Hostages: part 5 of 7

HostagesToday, the fifth installment of my story Hostages.

The previous installments are:

A Battle of Words

Papers flutter through the hallway now that the outside windows are broken. I walk across the shining marble toward the broken glass wall and the meeting room beyond. Blowing out the windows has only marginally increased the chaos. There is more glass and more papers swirl around, but that’s it. I can hear the wind outside. The wind is a result of the rotation of the asteroid station and the climate control systems. I’ve heard there can actually be a lot more wind on a planet surface, but I’ve never been to one.

“Sora,” Winters welcomes me. He’s lounging in the executive chair, his leg drawn up. He’s switched the trigger of his dead-man’s switch to his left hand, which is resting on his drawn up knee. He waves at me with the other, beckoning me closer.

“Winters,” I greet him and walk to within a few meters of him, the large table between us.

“Call me Cain,” he says.

“I’d rather not.”

I’ve read his file. Humans are grown in one of millions of communities on dozens of worlds. They’re kept ignorant of what we Kyosei really are, then transported to a processing plant when they turn thirty-three Kyosei standard years. They never know that part of their brain will be taken out and replaced by an interface.

Cain had been one of those humans, only he was freed on his way to processing by rebels. He took up their cause. His DNA matches that on a hacked shuttle that breached the promenade on Caltir and exposed it to vacuum a year ago, killing thirty-three people. Innocent people.

He grins and I feel bile in my throat. I suspect he enjoys what he does.

“I was wondering if it was really you, but I guess it is,” he says.

“Who else would it be?”

He leans forward.

“Don’t be coy, woman. You wear us like clothing. I have no way of knowing who or what stares at me through those eyes. You might well be Major Shin, tucked away nicely inside what used to be a human mind.”

I sigh. “Well, I’m me. If you’re not going to believe it, I’ll just turn around.”

“True,” Winters says. “But you can understand my hesitation.”

“Tough,” I say. “There’s not much I can do about it.”

“No, there isn’t,” he says. “Let’s assume you’re Sora Kujima then. I assume Shin gave you orders.”

“He did,” I reply. Distract him so you can overpower him.

“So,” I add, “I’m here. Care to release a hostage now?”

He shakes his head. “I’d soon be without, wouldn’t I? I have demands. But first, let’s talk.”

I glare at him. If I turn around and walk away, Shin will pin the resulting mess on me.

“Alright,” I say grudgingly. “Let’s talk.”

“You know why I do this,” he starts. “You’re breeding my people as slaves.”

“I know your spiel, Winters,” I tell him, “but we Kyosei have to live.”

“You’re parasites,” he says. He gestures at the containers. “Worms inside metal containers. You take sentient beings, cut out half their brain, then wire one of your vaunted ‘interfaces’ into them so you can insert yourselves into the backs of their heads and wear them.”

I shake my head. “We raise billions of your people. Care for them and give them three decades of comfortable life. Only then are they processed.”

“Processed,” he sneers. “Such a nice euphemism. I was almost ‘processed’. If not for the Resistance, somebody would be wearing me right now.”

He touches the scar on his face. “I got this to ensure that even if caught, I’d never be a sleeve.”

“They needn’t have bothered,” I say before I can stop myself. A sleeve freed before processing is seen as a loss. Warranty issues make it impossible to sell them even if you catch them only a few hours later. Escaped sleeves are tolerated and form a large part of the menial labor force.

“I know,” he hisses. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that.

“How many died at Caltir again?” I ask. This is really not my line of work. I’m a street cop, not a negotiator.

Winters snorts. “How many ‘sleeves’ do you own, Sora?”

“Just this one,” I admit. Buying a second sleeve would be great, but like most Kyosei, I can’t afford it. Cops don’t earn a lot, and I like poker too much.

“The woman you wear had a life of her own once. Thoughts and feelings of her own. Doesn’t it bother you that you’re walking around inside the carcass of that woman?”

I shrug. It’s a nasty way of putting it, but it has a core of truth. It’s something we all think about at one point or another. Who was the person whose body I now walk around in? Why does it like certain foods so much, and why do certain smells make it sad?

“Your ancestors were meat-eaters, weren’t they?” I say. “How do you think they felt when they ate the carcasses of beasts?”

“That’s different.”

“Why?” I ask.

Winters tilts his head to the side. “Because those beasts were not sentient.”

“They still had feelings,” I retort. “Or is it that they didn’t know they were raised to be slaughtered? We don’t tell your people what will happen to them.”

He shakes his head. “You lie to us our entire lives, then murder us!”

“They go to sleep and don’t wake up. I’ve looked up your species’ history, Winters, and you were far less kind to your cattle than we are to you. Worse, your species could live very well without eating meat, but didn’t want to.

“We tried to find another solution, but couldn’t. Did you know that? We tried to grow you in vats, without consciousness. It doesn’t work. We tried interfacing with non-sentients. Again, it doesn’t work. We need sentient sleeves to live.”

“Enough,” he snaps. “Yes, my ancestors had their faults, but I’ve never eaten anything but synthetic meat.”

“The meat-eating is just a tiny part of it,” I continue. “Your species did things much, much worse. And don’t be so proud, you yourself are a murderer too.”

I look Winters straight into his cold blue eyes. “Humanity was doomed when we found them, Winters. They crawled out of the muck of evolution only to self-destruct. Like many before them, I might add.”

“Lies!” he shouts and jumps up from his chair. I step closer. If I can reach the trigger…

“You were destroying your environment. Driving all other life on your planet to extinction while your reproduction grew out of control. Billions of souls eating your planet bare like locust. And when your ecosystem started to collapse you started on each other. Bloody wars with ever-deadlier weapons. More of your people suffered from your own hands than we could breed in a thousand years.”

“Shut up!” he screams. “Shut up, you bloody parasite!”

I step even closer, rounding the table.

“Who is the parasite here, Winters?” I whisper. “We saved your race from oblivion.”

He jumps forward, screaming, and tries to hit me. I’m ready for it and dive under his swinging arm and head-butt him in his mid-riff, pumping adrenaline into my system. The air is driven from his lungs and we both go down. I try to reach his left hand. He pulls it back and I miss, my nails clawing at his forearm. I try to roll him, but his knee slams into my stomach. My body doubles over. I can’t stop the reflex, even as I do stop the pain from reaching me.

There is a cacophony of voices as Shin breaks radio silence, but I hardly hear them over the sound of my pounding heart. I turn my head and see Winters has rolled away.

He coughs and crawls to his knees. I see white lines on my HUD of sniper shots aligning on his head. He has a bloody nose from hitting the ground. He shoots me a bloody grin as he holds the dead man’s switch up in the air. “Did you really think I’d let go that easily?”

I feel the blood drain from my face.

“Stand down!” I scream. For an instant I fear that they’ll not listen. If they shoot him, he’ll drop the switch and the hostages and I die.

One of the white lines vanishes.

I swallow.

The second line disappears.

Winters snarls and stumbles to his feet. His hand closes on the wraith on the table. I jump up and sprint away. I pump more adrenaline into my blood to boost the muscles and reactions. I hear a wraith pistol shriek. Beside me one of the walls explodes as a particle beam shoots past my head.

I dive down on the marble and skid along the wall, out of his field of vision. Another shriek. Chips shower me from the wall as he shoots it from the other side. Above me, a circle of black appears in a painting and it starts to tear and curl up. Another missed shot.

I hear his voice as I retreat down the hall. “We’ll kill you, worms! When I get through to earth we will rebel and cast the lot of you back into the abyss! And you, Kujima, I will tear you from your interface and eat you.”

I stumble into the stairwell, shaking. Shin is not going to be pleased.

Continued next week…

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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