by C.H. Pearce
A private security contractor, encased in body armour black as a beetle’s carapace, is waving their arms on the roadside. In the unlit suburban streets, the spotlights of Jo’s van glance off her colleague’s tinted visor.
She doesn’t know them. Just knows the uniform. Patrol grunt; Blackbriar Security; a contractor. Not Jo’s division, and not her business. That’s long behind her.
Jo’s on the clock. Driving through the choicest residential block in Efterland, looming manor houses so snugly nestled back from the main road it gives the impression of isolation, on her way to pick up a party of government clients. It’s past curfew. No foot patrol required, or recommended, at this hour. The only trouble in an affluent suburb like this is domestic, inside someone’s spec-sealed house, or a matter well-contained in the labs within the Innovation Zone.
Jo drums the wheel. She doesn’t slow. She deliberately picks up speed, flashing the headlights at the stranger to startle them out of her path.
The stranger waves more enthusiastically and limps towards the van. They’ve mistaken the flashing lights as a sign Jo’s seen them. The hurry, as a sign she’s urgently coming to their rescue. Somewhere in between the first flash and the second, that becomes true.
Jo screeches the van to a halt, gravel crunching under tyres. Runs down the driver’s side window. She slings out an arm, tattoos and tech showing under the rolled-up shirtsleeve of her uniform. They’re colleagues, she and this stranger, though at 49 Jo is well shot of her mandatory downstairs patrol time and no longer wears the body armour over her uniform.
Jo’s resentful someone has miscast her as better than she is, and now she feels obliged to perform the role. It’s 20:37 and she’s due to pick up the Minister for Innovation in 23 minutes and she hasn’t yet passed the checkpoint through to the Innovation Zone. Jo has a perfect record for punctual pickups and this stop will make it a near thing.
“You right there, mate?” Jo calls. Stupid question. There’s a dotted trail of blood on the gravel. The stranger’s armour is battered — burnt by fire or perhaps chemicals — and almost fused-looking. That is what made Jo think of a carapace. Jo has the vivid, intrusive fancy the stranger will report back to their station and find themselves unable to remove their uniform or their helmet.
Jo hopes the stranger will respond in the affirmative, and they’ll both move along. Knows that hope is ridiculous.
“Get in.” Jo leans over and kicks open the passenger side door. “I can’t help with whatever trouble you’re in. I can only give you a lift where I’m going, and drop you off after.”
The stranger nods, climbs up into the van. She cradles her left arm close to her chest. She coughs wetly. Youngish girl. Bit hard to tell, with a fully armoured stranger, from a cough.
“Just you, Newbug?” Jo checks. Patrols are always conducted in pairs. The nickname’s a slip of the tongue. Name she used to foist on every new starter unfortunate enough to partner with her.
The stranger settles into her seat, clears her throat. The back of the van is capacious — three rows of plush passenger seating, and a bottle of champagne on ice — but the front is cramped. “Just me. You understand?”
Jo nods, drives on.
Running, and leaving your partner to die, when there’s nothing else you can do — that’s something Jo understands, too.
Jo looks sidelong at the stranger but can’t make eye contact to exchange data cards via their implanted tech. She ought to just take off her helmet. Perhaps she’s in shock. “Name? Sector?”
The woman pats her visor as if in confusion, leaving a smear on the tinted plastic from a bloodied glove. “Newbug.”
Now she’s being facetious, throwing Jo’s mistake back at her. Voice sounds familiar. Maybe Jo knows her parents. Jo keeps her eyes on the road, lit a short distance ahead in darkness. “Your blood? Or someone else’s?”
“Rough lot down there, aren’t they?” Jo tuts sympathetically. “How far are you into your tour?”
The stranger grunts. Shifts in her seat. “Two years.”
“Only eight more to go. Then you can ease up a bit.”
The stranger nods. “My name’s Newbug,” she reiterates flatly.
“Uh-huh,” says Jo. She keeps her eyes on the road. Maybe Newbug wasn’t sneering — maybe she hit her head. Not Jo’s purview. “Jo Snipes.”
Newbug shrugs. Turns away. Looks out the window at the distant lights of houses on the hilltops in darkness.
Jo hadn’t noticed the smell at first, but it’s quickly getting overpowering in the spec-sealed van with the doors shut to the night air. Newbug stinks. She smells of damp, mouldy clothes, stronger even than the scent of blood.
Jo silently opens both windows and lets in the cool night breeze. Calculated risk. In certain downstairs sectors you’d never do it.
Newbug is watching the lights through the open passenger side window. She still has her helmet on, visor down. Between that and the darkness, Jo suspects she can’t see much.
Newbug tugs absently at her helmet. Gets partway to removing it, then loses interest. Her gloved hands fall back into her lap, and her head dips forward.
Jo asks Newbug about her job, even though she really wants Newbug to ask about hers. If Jo gets the ball rolling, the reciprocal question will come.
Jo waits until the young woman has finished her brief, scathing assessment of the pros and cons of her downstairs tour, nodding without engaging, until her turn comes. Typical gripes. Jo and her partner said the same at that age.
“It’s balls,” complains Newbug. Beginning to warm up. “I’d get out of Blackbriar, yesterday, if I hadn’t signed in blood. There’s a clause saying they’ll funnel me into lab testing in Innovation if I underperform, and that’s a death sentence at best.”
Correction: Jo would have said the same, but she wouldn’t have been an idiot about it. Jo taps the screen inset in her forearm, a silent warning. Automatic Data Monitoring hears everything. ADaM’s not a smart system but they are omniscient — worst of both worlds. Children getting their first implants learn to be careful what they say aloud. Or they don’t.
“If you survive your tour, you’ll be in a good place,” says Jo brightly, changing the subject. “Look at me.”
“If I survive.”
“What are you like at parties, Newbug?” Jo shakes her head despairingly. Immediately feels rotten for the little joke. The girl’s injured, and rattled after a tough night at work, and Jo’s ticking her off for not having her game face on. “Hey. Your night is looking up. This job I’m on is special. See the guard’s post, up ahead? And the tall gates?”
Newbug nods. She sees the guard’s post, and the tall gates.
“The Innovation Zone. I’m here to pick up the Minister, her whitecoats, and a brace of test subjects. Take them to a private demonstration at the Inventor’s Office on the eve of the Inventor’s re-election. Tech showcase. Something cutting edge, hush-hush until tonight, fresh out of the labs. Future of the Party, I expect.”
Jo waits for Newbug to be impressed.
Newbug says nothing.
Must be dazed, thinks Jo sympathetically. “To and fromthe Inventor’s Office. The Office. For a private function, the night before victory. 200 years; another 200 years to come. Long live our glorious and eternal leader.”
“That’s what the people are saying about the election result?” Newbug sits up in her seat. She appears to wake up at this. “It’s a vote-counting party, not a reaffirmation ceremony.”
“That’s what the people I know are saying about the election result,” counters Jo warily. Narrows her eyes at the girl. Perhaps Newbug’s cohort think differently, she considers, with a surge of suspicion. “If you aren’t a loyalist, you’re in the wrong line of business.”
“Maybe so.” Newbug hunches in her seat with her arms folded, surly.
Jo isn’t without sympathy. Jo remembers having held radical sentiments, once, about as well as she remembers being a surly teenager. Or had she just been echoing the radical sentiments of her partner? After Newbug, the first Newbug, she mellowed. Lost her edge. Wanted nothing but security and routine. “Never mind. I’m sure you’ll come around to my way of thinking when you’re older. Aren’t you glad I picked you up? If you have grandchildren you can tell them all about tonight.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“About the grandchildren? Or the opinions?”
Newbug rallies. Makes an effort. About time. “Are you security, as well as the driver, Jo? Do you escort your passengers into the Office? Or do you wait with the van and bring it round when they’re ready?”
Is Newbug angling to come with her? Into the Office? With no approvals, and no clearance? Understandable, if ridiculous, thinks Jo indulgently. It occurs to Jo that she hasn’t fully thought through what to do with the wounded stray while she’s working, in particular if she has to leave the vehicle to escort guests inside.
“Varies. The Office have their own security. The Minister doesn’t need the likes of me. But I’ll tag along and act escort; the whitecoats won’t know where they’re going or how to behave without a chaperone, and the test subjects won’t know their own bloody names.”
“No. I expect they won’t.’
“Nothing will happen, Newbug. The Office is secure. It’s pure handholding.”
“You’ve been there before.” Newbug sits up. Looks at Jo — Jo can only imagine intently — from behind her helmet. “You’ve done alright for yourself, haven’t you?”
Jo nods modestly. Tries to suppress a satisfied smile but it keeps creeping back as a grin. Then she starts boasting. “Yes, I’ve been there many times. You’ll have to wait in the van. If you care to go your own way, that’s fine, but you must tell me before we get to the Office because you won’t be able to exit the vehicle within the grounds. The Inventor’s security don’t take well to unexpected guests.”
“You know them? The Inventor’s personal guard?”
Jo’s grin blazes fiercely now. She can’t hide it for trying. “Sure, I know them. They’re Blackbriar, same as us. Just operating at a higher level. Everyone’s a contractor for the megacorp, right? They’re fun. We have a laugh together. They’re not as bad as everyone says.”
“I don’t believe anyone good has such smart uniforms. Have you seen their boots? You can see your face in them when they kick you.”
“Never said they were good. Only said they were fun.”
Sly back and forward. Reminds Jo of the old days. About as far as she’ll veer, now, towards having opinions ADaM wouldn’t approve of.
Real nice, thinks Jo, at the highpoint of her career, to have an audience in this interested junior colleague. Providential. Passengers aren’t typically much for conversation with their Blackbriar support staff. She’s done a good deed picking up this woman — maybe saved a life — and the night’s still young. She whistles the Efterlandian national anthem.
Jo notes approvingly that Newbug sings along under her breath, although she does falter after the first verse.
Newbug peels off her gloves, showing the first exposed skin Jo has seen. It’s a relief to see no blood. Nonetheless Jo tuts: Newbug has obsolete implanted tech set in her arm. Jo remembers that model from her patrol days. Newbug might present to any clinic in the city and get the latest refit under government warranty. Efterland provides. Not in the state’s interest to have their citizens inadequately monitored.
This, Jo realises, is why the girl speaks so freely. Dangerous habit she’ll have to learn to curb, sooner or later.
“I’ll drop you off after work. At a clinic. Fix you right up. They can upgrade your tech at the same time. Free op. Doesn’t hurt, even; they give you this fantastic stuff called Levity and you’ll feel nothing but odd that you can’t stop giggling.”
Newbug shrugs dismissively.
Jo feels suddenly angry. She’s trying to help. It’s a reasonable suggestion. And this girl’s doing nothing but increasingly proving herself a hypocrite. For all her political talk, with tech this ancient, Newbug wouldn’t even have been able to cast her own vote in today’s election.
“Suit yourself,” mutters Jo.
Jo slows the van to a crawl as they approach the closed gate. The night air is stagnant.
“Helmet off for the guard, Newbug.”
Newbug does not remove her helmet. She only stares, as if behind that black visor she is contemplating Jo appraisingly.
Jo scratches the buzzed back of her head. Something on her face, maybe.
Jo talks them through the guard’s post. Explains Newbug is her partner. It’s hardly a lie, she reasons. Newbug was her old partner’s name, too. And every one after her.
Newbug puts a hand on Jo’s arm when they are through the gate. “Pull over. Just a sec. Going to be sick.”
Jo curses roundly. “What? Just don’t throw up in my van. And take your helmet off.”
Jo pulls over at speed in the middle of the grounds. Gravel road bleeding into pavers. Her thoughts vacillate wildly. Terrible idea bringing the stray. What had she been thinking?
Newbug hunches in her seat, curled up with her hands around her stomach, facing away. Then she puts both hands to her helmet, and twists.
Jo jumps — insanely, she half expects a crack and a slump, like in the movies when the hero cracks a faceless enemy’s neck.
But Newbug only eases off her helmet and places it on the dash. Her long, dark hair is sodden.
Jo leans over Newbug to throw open the passenger side door for her and encourage her out.
Before she can find the handle, Newbug catches her wrist in a pincer grip. She’s a slight girl, but unexpectedly strong.
Without the helmet, Newbug proves to have as little regard for her appearance as Jo guessed from the smell. Her puffy-looking skin is coated in an oily sheen. Lank, dark hair is plastered to her skull. Her hand feels clammy.
Newbug’s face is too close and she doesn’t blink once. Her black eyes are scintillating jewels. As incongruous as the eyes of an insect in that plump, heart-shaped face.
“I don’t believe you’re really sick,” complains Jo. Means it as a stern accusation. Comes out a whisper.
With one hand Newbug is unbuckling her body armour, shifting it off her shoulders. Unbuttoning her uniform from the collar. She doesn’t let go of Jo’s wrist with the other — one arm is not injured after all, Jo realises vaguely — but guides Jo’s hand inside her open shirt, calloused hand over her heart. Her skin is plump and soft and Jo isn’t real sure if she’s supposed to be feeling the curve of her breast, or checking her heartrate. She can’t find a heartbeat.
What she does find is the wet, slick gnash of an open chest wound under her fingers. It’s sticky and congealed and it isn’t hot or even warm like it ought to be.
“You’re like me.” The woman puts her cold hand over Jo’s. So Jo can’t snatch her sticky hand away. Brings her face very close. “Why so insistent you’re like them?”
Jo can’t look her in the eye. Tries to extricate her hand gently from Newbug’s. But she can’t do it gently so she throws her off in a sudden, violent motion.
Jo grips the wheel hard in sweating hands and starts up the van.
Ahead, warm yellow light is emanating through the glass-walled foyer of the Innovation complex. Jo slows the van and parks up in the visitor’s lot at the front of the building. It is after core hours and there is no sign yet of the VIPs she is here to collect.
Two minutes to spare. Jo lets out a short sigh of relief.
“I’m real sorry, Jo.”
“Newbug, what do you have to be sorry about? I’m sorry.” Jo can’t bring herself to ask the obvious question — how are you still alive with that gaping chest wound? How are you still walking without a beating heart?
Newbug presses her lips together, as if pondering her next move. “You named me,” she complains, “many times. But you still don’t recognise me. I don’t mind telling you I’m a little upset about that. I’ve been thinking of nothing but you for almost 30 years.”
“Pull the other one. How old are you, Newbug? You look 12.” Jo laughs.
“Nineteen, physically,” says Newbug. Jo can’t believe they’re having this insane conversation without missing a beat. How naturally it moved from reason into unreason. Like their brains haven’t caught up yet with their mouths. “In real time, same age as you. Almost to the month. 50 next year. We joined up together, remember?”
Jo shakes her head. “Sorry. Still not tracking you.”
The gravel crunches and settles as they roll to a stop, just short of the reach of the warm light bleeding out from the foyer.
“You were a traitor back then. And, if you’ll forgive me, slow. So I’m not sure why I’m so surprised you’re unchanged.” Newbug sounds tired. “Were all our ideals just talk? Were you just telling me what I wanted to hear? I thought we were going to change Efterland together. Still, it’ll make killing you more straightforward. Ethically speaking.” Newbug perks up at this considerably. “You were kind, picking me up, before I’d even started my performance. I didn’t expect such kindness. D’you know, I wasalmost beginning to have second thoughts.”
Newbug grins. Her teeth look wet with something dark, black and viscous, like filter fluid leaking from an implant part.
Jo’s tongue clings to the roof of her mouth. With difficulty, she repeats her partner’s name aloud, several times. Testing the possibility that it’s real.
It is — appears to be — her old patrol partner, unchanged since her death at age 19, except for looking decidedly paler, bloated, and damp. Newbug drowned in a chemical vat within the borders of the Innovation Zone 28 years ago.
Jo had left Newbug to drown, or to be consumed, whichever fate got her sooner. Left her flopping and struggling in the thick, bubbling liquid in the chemical vat. Calling out to Jo, first to be retrieved. Then, for Jo to shoot her.
Jo had kept running. Hadn’t looked back. Hadn’t even slowed down. Terrible business. First time in over a decade bugs had infiltrated a purportedly spec-sealed space- — worse, government labs within the Zone — revealing a hitherto unknown weakness in security standards. Insects and spiders, even modified ones of their size, didn’t have Newbug’s trouble treading lightly on the surface of the liquid. They’d swarmed.
She must have sunk first, Jo told herself.
Jo never found out what the liquid was, or the project, or the bugs. Determined not to. Her mind twisted any interest in pursuit of these details into a craven attempt to shift blame away from herself. The investigation and report were torture. That they exonerated her was worse. Jo knew better: it was her fault.
Jo did everything by the book. Reported directly to her station to debrief. Then psych eval. Relentless repetition of interviews. Based on the report’s findings, amendments were made to security standards — 28 months and three similar incidents later.
So Newbug’s death hadn’t been in vain, Jo told herself. Except for the fact that she needn’t have died, if Jo had risked staying another minute and taking her hand.
She’d gotten a new partner as soon as she was cleared by the clinic and psych eval. Then another. She called every one of them Newbug, regardless of their age and status, and whether they liked it or not. Wasn’t sure if they realised that made her more protective. Every one she had the chance to do right by when there was trouble. And she did. Funny how that didn’t seem to make a difference.
Jo hasn’t forgotten, but not for lack of trying. “I think about what happened every night, Newbug,” she says quietly, twisting her hands. “Does that help?”
Newbug boggles at her. Her black eyes are all pupil. “Does that help? You killed me, Jo. No, it really doesn’t.”
But she appears to give the matter some thought. Sitting back, concedes: “Got to say it’s a little gratifying to know you’re tortured about it. Maybe you think about me about as much as I think about you. I like that. But it doesn’t change my plan. You’re still going to die. Just a question of where and when suits me.”
Jo waits. Her mind plays through possibilities, vivid as immersifilm, and she tries not to let her eyes visibly wander to each path of potential escape as she considers them. Run to the building, batter on the glass of the foyer, warn the clients? Run back to the guard’s post? Would anyone believe her? More importantly, would they believe her in time? If Newbug is like the test subjects she’ll be capable of what rumour, and Jo’s limited dealings with the subjects as escort, suggests are unnatural abilities — cultivated in the Innovation Zone, only to then be feared and controlled. She has to be, to have lived. To be sitting here beside her now.
Jo seizes Newbug’s hand, and kisses it. Her skin is so cold and damp. She even smells different.
“Get off me?” Newbug suggests, sneering. Same old upward inflection. Still got that, at least.
“I’m just real glad you’re — alive,” Jo hazards. Bit surprised at herself, maybe.
Jo has no urge to run. Has every urge to get what’s coming to her. She’s feared reprisal for almost 30 years, constantly occupied in the background task of persuading herself her fears are irrational, and to have her comeuppance stare her directly in the face is an unexpected relief. Only details remain, and they don’t matter. Newbug can decide. What weapon? Will it be Newbug’s own cold, strong hands? And will it be now?
Through multiple layers of glass, the tinted windshield and the foyer, Jo watches shadowy figures move.
The glass doors slide open and the Minister strides out, proceeding down the front steps towards their van. She’s flanked by three whitecoats like doves fluttering behind a supremely confident bridal party of one.
The three test subjects mar the perfect picture — they’ve got the usual black bags over the heads, tucked neatly into shock collars around their necks. Standard practice since the breakout a couple of years back. Consequently they stumble a fair bit and the whitecoats have to stop and lead them.
The Minister hails Jo silently, with an arm upraised, and the party move inexorably toward the van.
“When are you going to kill me, exactly?” checks Jo.
“In a hurry, sweetheart? Soon. Not now.”
Newbug sinks low in her seat, out of sight of the approaching party. She seems to squelch like she’s slowly melting in a cold puddle. “I’ve got a lot of murderers. These Innovation whitecoats who modified the bugs, to start with. Did you read the report?”
“No,” admits Jo.
Newbug sighs, as if she expected nothing better. “I’ll summarise, Jo: I know you feel guilty, but believe it or not, everything isn’t about you.”
Jo looks sidelong at Newbug.
Newbug stares unblinkingly back. She picks at her fingernails. Looks relaxed for a shadowy figure half-hidden in the footwell of the front passenger seat. “You might live longer if you help me out. Might live too long. Impress me. Try.”
Jo wrenches her gaze off Newbug. She gets out of the van, moving in a daze. Greets the guests in accordance with her place, and theirs. Throws open the long side door to let in the VIPs and offers her hand to the Minister to help her inside.
About the Author
C. H. Pearce writes weird dystopian stories. She lives in Canberra with her partner and two small children, wrangles data at her day job, and also does art. Her short fiction has appeared in Aurealis, Award Winning Australian Writing 2016, and Unnatural Order. She’s working on her first novel, set in the same world as her short stories ‘Newbug’ and ‘Worms, their Carer, and his Friend’ (StarShipSofa ep. 667). Find her online on chpearce.net, Instagram @c.h.pearce, or Twitter @CHPearceWrites.