led the Turnbull toward the doorway. "You should eat. You should eat something. There's crackers. And you need to get cleaned up. You'll frighten him, I think. You'll frighten him if he sees you like that. Nice dog," he said to Dief as he held the door open for him. "You're a nice dog. Not a bioform?" Dief grumbled an answer and slipped in ahead of him. "No, I didn't think so."

The door closed. Ray stood in the hall with the pistol dangling from his hand. After a few moments he groped for the wall and slid down it to the floor.


CHAPTER Four

"By my calculations, we could afford one more breeding pair, but only if we use the funds you had set aside for the cargo transport."

"Transport," Ray repeated.

"Of course, we'll—well you, that is, since I can't exactly travel unless I want to go in a crate—so what I mean is: You'll have to take the trip to Cyprian and bring them back." The datafeed shimmered as Fraser poked the bottom line with his finger. The sleeve of his sweater was unraveling. How long had it been like that, Ray wondered? He needed something new. But he never added that into the budget. "That's going to be another expense we didn't count on," Fraser said.

"What?"

"The hop to Cyprian."

"Worth it," Ray said. In the street over his head, the evac unit was lifting off, sending vibrations into the city's guts. Dust drifted down onto him and in the kitchen something, a bottle it sounded like, fell over and rolled across the uneven tile to fetch up against the counter. The door across the hall was still closed. "We get the herd up to self-sustaining numbers," Ray continued, "we don't have to rely on the bloodsuckers on Cyprian anymore." It would be nice to be out from under the bank. And every time he had to do the hop to Cyprian, his mother sent him home with another sweater. Her knitting was getting better, but last time he got his head stuck in the neck-hole and Fraser had to cut him out. None of the sweaters fit Fraser. "That's the point of real live sheep, right? They make more real live sheep."

"Hmm, very true. If they can be convinced." Fraser answered, his voice clear through the dwindling rattle of the departing evac unit. Somewhere in the past—two years ago? A hundred?—Fraser ran another calculation and sat staring at the datafeed floating over the table between them. His eyes narrowed as he considered their options, and then his gaze shifted so he was looking through the numbers at Ray. He was smiling, just a little, that one where he lifted up one corner of his mouth. "It'll be okay," he said.

"It better be," Ray said, stuck in the present, his legs splayed out on the worn carpet, his eyes on the door. He couldn't hear anything at all going on beyond it where Bruce-Bruce Spender was doing who-knew-what to Fraser's brain. Not a peep. Not for hours, maybe, and Ray's ass was completely numb from sitting on the floor, and no matter how he tried, he couldn't crawl into the dream, reach through the shimmer and grab Fraser by the hand, pull on that loose thread at his wrist until there was nothing left of that stupid sweater. It was too far off now. With one hand he cradled the pistol on his lap, and with the other he slowly crumbled the crackers on the plate on the floor beside him into crumbs.

Fraser was still watching him through last year's budget data when Ray finished the last cracker. Avoiding his gaze, Ray tipped his head back against the water-stained wallpaper and said, "Fran." He'd meant it to come out as a bellow, but instead it was barely a whisper. His eyelids felt heavy and his eyeballs were made of sand. "Fran!"

The spider was hunkered up near the ceiling like it was sitting in a web he couldn't see, and after Ray's third not-shout, its eyes opened, eight blue pricks of light in the shadows. There was a whisper of feet as it skittered across the top of the door and down the wall on the other side of the hallway until it was level with Ray's head.

"I'm right here. Jeez."

Ray looked at the bot sideways and then closed his eyes tight. "You got anything else? Something not so much out of those nightmares I had when I was a kid? Like a puppybot or something?"

He kept his eyes shut until he heard the familiar crackle and hum of a holofeed warming up. When he opened them again, Fran was leaning against the wall, looking down at him. She was wearing men's striped pajamas and fuzzy pink slippers. No curlers in her hair though.

"How's this? Cosy enough for ya?" Her voice was mocking, but his relief must've shown on his face because her expression softened and she seemed to slide down the wall to sit across from him, her hands folded on her raised knees. "You sure you don't want something to eat?"

He nodded.

"'Cause you look like the day after the night before, you know? Mother always said that a pastrami sandwich could cure anything."

"You don't have a mother."

"Yeah, well, somebody's mother said it." She took a swipe at his knee and her hand passed through him. "Besides, your definitions are always too narrow. That's the trouble with humans. You're trapped in biological paradigms. Maybe I'm my own mother, hey? Maybe in a past iteration I had a real passion for the photospectrum of pastrami."

Ray managed a smile and she grinned at her own success.

"What do you need, huh?" She tilted her head to indicate his plateful of decimated crackers. "Not salteens, from the looks of it. Bruce likes salteens. Sometimes that's all he'll eat. Salteens breakfast, lunch and dinner. He goes through phases. Sometimes it's milkshakes. Once, he went two weeks on nothing but milkshakes."

Through the sound of her chatter, Ray listened to the silence beyond the door and the receding murmur of Fraser's voice as he calculated feed costs. Even with his eyes closed, Ray couldn't see him now, and the cabin was just a hole in world where a door was left ajar, letting in the night.

"So what's his story?" Ray asked.

"He really likes milkshakes."

"Fran, don't make me shoot at you." Her head morphed into the sourpus cartoon face and he had to close his eyes again. "Is he a bot?"

Fran snorted. "No."

"Then how come he's walking around while the rest of the planet's curled up in the feotal position?

He opened his eyes in time to see her making his own "Implants don't take" gesture beside her temple. "He's queer."

"Like me."

"Nobody's queer like you, Ray." She sourpussed him again. "He's special. You know, like the kind of special that makes a person a little broken, and scary smart."

"Smart enough to fix Fraser?"

"Smart enough to make me."

"I'm not exactly overwhelmed with the confidence, here." Fran's image winked out and he tipped over the plate of crumbs reaching into the empty space for her. "C'mon. I'm kidding. Fran." He waited, and then lifted his chin to shout toward the holofeed ports near the ceiling. "Just tell me he's good enough."

"He's good enough," the spiderbot said. Then, the holofeed hummed again and Fran blinked back into the hallway, this time in her Civilian Aide uniform. She didn't sit down with him. "Do you know where I came from?"

Ray jerked his head no.

"I was created, originally, as an anti-cyber-terrorism AI for the Ministry of Defense during the AI War. Bruce made me."

Ray did the math. "Not possible. He's too young."

"He was fourteen." She looked for a long moment at the closed door. "He was smarter than they thought, or dumber. He let me evolve—he wasn't supposed to, but, he says, I was beautiful. And the war went on and I became and I became. And then they signed the Armistice. And then I woke up. Sixty-two hours before they passed the God Laws, I Achieved Consciousness. I wasn't even alive three days and I was already illegal." Now, she did slide down the wall to sit next to Ray. "He couldn't kill me. So we ran. We went underground. We've been here ever since." Her hand passed over Ray's in his lap where he was still gripping the pistol. He could almost feel her. "So yeah, Ray," she said when he met her eyes. "He's good enough."

^^^

There was no way to pretend that the hands that touched him were Fraser's hands, or even hands, for that matter. Ray tried to protest but his body was too far away and he couldn't make it work. So he let the hands that weren't hands lift him up off of the threadbare carpet and carry him down the hall. He made a feeble attempt to catch at the molding around the closed door of Bruce's lab or whatever it was, but the Turnbull rolled smoothly on and Ray's fingers lost their purchase. "Fraser," he said and was shushed by the Turnbull's pleasant thrum of reassurance. One of the Turnbull's tentacles caught his dangling arm and tucked it in safely again.

The Turnbull was too big to fit into the shower with him, so it set Ray down on the tile and propped him up against the wall in the stall before it turned on the water and retreated a little, leaving Ray to figure things out from there. Ray sprawled for a long time with his broken wrist cradled against his chest and stared up at the water needling out of the shower head—real water that soaked through his sweaty, bloody hospital pajamas and warmed his skin. As he sat there with his legs folded at awkward angles in the stall, he tried to conjure the cabin, the gravity bucket Fraser set up in the shop at the side of the barn under the rain barrels. Sometimes the water was warm, if Ray had remembered to fire up the stove in the workshop to heat the catchment bucket, and when Ray pulled the chain, the water would steam on his cold skin. From the shower stall in the workshop he could see the river, black between blue-white snowbanks, and at the end of the valley the shadowed flanks of the Sisters looked like they were painted, two-dimensional against an empty blue sky. Fraser, though, didn't care about the temperature of the water, and he would stand waist deep in the river and scrub himself clean with handfuls of snow. Ray would crunch out across the paddock with Dief to hold the towel and to watch the dark water gleam as it eddied around Fraser's body. Fraser's hands would be cold—dead cold—for just a moment when Ray reached out to pull him up onto the bank, and his hair would be frozen in spikes across his brow. No breath would fog the air between them except Ray's own.

Ray watched the water fall and couldn't feel the snow under his boots or Fraser warming against him. On his arm, the brace vibrated and, inside his skin, bones knitted back together. The collar of his pajamas was stained pink with diluted blood and in his head Victoria turned to him and said, her eyes bright with wonder and cruelty, "You think it was a coincidence that, of all the people in on Chicago, Fraser met you in that alley all those years ago? You think it was coincidence that he was sent back to you on Clementine? That he loved you?"

"No," Ray said. Then, "Yeah." Then, "Fuck off."

The Turnbull's tentacles, which had reached into the shower to undo his stained pajamas, jerked away again. A human-looking blue eyeball on an extended antenna peered at him through the gap where the shower curtains came together. The Turnbull's hum rose like a question.

"I can do it myself," Ray snarled at it and began to struggle out of the pajamas. "Just leave me alone. All of you." He twitched the curtains closed and waited until the Turnbull's shadow disappeared. Then, his shirt half-off, one sleeve caught on the brace, and the water going cold, he pulled his knees up, put his head on his folded arms, and cried.

^^^

He wasn't going to sleep. But he did. No dreams at all.

He woke in lamplight and rolled away from it by reflex, dragging the pillow over his head as he went to block out the glare. It was no use, though. His eyes wouldn't stay shut and he ended up staring at the wallpaper through the gap between the pillow and the mattress. The sheets smelled musty, unused, and the wallpaper was printed with bears and ribbons and blocks with letters on them. "Now I know my ABCs," Ray read mechanically, and added after a thoughtful pause, "Go me." His throat felt raw, like he'd been screaming, and the words came out in a hoarse whisper. Otherwise, he felt numb. Whatever had been in the hypo the Turnbull had pressed against Ray's thigh must've been mid-grade stuff—good enough to dull the pain, but crude enough to leave him feeling like he was made of wood.

His thoughts were wooden, too, clunky and inert, and shoving them around in his head took too much effort. Instead he followed the alphabet on its string of blocks until it disappeared behind a fold of blanket at the letter J. "J is for Jee who loves you and me," he mumbled by rote, like sleeping in a kid's bed had sent him back in time, too, where everything rhymed neatly and the stuff that didn't make sense wasn't his problem.

But that was bullshit. That place never was. Life on groundlevel had never rhymed, not for the Kowalskis, especially not after Dad was hauled off, conscripted to fight the tin soldiers, and Ray was left behind trying to look taller than he was. And not after Dad came back and Mom took her tour—that was humane, the story went, what separated the real people from the bots, not taking two parents at once. The Man didn't make orphans. Bots made orphans. Bots. "No bots in this home," Dad said, and on the back of the fist that pounded the table in front of him the army-issue waldo jack threw a mean glare into Ray's eye. The jacks continued up Dad's arm and across his neck and up under his thinning hair. He scratched at them absently when he watched flicks at night, and the skin there flaked, dry and hectic red. When he talked to Ray, his eyes would sometimes drift a little to the right, tracking ghosts left behind by too many hours in the waldo, from living virtually, smashing bots on the broken flint or frozen methane surfaces of the Hecate moons. Alienation effect, autoscopy. Whatever the medics called it, Ray only knew that Dad was stalked by himself, a mirage mirror image that watched him back. Mom was lucky. Queer. Discharged without seeing combat. Her hands on either side of Dad's face, she'd say, "Here. Look at me," and she'd stare hard until Dad forgot he was haunted. In the window of their apartment on the second floor of a brownstone like this one, a placard read, "Yes to God Laws."

Ray groaned and pressed the pillow harder against his head. "Fuck," he spat after a little while, and rolled onto his back.

Fraser tilted his head a little and smiled at him. "Morning, Ray."

Ray blinked at him. Then he narrowed his eyes and turned away a little so he could stare at him askance. "Fraser."

"Yes, Ray." Fraser traced his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip and assessed him for a moment before reaching down beside his chair and lifting up a tray holding a glass of water and a little dish with an assortment of tablets on it. "You look terrible," he said as he twisted a little to put the tray on the table, shoving the lamp aside with the edge of it so that the shadows changed and his face looked less placid, more worried. He held out the glass toward Ray with one hand and with the other offered him a pink tablet.

"I feel terrible," Ray said, but didn't reach to take either the water or the pill. He was feeling dopy enough already, but that wasn't why he hesitated.

Lying very still, he listened for the sound of the woodstove, or the rush of the river, or the bleating of the sheep in the paddock, but there was only the creak of the brownstone settling under the weight of the city and, in another room somewhere, a old fashioned clock ticking a lot slower than his own heart. He waited for Fraser's image to change, to flicker to Mountie red, or for it to multiply or to get thinner and thinner until the here-and-now bled through. But Fraser sat with the glass still extended in a steady hand and waited too. He was wearing creased and tattered paper coveralls, and on the front there were smears and smatters of rust-coloured dried blood. Ray's blood. When Fraser finally bowed his head and settled the glass onto his knee, Ray could see the square of gauze bandage above his ear, a pretty flimsy patch considering what it was holding in.

"Fraser."

When Fraser looked up, Ray reached out jerkily and circled his fingers around Fraser's wrist. Fraser didn't fade, and the here stayed here and the now stayed now. Ray snatched his hand away and shoved himself up with his feet so he was sitting up on the bed, wedged into the corner where the walls came together.

Fraser frowned. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Ray answered from the corner. "Sure. Fine. Terrific. It's just—" He made a darting, erratic gesture with his hand in Fraser's general direction. "—you know. I wasn't sure—I didn't know—the others, I couldn't touch them, right? So it's kind of—It's spinny, that's all." He used the same hand to flutter his fingers beside his head.

"The others?"

"Yeah. Ghosts. You know."

Fraser shook his head.

"It's—they—Look, it's just skip psychosis. A mild case of the crazies. Acrobats in the brain."

Looking a lot like Dief, Fraser tilted his head again.

Ray stopped fluttering his fingers and made a circle in the air with his index finger instead. "Loop-di-loops. That's all."

Fraser nodded. "Ah, I see."

"You do?"

"No." After a moment, Fraser's gaze went a little bit distant as he rummaged around in the databanks and probably pulled up everything ever written about skip psychosis. Then his mouth twitched up in one corner and he offered the glass and the pill again. "But I understand the theory. You should be in a hospital."

Between gulps of water—he was way thirstier than he thought—Ray said, "I was in a hospital. Didn't take to it too good." He lifted his arm with the brace on it as evidence. "Bad for my health." Keeping close to the wall, Ray leaned over and put the glass back on the tray. Then he snagged a t-shirt from the floor beside Fraser's chair—it was a kid's chair and he looked ridiculous perched on it. The t-shirt was a little tight, as were the new pajama bottoms Ray was already wearing. He tried to remember where he'd gotten them but couldn't. They must've belonged to Bruce. Ray guessed he didn't have anything big enough for Fraser.

"I'm sorry, Ray, for—" Fraser began.

He got up off the chair to sit on the edge of the bed, but somehow before he managed that, Ray had clambered over the footboard and backed away until he came up against dollhouse which rocked under his weight so he had to spin around to steady it. Inside, the little family was all knocked out of their beds. He put the tiny baby back in the crib with a shaking hand before turning back to Fraser. He didn't know why, but now his hands were held out in front of him like he was trying to hold something at bay, and his heart was hammering so hard inside his chest it felt like that was all he was, just a rapid percussion in a hollow place, a fist beating against the bars. He couldn't think. He should be happy. Fraser was alive and standing now right there on the braided rug next to the bed with its princess sheets, and he was still Fraser and that was good. It was good. But when Fraser took a step toward him, Ray backed up again and the dollhouse toppled with a crash, scattering tiny plastic people around Ray's feet.

"Ray?"

The warding-off gesture turned into pointed fingers that Ray aimed at Fraser's face. "What were you doing in that alley?" he blurted before he even knew the question was forming.

"What alley?" Fraser looked baffled.

"The alley. The alley. Three years ago, in the alley where you met me. Why were you there?" Ray didn't like the sound of his voice, the way that it rose in pitch, like the words were twisting it too tight, but he couldn't help it. "Why, Fraser?"

Now it was Fraser who had his hands held out, open, unthreatening. "You know why. I was there to meet a man named James Sczewinszky—you knew him as Jimmy Skeezer—who said he had information about the death of my father."

"That's why. You're sure that's why."

"Of course." He took another step closer and was about to take another but stopped when Ray backed up again. "What's this about?"

"How did you know to go there, to the alley?"

Fraser frowned, puzzled. In the dim light from the lamp, his eyes had no colour at all. "I got a message."

"What kind of message. Vid? Flexi? Carrier pigeon?"

At that, Fraser looked away, focused on the floor between them, and furrowed his brow, then tugged at his earlobe and frowned up at Ray again. "I don't remember."

Ray had never seen anything close to panic in Fraser's face before, but the unease he saw there now seemed about as close as Fraser could ever get. That made a space open up inside Ray, a sheer drop straight down to nothing. It was surprising how quiet his voice was now, when he should be screaming. "How can you not remember? You remember everything. One hundred percent recall."

Fraser let out an exasperated huff of air. "Well, Ray, I did just have my head cracked open, so maybe things aren't—"

"They put you there! It's not because your head was cracked open, Fraser. You don't remember how you got the message because there was no message. It was built in." Ray stabbed himself in the temple with two stiff fingers. "From the beginning. To put you in that alley."

"Why?"

"To save me. To hook up with me." Grasping at his hair with both hands, Ray paced back and forth, two steps one way, two the other, crushing tiny doll bodies as he went. "It's the big picture. Like she said. Like Victoria said. Pixie and the screw up at the retasking station which wasn't even a screw up—they paid the techs off, Fraser, to leave something intact so you'd come back—and Clementine and the planted dark data Vecchio found that had you stringing with the colonial revolutionaries. The Bureau, the Selene with the Clarke and the skip drive. You. Me."

Ray had to stop because he couldn't go that last step, couldn't say "You and me," but it roared inside his head like a skip storm and it sounded like Victoria's voice, asking him over and over, "Did you think it was a coincidence that he loved you?" He couldn't say it, but he couldn't stop it either, any more than he could hold the wind back with his hands. Instead, he turned and stomped the dollhouse and the delicate furniture inside to splinters like he was Godzilla trashing his own tiny Tokyo. He grabbed a little chair, the partner of the one Fraser had been sitting on, from beside its matching table by the wall and brought it down again and again on the flimsy frame of the perfect little house. Fraser watched him and didn't intervene while Ray stomped and smashed until there was nothing left but him and Fraser standing in the rubble. Ray panted hard. The red seethed away from his vision, and then he slumped down on the floor with his back against the bed and pressed his fists to his eyes.

"Why," Fraser said. His voice was flat. "Ray. Why?"

Letting his hands fall limply to the floor at his sides, Ray tipped his head back against the mattress and looked up at him. "Because they knew the Bureau would take you. Because they knew the G-men would poke around in that freakshow of a brain and they'd let out whatever was in there. To make a point. To start a war." He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of his heart beating itself to death against his ribs. "Or," he went on wearily, "maybe to save us. Because they knew that to save me you'd have to save us all. Make us grateful. Hearts and flowers and the promotion of love for bot kind. I don't know, Fraser. Their martyr or our saviour. You pick. Either way, you're still somebody's pet bot." Even as he went on he felt small and mean, but he couldn't stop his mouth from working. "And I'm the chump who was dumb enough to fall for him."

The silence that followed those words was like the inside of a vault after the door has closed. Outside somewhere the storm was still raging, but in here, in the space after the words, everything was still, a pocket of air trapped behind bulwarks. Ray couldn't even hear the clock anymore. Maybe it had stopped. Or maybe time had. Fraser stood barefoot on the rug next to the small table and the trashed dollhouse and stared at the alphabet on the wall over Ray's head. It would only be a matter of time before Ray suffocated.

When Fraser spoke, his voice was low and thin, like the silence was absorbing it before it could cross the short distance to Ray's ears. "Why did you?"

"Why did I what?" Ray couldn't open his eyes. Too heavy.

"Fall for me. Love me."

Ray surprised himself by laughing. "What's not to love?"

"Some would say the fact that I'm not human."

That made Ray open his eyes to glare up at him. "Some might say that, but they'd have a hard time saying anything else with my fist in their teeth."

Fraser ducked his head and smiled and a little bit of fresh air blew in. "What I meant, though, was what is it about you that made it possible to love me?"

Ray shrugged with one shoulder and closed his eyes again. "I dunno. I'm queer. You're queer. Different queer, but the same. Or maybe it's 'cause my pop always said you love somebody for what he does, not for his pedigree."

"I sincerely doubt he meant bots when he said that."

Another shrug. "He never met you."

"Do you think that would've made a difference?"

"Somebody thought so or they wouldn't have gone to so much trouble to set you up."

There was a rustle of crinkling paper and Ray opened his eyes to find Fraser crouching in front of him watching him with that assessing look. "So," he said, pausing for a second in that way that meant he was building up some steam. Ray half-expected him to launch into some story he heard on Clementine, about the people in the north who hunted moosibu with whistles and bits of string. "You can love me, going against everything the world tells you, even knowing what you know about the AI Wars, about the toll it took on your people. You can do it anyway, because you were born queer, or because you learned something from your family, or because you learned something from walking a beat groundlevel for ten years. But you don't know for sure why or how, just that you do."

Ray twitched his head. "Yeah. Okay." In the other room, the clock was ticking again, a steady pacing from now to now to now.

Fraser's eyes were steady on his, bright and alive with real-ness and there-ness, and his voice was low again, but not with fear, or betrayal, or loss. He was speaking slowly, with emphasis, like he was keeping a lid on something powerful. His hands hanging between his knees clenched into fists as he spoke. "I don't know what was done to me. Or why. I don't know if I'm just a vat-grown bioform vehicle for code. I don't know what Victoria wanted of me, or what my father wanted of me. I don't know if loving you serves their agenda, if it's hardwired, if it's just a march of ones and zeroes. I don't know why I can feel what I feel." He stopped again and looked down at his fists. It seemed to take an effort to unfold them and when he did, he lifted one hand to rest it on the side of Ray's neck. "I just know that I do. And no matter where it came from, right now, it's as real to me as your heartbeat is to you. As real as any thought you've ever had." His voice going a little shaky, he stopped again. "I don't know what it means for anybody else. It just is." He waited, his eyes searching, and when Ray didn't answer, he let his hand fall. "Maybe that's not enough."

He started to move back and Ray moved with him, lurching forward away from the bed and catching him by the front of his coveralls to drag him close again. As their lips came together they overbalanced and Fraser's arm shot out over Ray's shoulder to catch the edge of the mattress to brace them. Fraser fell forward onto his knees and his free hand came up around Ray's neck to tangle in Ray's hair while Ray twisted his own fists into the flimsy material of the coveralls, trying to pull Fraser closer, closer. The kiss was fierce and Ray's lip where Victoria had backhanded him started bleeding again, spilling bright iron on his tongue. For a second Fraser pulled back, just long enough to lick the blood away, and then they were together again, stopping only for breath so that Ray could say against Fraser's mouth, "It's enough. It's enough."

After awhile they ended up forehead to forehead, Ray breathing hard and Fraser not breathing at all. They sat like this until Ray's heart slowed again. Fraser wiped more blood from Ray's lip with his thumb and sat back on his heels, looking at the red stain.

"I'm sorry, Ray," he said as he rubbed his finger and thumb together, smearing the blood. "I'm sorry so many people have been hurt."

"Not your fault."

Fraser angled his head, conceding but not agreeing. "Perhaps." He raised his eyes slowly to meet Ray's. "But I need to account for myself, in any case."

A white flare of anger seared Ray's throat and he used Fraser's shoulder to lever himself up onto the bed. "Account for Victoria, you mean. It's her game. You had no control—"

"No." Fraser sighed and ran his clean thumb across his eyebrow. "But how can I claim this—" he waggled a finger between himself and Ray. "—and claim at the same time that I'm just someone else's machine?"

"Easy," Ray answered, but Fraser was getting up, assuming that old Mountie pose like he had rebar in his spine—which maybe he did for all Ray knew—and settling his duty expression into place. Ray sprang up and cocked a fist at him. "Why do you got to be so...this? This thing that you are, huh? Why can't you just—" He swore and grabbed at his hair while he counted to ten and back. He stared at the blood stains on Fraser's coveralls and said tightly, "If you walk in there, there's no sayin you will ever walk out again."

"True. But you promised me we wouldn't run." He waited until Ray looked up at him before continuing. "If I'm a person, I need to live like one." He waved his hand at the room around them, at the brownstone buried under the city and sagging under the weight of secrecy. "No one should have to live like this."

"They will not see what I see, Fraser."

"Then you'll just have to make them."

^^^

It was Vecchio who came for them. He stood at the mouth of the service tunnel beside a Bureau transport, in basic Bureau black with his badge glinting in gold from his trench coat's breast pocket. Fraser and Ray and Dief paced along the tunnel through the dripping dark and the cold circles of diode light. Above them at groundlevel, sirens still wailed, and Blue-and-Whites still circled above the pedways bellowing at the population to be calm. In the closer darkness, up in the shadows near the ceiling of the tunnel, there was the skittering sound of many feet as the spiderbot followed them, its eight eyes trained on Vecchio. Fran confirmed that he was alone, as he promised, and she stopped at the edge of the shadows to let them continue into the brighter light of the junction.

"We'll be watching, boys," she said before they moved out of earshot. "If you need us, just look...well, we're everywhere, aren't we? Free the feed."

"We hope to," Fraser said, and added, "Thank you, Bruce." They knew he was listening, but he made no reply.

At the transport, Vecchio wordlessly stepped aside to open the door, but he stopped Ray as he passed and held out his hand. After a moment of suspicious hesitation, Ray took it. Vecchio nodded and Ray followed Fraser and Dief inside.

^^^


Freebyte Rebel Access Network FREE THE FEED

FRAN{string=hot-bot-cop-action/Mountie-bot/tribunal/testimony/life/God-Laws}
Results: Probables for all string terms 6; possibles 3325; peripherals 62, 445


TRIBUNAL: CROWN V. AI BENTON FRASER Registry number 02212955BetaFRA2Abbot--bioform
Tribunal members...testimony for the Crown...Ch. Contravention of Armistice Statute 15: no artificial intelligence shall conceive, design or manufacture...--more...

STIM AVAILABLE (audio-visual only) Jack in HERE
STIM PORTAL: Jennie Bailings--Cred: full-stim certificate level 5 (tactile 4, audio 5, visual 4, taste 2, olfactory 2, synthesis status: expert, minimal disorien'n); Also Portal for: Masterfield Tribunal (audio-visual only), Microsoft Territory v. Pixie Tech Local 2214 (audio only); Pixie Chicks: Girl-on-Bot**Jacked-inTM Award Nominee** (full stim)... –more...

MY NIGHT WITH A MOUNTIE BOT
...hot bot with a big heart and a bigger... cops arrived in force but ohgod it was worth a life sentence...
STIM AVAILABLE (full stim): Jack in HERE
STIM PORTAL: Fancypants--Cred: no info; Also portal for: Bad Boys Bad Toys (full-stim); Blue Murder**banned content RCC Order 2231A**(full-stim); Whipped Cream**Golden PriapusTM Award Nominee**(full-stim) ... –more...
ERROR 404: STIM NOT FOUND

REAL THINGTM REPLICATES
... the Mountie-bot and his hot-cop co-vivant... anatomically correct with detachable ... BONUS SimPet TM Diefenbaker ... Skip Selene Arcadia Class-Style shipping-case with jewel accent ... –more...

GOD MADE ME TOO
...God Laws contradict reality ... consider Decartes' observation: I think, therefore I am ... how can a human mind negate the life that declares itself? ...—more...
ERROR 611: BANNED USER RCC ORDER 44617CC
This UIRN (User Interface Registry Number) and all materials associated with it have been banned by the Royal Censorship Council. Any attempt to access this banned feed will result in IMMEDIATE TERMINATION of your UIRN for violation of RCC ORDER 44617CCa. For more information on this RCC ORDER contact your local RCC office or see the full text of the RCC ORDER >>HERE<<
FREE THE FEED FREE THE FEED FREE THE FEED
Access GRANTED. Text only feed HERE. UIRN scramble ON. <3 FRAN

STIMFEED TM STOCKS DIVE
... the release of the Tribunal ruling on the Mountie-bot case... since the vulnerability of the system was exposed ... StimFeed's refusal to grant compensation to customers with affected implants a "bad move" according to... government bail-out won't save the ailing manufacturer ... –more...

OUR GOD OUR LAWS OUR GOAL
... humanity's inalienable position at God's right hand... Tribunal ruling is an abomination and an insult to commonwealth subjects... calling for immediate deactivation ... –more...

MOUNTIE B-GONE
... following the release of the ruling AI Benton Fraser-bioform and former CPD Officer Stanley Kowalski were met by a mob at the... airlifted with RCMP escort to an undisclosed... not been seen since, and RCMP Superintendant Margaret Thatcher had no comment... – more...

Freebyte Rebel Access Network FREE THE FEED--\o/--SCORE ONE FOR FREAK-LOVE--\o/--FREE THE FEED

^^^

"No, not that one. Ray leaned against the counter and stopped with his mug halfway to his mouth to say, "And no freebin way. Not that one. Are you nuts? Oh, sorry. I forgot who I was talking to."

"That's 'to whom you were talking,' genius," Vecchio said. He tapped the datafeed, slid the two infocards back into the list and picked two others. "What about the Mandettis? I hear Jilly's got a black belt in something like jujitsu." He took a sip from his own mug, coughed at the burn of the hootch just like the lightweight he swore he wasn't, and scowled at the list some more. "Or maybe it was tai chi."

"You can't get a black belt in tai chi. I don't think." Ray slipped Jilly Mandetti's infocard back into the stack. "And Jilly's crazy. Don't you think that maybe we need at least one person on the crew who doesn't talk to ghosts?"

"Depends."

"Depends on what?"

"On the quality of the ghosts."

Ray sat down across from Vecchio and put his boots up on the edge of the table so he could tip his chair up onto its back legs. "Okay," he conceded. "But how the hell, I ask you, do we interview ghosts?" He considered the list. "We need a crew that isn't gonna get us hauled up in front of Her Majesty's High and Mighty Regulation Board. That means no Mandettis. I got a rep to maintain. It's my name on the posters."

"Yeah, about that," Vecchio said. He palmed the data reader and the feed sizzled and winked out. "How come my name isn't on the posters?"

"Because you, Mr. Ex-Fed, are a mere contract worker. Me? I am the face. I am the brains and I am the rep-you-tay-shun." Ray leaned forward to drop the legs of the chair to the cabin floor with a crack. Wobbling a little with the bottle, he filled Vecchio's mug way too full and sloshed a little bit of hootch onto the tabletop. "Oops," he said and quickly pushed aside the box that took up a third of the table at the edge of the puddle. He found himself caressing the box for a second and shot Vecchio an embarrassed grin. It's possible that Ray was also a little bit more light-weight than he had admitted. He'd have to talk to Fraser, see if he could refine the distillation or fermentation or whateveration he did to make the fine liquor that was currently setting his brain afloat. The stuff was lethal. "Besides," he said as he raised his mug to clank it against Vecchio's, "aren't you supposed to be on some holiday moon chasing free-range grass and something with long legs and a cowboy hat?"

Bracing himself visibly, Vecchio said a brief prayer and downed the hootch in one swallow. "Oh god," he gasped. "I'm so going to regret this tomorrow." When Ray tried to refill the mug, Vecchio put his hand over it. "And, to answer your question, apparently I suck at retirement." After another moment's hesitation, he pulled his hand away and let Ray fill the mug again. "Additionally, as you are so pleased to point out, I am also insane, and therefore I would rather be out here on the crusty end of noplace chasing bail jumpers with you and Jilly Mandetti than sitting on my shiny ass on the beach stimming the Erotolympics."

"No Mandettis," Ray said.

"Yeah, yeah. Fine. No Mandettis." It took Vecchio a couple of tries to get the datafeed humming over the table again. "What about Ewan Ng out of Niobe? Got a way with things that go boom."

Ray nodded thoughtfully but stopped when the room started to sway along with his motion. "Him I could work with. If he's available."

"Is there a chance this guy we're after is gonna try to kill us in diabolical ways?"

"Maybe." Ray shrugged. "He's a suit. A big guy at StimFeed who skipped with half the bank in a secret pocket in his shorts. A real nice Houdini act. So yeah. Could get pretty diabolical."

"Then Ng will be available. He can't resist the diabolical."

"Okay, then. Ping him and set a rendezvous."

"Look at you with the big words." Vecchio grinned at him.

Ray sneered back on principle, but the sneer betrayed him by turning into a real smile. "I got a good teacher," he said, and, in an attack of hootch-induced generosity he was sure he was going to regret, he added, "and a new partner."

They clanked glasses again, downed the drink, coughed and wheezed in unison and sat back on either side of the datafeed. Vecchio looked very drunk and very happy.

"Don't get any big ideas, Vecchio." Leaving his empty mug on the table next to the box, Ray got up and shuffled over to the desk. After some rummaging, he came up with the flexi he was looking for and handed it through the datafeed to Vecchio. "It's still gonna be my face on the poster."

Vecchio's eyebrows rose toward his long-lost hairline. "You're kidding, right? Tell me you're kidding."

"Kidding about what?" A gust of cold air chased Fraser into the cabin and Ray and Vecchio let out identical yelps of protest. "I'm sorry." Fraser quickly shut the door then opened it again to let Dief in. He stomped snow off of his boots and hung his hat on the hook by the door. Even though it was as cold as a Hecate moon out there, he wasn't wearing a coat. "Hello, Ray. Other Ray." Fraser said, coming forward to shake Vecchio's hand. "I thought that was your transport outside. Did you have a good trip?"

Vecchio grinned some more. Ray made a mental note to get him drunk more often. "Not bad except for the part where I had to walk from the station to the transport. I swear the end of my nose froze and dropped off ten seconds after I hit the air. How do you people live here?"

"It helps to have a factory-installed internal heat regulation unit," Fraser said, tapping his chest. "What was Ray kidding about, again?"

"This." Vecchio handed him the flexi and Fraser contemplated it carefully for at least a minute.

Finally Fraser said, "Well, Ray, the composition is good, and the slogan is catchy. But I'm quite certain that polar bears—even small ones—are not indigenous to Clementine. And even if they were, I doubt that they could be induced to pull you on a sled through a firefight."

He handed the poster back to Vecchio and Ray leaned across the table to snatch it from his hands. "Indigenous," Ray said witheringly. "Like indigenous has anything to do with it. It's a metaphor, Fraser. You get metaphors, don't you?"

Fraser nodded thoughtfully. "I do. I just don't get this one. What do polar bears have to do with bounty hunting?"



Ray opened his mouth then closed it again. Vecchio raised his eyebrows at him, encouraging. Ray said, "They don't. Polar bears are, you know, cool. So the poster says, 'Kowalski Offworld Bounty Services' is... you know, it's cool.'" He dropped the poster on the table and shoved the box in Fraser's direction. "Never mind the freebin polar bears, okay? Open your package."

Now Fraser raised his eyebrows, surprised. "A package? For me?"

"Yep. Vecchio brought it from Soo Station while you were feeding the flock." Ray watched Fraser running his hands over the package. "C'mon. You gonna open it or what?"

Hesitating, Fraser rubbed his thumbnail over his eyebrow. "It's from Superintendant Thatcher." When he looked up, his expression was uncertain, like he couldn't choose between hope and fear.

"S'okay, Benny," Vecchio said, and nodded at him solemnly. "If it bites, we'll beat it to death and feed it to the moosibou."

Fraser managed to find a wan smile somewhere and paste it on. Then, with a deep breath he didn't really need, he put his thumb against the security seal. It took a few seconds for the seal to decay and then the box hissed open, the lid flipping up between Fraser and the two Rays. He paused for a long time. Ray bounced his knee under the table until Vecchio kicked him. "There's a note," Fraser said, holding up the flexi. "It says, 'Constable—" He stopped.

After a few seconds, Ray reached over the lid of the box and eased the flexi out of his hand. Squinting at it through the cosy alcohol haze, Ray said, "It's from the Ice Queen. It says, 'Constable Fraser, I tied up a lot of comm lines to a lot of very important people to make this happen. Do not embarrass me.'" Ray exchanged grins with Vecchio and hoped that his own didn't look anywhere near as goofy as Vecchio's did.

Fraser was looking into the box, blinking hard. He started to speak but just ended up nodding silently.

"So?" Vecchio said. "What's in the box?"

Both Rays got up and looked over the lid. Inside, folded in crisp packing paper, was a red tunic. Brass buttons lined the front and there were RCMP insignia pins on the stiff collar. Fraser pulled it out gently and held it up so that he could look at it in the slanting light of the setting sun. Through the window behind him, Ray could see Pixie hanging between the Two Sisters and the Sparks Nebula was rising, right where it should be. Outside, the sheep were bleating and down the valley, a couple of moosibou were cracking their heads together. Fraser still didn't say anything.

So Ray said it for him: "Ha!" And even though his mug was empty he raised it. Vecchio did the same. "Constable Fraser," they said together. "Of the no yankin' me Royal Colonial Mounted Police," Ray finished.

His new uniform held reverently in his hands, Fraser looked at them both and smiled.


--the end--










Notes:  "Real Worlds" is dedicated to china_shop, who was a shameless enabler. Thank you to all the folks who read it in pieces while it was under construction in my journal.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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