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Rich People a short story by Gavin G. Smith

Gavin Smith-detail

We are delighted to welcome Gavin G. Smith back to the Gollancz Blog for a special guest post. Gavin returns to the blog with the thrilling Rich People, a  companion short story to Poor People Parts I and II.  

It’s been a good long time since I wrote Rich People so I’m struggling to remember what it was all about.  It was the second ever fictional outing for the unpleasant Woodbine Scab, ex-serial killer, cult leader, and Elite, turned bounty killer, and his long suffering humanophile insect partner/captive Vic Matto.  The first fictional outing being Poor People parts I and II.

I knew that I wanted to write in a far future space opera setting, which is actually quite out of my comfort area. (I’m much more comfortable with something like Veteran.)  I was keen to show societal as well technological change, I didn’t want it just to be modern day humans in space.  A lot of the inspiration came about from reading Iain M. Banks Culture stories and wondering what we would be like if we had access to spectacular levels of technology but we were still arseholes, if we hadn’t learned.  In doing this I found that Clark’s Third Law takes you to some very strange places.

As I was growing up stories about serial killers were coming to the fore. I can also remember news reports about the Yorkshire Ripper.  When my family moved to England we lived just a few miles away from Broadmoor Hospital (which features briefly in A Quantum Mythology), which housed some of the more dangerous criminals in the country.  An old air raid siren was used to warn the locals if someone had escaped from the secure hospital.  Every Monday morning at 10am, the siren was tested.  It was a weekly reminder of the presence of the hospital just up the road, whose patients included Peter Sutcliffe and Ronnie Kray.  I wonder if that had any influence on the kind of things I write, as Rich People is ostensibly a story about one serial killer hunting another, in a kind of half-hearted manner.

For some reason when I wrote Rich People I decided to try and subvert the conventions of a whodunnit, I’m not sure how successful I was.  It’s an old story, though I still consider it canon, but you may have to be a little forgiving.  It’s important in the development of what became the Age of Scorpio trilogy because it helped me develop Scab’s personality, his relationship with Vic and it introduces Patron who goes on to feature in a major way in A Quantum Mythology.  It’s also the first outing for Goldfish Bowl Head, who amuses me.

 

Rich People

I think watching the planet burn was supposed to be a treat for us.  It was a Conflict Resolution world so it had already been cored, all its resources thoroughly exploited. Now it was just the battleground for some long forgotten dispute.  Just another showcase for military R&D, which would go on to perpetuate other, similar, conflicts.  All key personal and valuable hardware had been taken off world; it was just the cheap hoppers, ATVs and personal weapons left, anything that could be mass-produced, you know, like people.

It was beautiful to watch, the wave of fire, so high it was visible in orbit, covering the world in vibrant oranges, reds and yellows.  Thing is, from the luxury of the Semektet’s lounge it felt less real than an immersion.  Planet-side I bet it felt pretty fucking real as millions of soldiers and support staff were incinerated almost instantaneously, many of them already dead as the fire, which filled nearly all of the atmosphere, had stolen what little breathable air there was left.  From behind me I heard the deep mellifluous tones of Patron.

“We’re having problems with a murderer,” he said.  Patron was a strange guy.  He was very tall and had the darkest skin of any human I had ever seen.  According to my scans he was actually black, or as near as damn it.  It had to be cosmetic but it was flawless as far as I could scan.  Those two characteristics should’ve been enough to make him stand out in a crowd, especially in the clone-like fashion world of the unfeasibly rich.  Somehow he still managed to be so incredibly bland that it was my neunonics that reminded me who he was.  He insisted on being called Patron and, if he had a name, even Scab’s information gathering had turned up nothing.  I pondered his problem.

“You’ve just destroyed a planet with several million of your own employees on it and you’re having problems with a murderer?”  I asked.  “Are they not keeping up?”  Patron looked politely aghast.

“I’m not sure I see the connection,” he said. “That was not murder, merely a resource adjustment offset against transport and medical costs.  We are not barbarians, there was no malign intent, no connection beyond contractual to the victims, just good business sense.”

“You know in the old days your good business sense would have been considered genocide,” I pointed out.

“Yes but in times of yore I doubt they had to deal with the same fiscal realities we do.    There are other ways, of course.  The fire is a dreadful affectation after all, but it is pretty and in a situation like this I think it’s worth spending that little bit extra.  A treat for the board’s hard work, if you will.”  This was delivered in such a way that it almost lulled you into forgetting just how many people were dying on the surface.

“You couldn’t “spend a bit more” to pull the troops out of there first?” I asked.

“Why?  We don’t have any other conflicts of that scale.  Those that we are involved in are fully manned, and if we need more then the excess near-sentience of the underclass biomass is never difficult to tap.”  Patron smiled as he watched the planet burn.  “Its times like this I wish I could hear the soul of a planet,” he mused.

Scab had been watching the planet burn, the expression on his pale emaciated features as emotionless as ever, now he turned to look at Patron.  There was a peculiar half smile on Patron’s face.

“Isn’t that a heretical concept?” I asked.

“Dear me, of course it is,” Patron said.  “Perhaps I’m letting my decadent lifestyle get the better of me.  You won’t tell, will you?”  Without waiting for an answer he turned back to watch the huge walls of flame circle the planet.   I looked over at Scab, he was impassive as ever, unmoved by the abstract genocide unfolding before him. Perhaps he was just looking at his reflection in the transparent bulkhead.  Making sure his lipstick wasn’t smudged, his teeth were suitably stained, his brown suit crumpled enough.

Towering over his reflection was my own, the technohorror of an eight foot tall, six-limbed insect, augmented by cybernetics for gravity environments and combat, or at least as much combat augmentation as we could get away with legally.

Here on the luxury yacht Semektet, the law was whatever the yacht’s super rich passengers said it was.  We had been extremely limited in what we could take on board and they had the scanners to find us out.  We had been sent back a number of times to reduce our threat level, and Scab had been forced to undergo a complete blood transfusion before he was deemed safe enough to allow on board.  Not that we weren’t still capable of causing havoc if we chose, more Scab than me though.  Now it seemed all of this was to help the financially genocidal with a ‘murderer problem’.

Patron’s attitude was getting to me.  I had a funny feeling that this entire job was going to get me.  It wasn’t so much them being rich.  I was rich, kind of, though not on their scale, and I wasn’t really able to enjoy my wealth because of Scab.  It was more the “we’re right” attitude they radiated.  The attitude was a mixture of never having been told no and a confidence that grated, combined with a total lack of empathy.  They could not see any way other than their own.

This was mainly a human club but they pretty much considered themselves a separate race.  They saw themselves as far above humanity as humans were above the chimps they so very much resembled.  I turned to look at this tall black man and for the seven hundred and sixth time my neunonics reminded me that he wanted to be referred to as Patron.

“You know Scab and I were soldiers once?” I said.  Patron turned to look at me, favouring me with a warm, friendly smile.

“Yes of course, Mr. Matto, that’s why I thought you’d appreciate the display,” he said, sounding confused, though I suspected that was put on.

“First and foremost I always considered myself a murderer, not a soldier,”  Scab said.  I tried to ignore him.

“If we were still soldiers we’d be down there,” I pointed out.  Patron managed to look at me as if I was a particularly stupid human child.  In return I mustered my most inscrutably ‘evil ‘sect’ look.  He’d presumably have the neunonics to translate it, but just in case I let off some pheromones of possible impending violence.  The lounge remained tranquil but I was willing to bet that discrete and tremendously terminal security countermeasures had just been activated by sensitive olfactory sensors.  Like I said, total confidence.

“I have of course assimilated your files.  You were a member of a Thunder Squad and Mr. Scab was famously an Elite.  Neither of you would have been down there.”  He said.

“I was regular army before I was Thunder Squad and Scab was Legion, we both fought on several CR worlds.”

“You must both feel privileged to be alive,” he said and smiled.  Yes, privileged was the word.  I mean, neither of us had ever worked for a damn thing we had, including our fucking lives, which, judging by the premiums on my clone insurance, were worth something to my insurance company at least.

“Your problem with a murderer, what makes you think inviting another two on board will help?” Scab asked, apparently growing bored of watching a planet burn and me bickering with…Patron.

“Simply put, Mr Scab, we have put a bounty on the culprit.  We would like you to find them.”

“What’s wrong with your security people?” Scab asked.

“They are proving not to be up to the task,” Patron said.

“I thought this,” I said gesturing around the interior of the yacht, “was all about the best money could buy.  Did you skimp on the security?”  Patron gave that infuriating half-smile again.

“It’s more entertaining to the terminally bored to have two such colourful characters like us onboard.  Isn’t that right, Patron?” Scab asked.  Patron just continued smiling; I tried very hard to resist the urge to slap him with a power-assisted limb.

“Let us just say that you have a reputation for the unorthodox and may be able to bring a degree of intuition to this problem that our security lack,” Patron said smoothly.

“Is this a set up?” I asked.  “Some kind of entertainment, set Bounty scum after one of you to see who’s smarter?”

“We are smarter.  We are bred that way and that is why we control you, have no doubts about it.  As for this type of rather sordid crime I suspect what we need is cunning and familiarity to deal with it, and no, Mr. Matto, this is not a set up,” he said distastefully. “Nor is it entertainment as far as I am aware.  Do not misunderstand, we are all very excited, this may be one of the most exciting things that has happened to many of us in millennia, but of course none of them want to be next.”

“You all have clone insurance, don’t you?” I asked.

“The best.”  Patron smiled.  “But there is some concern that the process of being murdered may both be unpleasant and painful.”

I nodded, doing my best impression of human nuances.  “No shit,” was all I could think of to say.

“What he means,” Scab said.  “Is that it would be a loss of control.”  Suddenly Patron was studying Scab.  Scab met his gaze.

“How much?” Scab asked.  Patron named such an absurd figure that suddenly even I wanted to be nice to him.

 

*                      *                      *

 

Patron’s exquisitely designed Personal Satellite guided us through the tasteful corridors of Semektet.  The walls were lined with the rarest polished hardwoods from known space, from the sort of planets that the likes of Scab and I would never see.  Planets that were extensively blockaded by naval contractors just to provide resources and gratification for the Consortium’s elite.  The carpet was some kind of fur that my tactile sensors seemed impressed with.

Scab seemed bored and irritable.  The role of investigator sat uncomfortably on his murderous shoulders.  What ever you may experience in the immersions Bounty Killing is relatively straightforward.  We have a few routines we use to discover the whereabouts of the target, and then we go to where they are and quite carefully (or at least I am) kill them.  This was probably too much like jumping through hoops for Scab.

“We left the scene exactly as we found it,” Patron’s perfectly replicated voice was saying from the small device as it traversed the corridors on its AG field.

“Why?” Scab asked.

“You’re supposed to, aren’t you?” the PSat said.  The device’s vocal programming was sophisticated enough to pick up the confused inflection in Patron’s voice.  Scab shrugged.   We arrived at what looked to be just another part of the gently upward sloping corridor.  A part of the wall opened for us, presumably instructed to do so by Patron’s PSat.

“Oh.”  I said.  I had seen the bloody tubes of flesh that seem to exist within the bodies of most mammals before.  Normally it was as a result of something really violent happening to said mammal.  Many times I had been the cause of said violent event.  This was the first I’d had the time or inclination to study.  Despite the fashion sex cosmetic changes, the victim was mostly male as far as I could tell.  He was suspended in the air by tiny AG motors, his arms outstretched, head back, legs apart.  Parts of his flesh had been modified by very sharp, skilfully wielded implements.  These modifications allowed the passage of the red and glistening tubing normally contained within the human flesh.  Intestines now orbited around and through the victim like a highly complex atom.  This changed the victim, made him something new and different from a simple human.  Maybe it’s because I’m a ‘sect but the composition of the body was so inhuman that it became abstract rather than an example of the dreadful violence inflicted on a feeling sentient creature.  I started to laugh, my mandibles clattering together as I released pheromonic mirth.

“Makes you excited in all the wrong ways, doesn’t it?” Scab said.

“Not exactly my initial thought,” I said, trying to stop my mandibles from clattering together.

“There’s a symmetry to a corpse, you peel it layer by layer like an onion, and then, if you’re careful, you pin it, like a beautiful moth.”  More talking to himself than me, Scab seemed absorbed by what he saw.

“We set up a clean field to preserve it,” the PSat said.  “We’re trying to decide whether or not to keep it like this, as a monument or a tribute.”  I laughed some more and then I noticed the tiny trail of smoke rising from the smooth white ceramic floor.  Magnifying my multifaceted optics I saw a miniscule hole burnt in the floor.  Looking at Scab I could see the trail of the tear he had shed. It had burned a trench through his pale makeup.

“Scab?”  I said.

“I like its simplicity,” he said.  I nodded.  I had never really understood human aesthetics. Scab just stood and stared.  I neunonicly interrogated the ship’s security systems.  They gave me the information that presumably Patron and his friends were happy to allow me to see.  Apparently the ship’s very sophisticated security systems had been overridden during the murder.  However, the override had been localised.  Running through the ship’s security sensor logs I managed to account for the whereabouts of all but sixteen of the passengers during the time of the murder.  Twelve of them were from the ranks of the rich, three were toys, and one was security personnel.  I immediately discarded the toys and the security guy as they had obedience personality neunonics installed as part of their contracts.  This left me with twelve suspects.  Unless it had been done remotely, unless the security guy or the toys had overridden the neunonics, unless it was fucking suicide, and right back to square one.

“You remember how to do this investigation stuff?” I asked Scab.  He ignored me.

“There’s something familiar about this,” he said.

“Excellent.”  The PSat chirped.

“Do you recreational killers have a club or something?”  I asked as I began to actively scan the room.  Scab just looked at the floating corpse.  My scan was turning up very little.  Whoever it was had access to the best of everything and had covered their tracks well, but they obviously wanted to play or we would have been investigating a disappearance.  Scab walked around the corpse.

“No sign of a struggle,” he said thoughtfully.

“With this lot I wouldn’t be surprised if he volunteered,” I muttered, my wit, once more, lost on Scab.  I attempted to interrogate the corpse’s neunonics, if for no other reason than to stop referring to him as the corpse.  I was expecting to be rebuffed by expensive countermeasures way out of my league but…

“His neunonics are junked,” I said.

“This is odd,” Scab said.

“Orbiting intestines, you think so?”  I was transmitting a request to Patron for background on the victim.

“Not all of us, but the majority of recreational killers go after people they perceive as weak, people who they and the rest of society somehow view as victims, the under classes, that sort of thing.”

Patron sent back the info we were allowed to see on the victim.  My counter measures filtered out the probes he tried to include in it, and then I knew about the victim.  I transmitted the information to Scab.

“This Webster Springer,” he said using the corpse’s name. “He isn’t a victim in any way shape or form that I can see.”

“Did you?” I ask, meaning did he target the underclasses.

“I didn’t really care who it was but mostly I wanted a challenge, that and I was interested in aesthetics.”

“Is this a challenge?” I asked, gesturing at Springer.  Scab just looked thoughtful.

 

*                      *                      *

 

The observation lounge was as communal as an area got on the yacht. The transparent part of the smart matter hull acted as a window looking out into the most attractive part of space the yacht could find, now that it wasn’t pointed at the burning planet.

There were expensive and exotic tables carved out of offensively rare minerals.  The chairs were moulded to be both comfortable and beautiful, each programmed to show off the person sat in it in the most pleasing manner.  The walls were adorned with art and sculptures dotted the area.  All of it worked together to provide an overall feeling of wealth without being tasteless.  Apparently.

What was clear was that neither Scab nor I went with the curtains.  I felt we were the latest exhibits for these jades.  The murmur of conversation diminished as people studiously feigned disinterest.

The passengers were mostly humans.  There were a few lizards and felines, mostly bodyguards or toys, but no ‘sects of course.  We’re just not pretty enough.

Scab lit up one of his ridiculous nicotine burners.  There was a quiet outrage as sophisticated olfactory sensors picked up his toxic faux pas.  This led to an excited babble as they tried to decide how interesting this outrage was: for my part I was just hoping he wasn’t going to use someone’s eye as an ashtray again.

“What are we doing?”  I asked.  Scab scanned the central lounge.  I turned down a transmitted offer of a drink, then changed my mind and found something very rare and illegal that I could never afford to buy myself and ordered that.

“I’m trying to decide who I want to kill the most,” he said.

“Spoilt for choice,” I said, sipping the drink that had seemingly appeared from nowhere, carried to me by Known Space’s most unobtrusive automaton.  The drink tasted of nothing and evaporated quickly.

The fashionably obese, mainly female person who approached us had thick, glowing, translucent hair that swayed like fronds of seaweed in some imperceptible current.  The fronds were implants, some kind of exotic flora.  She moved in a jerky and uncoordinated manner.  The look in her glassy eyes and the involuntary twitching suggested to me she was on some surprisingly cheap and nasty narcotic.

“What’s it like to kill someone?” she asked Scab.  She slurred, and her teeth clattered together as she spoke, drooling ever so slightly.

“Oh, well volunteered,” I said, thinking that she’d gone straight to the head of his “want to kill” list.

“For aesthetics,” Scab said, almost ignoring the woman.  “Not because they’re annoying.”  The almost-woman looked distraught.  I pointedly didn’t download her name.

“I’m not used to staff being rude,” she said.  I caught her transmissions to Semektet and Patron about discipline possibilities and she knew I knew.

“Whereas asking someone what it’s like to kill without preamble is the height of good manners,” I said.

“Manners are for equals,” she told us.  My passive scans were suggesting that she was viciously fucked on something, though her counter measures were giving me a hard time.  I tried an active scan and the yacht’s security came down on me so hard I flinched.  She glared at me.

Somehow this room of dried up, immortal, vile old fucks seemed to warm and become more animated.  A beautiful, androgynous half-and-half had walked into the room.  He/she was dressed in a simple white dress that contrasted with his/her light brown skin, and dark oval eyes.  The he/she’s innocent pleasure seemed somehow at odds with the rest of the inhabitants of the yacht.  I watched Scab track him/her as he/she moved across the room.  I transmitted the request and his/her identity was downloaded.

“So answer the question,” the obese almost-woman said.  Her implanted swaying hair was the only beautiful thing about this beautiful person.

The half-and-half was called Javadi. He/she was a pure, natural human, a social experiment and pet of one of the people on board.  An attempt to see if they could make something innocent and beautiful in this toxic womb.  It was clear from the way these rich fucks treated Javadi that he/she was popular, perhaps because Javadi represented something unobtainable for them.  I turned back to the fashionably obese almost-woman.

“They’re alive, aren’t they?” I asked.  Neunonic sub-routines searched for information on the implanted fauna, and found it.  “You can hear them scream,” I said.  The drug-fucked almost-woman smiled.

“Don’t they keep you up?”  I asked.

“I don’t sleep very much but I find the screaming somehow comforting, it’s quite beautiful.  Now will you please answer my question?” she said petulantly, and swayed.

“I find it difficult to believe that you’ve never killed anyone,” I said.  I was aware of Scab becoming irritated beside me.

“I have been involved in dealings that have had near-sentient biomass collateral costs, but I’ve never actually killed anyone with my hands, or a gun, or a viral.  What’s it like?” she persisted.  I suspect one of the reasons that I was so annoyed with this almost-woman was because I didn’t know how to answer her question.  I don’t care.  I’ve killed so many people I don’t feel a thing anymore.  Scab turned to look at her.  He stroked the fauna swaying around her head.  She flinched as he touched them.

“Everything’s for sale,” he said and walked towards Javadi.

What are you doing?  I transmitted to his neunonics as he crossed the lounge.

I’m going to kill someone with a fork, he replied.  Both myself and the almost-woman watched as he picked up one of the platinum cake forks from a table.

“Shit,”  I muttered to myself.

“What’s he…” the almost-woman began.  The speed of Scab’s violence violated the observation lounge’s relaxed atmosphere.

Then the colour.  The red looking so bright in contrast to the lounge’s tastefully subdued colour scheme.  Nobody seemed to understand what was happening yet.  There had been two blows, lightning fast, both in the neck.  Poor Javadi stood up swaying, still a smile on his/her face, unable to comprehend why his/her suit jacket was slowly being stained red.  He/she was probably unable to understand the violence.

Scab looked Javadi in the eye and then there was just a frenzy of repeated blows as the fork penetrated flesh again and again, until Scab’s arm was covered in blood up to his elbow.

I wondered why he hadn’t been utterly destroyed by the yacht’s security systems.  Nobody else in the lounge moved.  They were all transfixed be the violence.  Suddenly Scab stopped and was still.  Javadi’s mouth was opening and closing as if he/she was trying to say something.

“Shhh,” Scab whispered.  “Don’t spoil it.”  Javadi toppled to the ground, silent and unmoving.

Scab reached into his jacket for his cigarette case, and removed one of the nicotine burners, placing it in his mouth and lighting it.

Murmurs of horror and outrage circulated through the lounge, but there was something else. Many had been entertained, many had found it interesting, even enjoyable.  One of the rich people, a tall, well built male dressed in casual yet conservative clothes turned to face Scab.

“Who the fuck do you think you are!  You can’t just come in here and take away one of our…” he trailed off as Scab turned to face him, taking a drag from the cigarette held in his bloodstained hand, smearing Javadi’s blood across his lips and face.  A look from his two milky grey and utterly dead eyes silenced the man.

Of course Javadi would not have been backed up with a clone, that would have lessened his/her value.  Scab pocketed the bloody fork and headed back to where I stood.  I turned to the almost-woman.  She fell soundly into the ‘looking horrified’ camp.

“Maybe you should have a go,” I suggested.  As Scab approached she fled.  Scab looked very unhappy.  I considered asking him what was wrong but that didn’t really seem appropriate.

“What the fuck?” I managed.

“Nothing,” he said to himself.

“Nothing what?” I said.  I was more than a little pissed off.  Scab turned to look at me.  The eight foot tall, hard-tech enhanced killing machine that is me took an involuntary step backwards.  I had never seen Scab look so angry.

“Scab…”

“Can you remember how to play detective?” he asked.  I shook my head, not that it wasn’t all in my neunonics anyway.  “It was a challenge,” he added.

I looked around. Many of the rich were crowding round the body, a few crying with the faux emotion of the spoilt.  A few were fascinated.  People kept on looking our way but nobody seemed prepared to take issue with Scab.  Including the ship’s security systems.

I’m not sure what happened first: the eerie flute music, or the screaming.  Those gathered by Javadi’s corpse fled as one of their number, a scantily clad male, began throwing himself around in a strange and painful looking dance to the flute music.  He began to claw himself as ragged holes appeared in his flesh, and what looked like tiny creatures began to surge from the inside, crawling all over him – but only him.  None fell to the carpet, none went for anyone else.  He danced to the flute music as these things consumed him, until no flesh could be seen.  The ‘creatures’ were tiny machines, though strictly speaking too large to be considered nanites.  They had been programmed with only one command; to consume, starting with the non-essentials so he would live longer to experience what was happening to him.  My scans suggested that he was a skinless, bone and muscle structure dancing underneath the swarming machines.   Other passengers came to watch as he screamed.

I was about to hack and control them but Scab touched my shoulder.

“That’s not what we’re paid for,” he said, looking around the room.   A group of the rich folk were moving away from the fashionably obese woman with the alien hair.  She had tears in her eyes and was playing a flute, providing the music for the consumed man’s dance.  Terror was creeping through her narcotic daze.  I couldn’t help but think it was funny that she was playing the flute.  Scab made straight for her, and she saw him coming.  Self-preservation routines kicked in, analysed the situation and realised that she could not make it to the exit.  I knew that Scab was probably trying to hack her neunonics and shut them down but I was sure his attempt would be repulsed by expensive, custom countermeasures.  He was outbid.

Scalpel, he neunonicly transmitted to me.  I reached into the superstructure of my cybernetic chassis.  Hidden amongst the machinery was a long thin ceramic blade with a series of built in sophisticated countermeasures designed to beat top notch security systems.  It was the only weapon we had managed to sneak aboard.

You sure?  I asked, unwilling to give away our largely pointless secret weapon this early in the game.  Can’t you just use a fork again?

Now, Scab replied.

I reached down into my leg machinery and unclipped the knife before flinging it to Scab.  I was still waiting to be vaporised by the Semektet’s security systems but again, nothing.

I watched the obese almost-woman drop the flute and take up what was a reasonable defensive posture, although it looked ridiculous on a human of her proportions.

Astonishingly, as the recently bladed Scab approached her, she tried a kick. It was a good kick, as kicks go, but it’s not something you try in this league, kicks are just too slow.  Judging by the cracking noise something very bad happened to her leg.  She fell to the ground.  The drugs presumably stopped her from registering the pain just yet.

Scab went to work on her with the scalpel, not even bothering to kill her.  He drew a red outline around the front of her torso with the blade.  Every time she tried to stop him he would counter her move and hit her with a momentarily debilitating strike.  The rich people were creeping towards Scab and the woman, eager to see what was happening.  Scab pulled away the flesh he had cut, effectively peeling her.  Saying the inside of her torso had been extensively modified would have been an understatement.  Inside an artificial reinforced sac where her stomach should have been was a small human, his legs amputated, and all his fingers cut off.  From the stumps of the fingers extended various rods that ran through the still obscenely alive obese almost-woman’s limbs, her mouth and various muscles.  It was horrific but strange and again so perverse as to be abstract, especially for someone like me who didn’t share their physiology.  To me this grotesque violation was just funny.  I started to laugh again.  The small human amputee who lived in the almost-woman’s stomach moved his fingers.

“Can I stop now?” the woman slurred.

 

*                      *                      *

 

“Did the midget do it?”  I asked later.  Scab shook his head.

“The midget is Paris Jacovides.  He’s one of the passengers.  Well, you saw how he had been altered.  Someone installed slave software in his neunonics.  Programmed him to take the actions he did,” Scab explained.

“But the way the woman was controlled was completely inefficient, why not just slave her?” I asked.

“Either because the killer can’t, due to what he perceives to be the boundaries of his reality, or he did this for aesthetics, or he was making some kind of statement,” Scab said.  We were still in the lounge, standing over the two and a half corpses.  The rich inhabitants of Semektet were conspicuous by their not leaving the crime scene.

“So this is dead sentient flesh as a canvas?” I asked.  Scab nodded.  “Why?”

“What else is left?” he asked me.  I could think of a number of things from masturbation to conceptual immersions but I decided to keep my own council.  There was something about this case that was getting to Scab. I mean, all the rich pricks were getting to me, but this was something else.

“Why did you do it?”  I asked.

“A mixture of the latter two reasons.  I’ve always been pretty sane.  I understand how few boundaries there are to my reality,” he muttered irritably.

“Uh huh,” I said sceptically.  “So if this was a statement, what would the statement be?  Lose weight before someone hides an amputee midget psychopath in you?”

I walked over to the dancing man who had been consumed by the tiny machines and picked up one of them.  It was a tiny, custom designed, flesh eating automaton, not that many increments larger than a nanite.  According to my active scan it was sound controlled.  The flute music had set it off.  The funny thing was that anyone in the room had the neunonics capable of overrunning the simple operating systems of the machines but they… we… had all wanted to see what was going to happen.  These people didn’t want this stopped.  They just didn’t want it to happen to them.  This was beginning to strike me as a huge waste of time.  They needed bodyguards, not bounty killers.

“Can we leave?” I asked.  Scab shook his head.  “I mean, this a total waste of time.  We could catch whoever is doing this if Patron would allow us the means, but we’re just playing a game here.”

“We could do with the money,” Scab said, referring to the costly repairs our ship required due to the damage it had received over New Coventry.

“I just fucking hate these people,” I muttered.  Scab continued looking at the machine hybrid of the small amputated human and the obese almost-woman with the implanted alien hair that was still dancing round her head.

“Who do you think we serve?” he asked.

“Ourselves,” I suggested.  Though a good argument could be made for me serving Scab.

“Other than our financial rewards, who benefits?”

I gave a mechanical shrug.  “Society?” I hazarded, knowing it was wrong before I even said it.

Scab sighed.  “There’s no such thing as society,” he told me.  “You can’t control crime but you can contain it.  What passes for law enforcement is merely about stopping those who get too far out of hand.  The black economy is a useful functioning thing and we can see, here, how most laws are for the poor.  Do you think this guy’s going to be punished when we catch him?  Criminals are fodder for the legion, and crime is endemic because it is required to survive and as a result there will always be fodder for the legion,” he finished.

“And they can be used to further increase profits in wars on CR worlds,” I said.

Scab nodded.  “And when a criminal becomes too disruptive?” Scab asked.

“The likes of us go after them.”

“We help these people.”  Scab said.  “It’s why we get paid so much.  We thoroughly support the system that creates this, so if you don’t like it then either do something about it or shut up and wait for your fucking pay cheque,” he snapped.

I sat down on one of the chairs, my hard tech enhanced ‘sect frame giving the smart upholstery some trouble.  Eventually it found the position it felt I looked best in but it didn’t feel comfortable so I overrode it.

“What is it about this case?” I asked.

“There’s something about it which seems familiar,” he said.

“Copycat?” I asked. “Of you?”

Scab shook his head.  “No, this is possibly a bit prosaic, even for me.”

“Some other recreational murderer?” I asked.

“There are millions, possibly billions in known space, certainly not a celebrity.  I’ve sent out search routines to the various psycho banks,” he said with obvious distaste.  “I’m cross referencing it with the personality traces I found in Jacovides’ slave neunonics.  I’ve introduced some intuitive routines to allow for added random factors.”

“I thought you hated those things?”  I asked, meaning the psycho banks.

“I do,” he said.

The psycho banks were the heavily secured downloaded personalities of recreational killers and other deviants.  They could be interrogated, or used to form personality profiles for law enforcement personnel and bounty killers. Scab’s personality had been uploaded when they’d caught him on Cyst.  After he’d joined the Elite, however, his personality had become confidential.

“Was the murder a response to what you did?” I asked, referring to his earlier elegantly casual brutality.

“I think so,” Scab said.  “Though that doesn’t make sense.”

“Does any of this?” I asked.  “I thought senselessness was the point.”

“We have a sophisticated aesthetic delivery but controlled by an almost childlike attention-seeking personality.  They’re not mutually exclusive, but it is unusual,” he continued, all but ignoring me.

“You miss it?” I asked.  Scab looked over at me with those dead grey eyes.

“When I was a child I used to dream that I lived in mirrors and only came out to hurt people.  When they caught me they didn’t take away my homicidal tendencies because they needed those for the legion and later the Elite.  Instead they burnt out my creative impulses.  I never have that dream anymore,” he said.  There might have been the slightest trace of wistfulness in his expression.  It was difficult to tell.

I decided to keep to my self that his creativity being burnt out was probably a good thing.  In fact, burning out his homicidal tendencies would’ve made my life a lot easier as well.

“That’s a real shame, Scab.” I managed not to sound too sarcastic.  “So we’re here because you’re getting all misty eyed for the good old days?”

“No,” he said.  “We’re here because I want to find out what’s happening.”

“Looking to make a new friend?” I asked, pushing my luck.  Scab turned to face me.  I wasn’t sure if I’d pushed too hard, or he was about to agree.

“Shit,” he said and for the first time I could remember Scab looked genuinely angry.  It was only there for a moment and was quickly replaced by his normal impassive mask, but it shook me to the core.  He’d obviously got back the results of his psycho bank search back and I reckoned he hadn’t liked what he’d found.  He stalked out of the Semektet’s lounge.  I trailed after him.

 

*                      *                      *

 

I felt rather than received the Semektet’s objection to Scab overriding the locks to Patron’s office.  The door disappeared and Scab strode through. Patron must have prevented the yacht’s security systems from doing something bad to Scab.  Our obsidian-skinned host was sitting behind an elegant pre-loss looking desk made of tree.  Other than a small shelf that actually held books, which were also made from tree, and a painting that showed some kind of human mythological scene, his office was bare.

Patron was sat across from a medium-sized man wearing a perfectly tailored lightweight suit, probably of some natural fibre extracted from endangered flora.  Patron’s guest’s head had been replaced by a hollow, transparent, and presumably very strong crystal-like material sculpted to look like a beautiful, but unmoving, human male head.  The crystal head was filled with what looked like water but was presumably some very sophisticated liquid hardware.  The hardware presumably contained downloaded his personality.  Several, very small, exotic and expensive fish floated in the liquid.  This was probably considered daring, stylish and interesting.  I, on the other hand, considered it overcompensation and thought of him as Goldfish Bowl Head.

“Excuse me,” the newly christened Goldfish Bowl Head said, “but we were talking.”  Patron turned to look at Scab, expectantly.

“I know who the murderer is,” Scab said.

Unable to help myself, I blurted out, “Does that mean your head is full of fish shit?”

“Where I come from, comments like that would be considered rude,” Goldfish Bowl Head said.

“Where I come from having a goldfish bowl for a head would be considered fucking rude,” I countered, though strictly speaking this wasn’t true.  I lack the imagination to attempt to work out what a hive matriarch would make of a human with a goldfish bowl for a head.

“Perhaps, Mr. Matto, you should be a little more polite,” Goldfish Bowl Head said in a vaguely threatening tone.

“Why?  Which of us is an experienced killer?” I asked, and then, after a moment’s consideration:  “A hands on killer,” I qualified.  I wondered if Goldfish Bowl Head was beginning to realise just how close real violence was.  He stood up and walked rapidly from the office.

“Should I bore you with how powerful the gentleman you’ve just offended is?”  Patron asked.

“You know who the murderer is?” I asked, recovering from meeting someone with a goldfish bowl for a head.

“It’s me,” Scab said.

“If he promises not to do it again, can we get paid?” I asked, more flippantly than I felt. Then I turned back to Scab.  “Can we go now?”  Both of them ignored me and I considered writing a sub routine that stopped these outbursts before they got from my brain to my mandibles.

“Explain,” Patron said in his deep mellifluous tone.

“I analysed and cross-referenced the personality traces in the slaveware used to control Jacovides.  It is my personality with added random factors and certain aesthetic tweaks.”

“Your personality?”  Patron asked.

“Before I was caught and the Legions removed my creative impulses,” Scab explained.  Patron seemed to mull this over.

“I know a little of your background,” he said in what I can only assume was an understatement.  “Although initially your personality was downloaded into the psycho banks I believe it was made confidential when you joined the Elite, and you stole an experimental computer virus called the Chariot from your erstwhile employers and used that to track down and destroy any traces of it.”

“Well, you have access to some interesting levels of information,” Scab said, narrowing his eyes.

“So a copy of your delightful pre-op personality survived?” I said.  “How?”

“Copies made before it was confidential.  Collectors, copies made for Black Thrill Kill Immersions,” Scab muttered.

“Nice.  What are you so angry about?” I asked Scab.

“It’s a waste,” he said.  “It’s meaningless, using me for gratuitousness.  There’s no advancement of ideas.  Just another boring spectacle.”

“So you’re disappointed?  What?  Were you looking for a new friend?” I asked.  Scab turned to look at me with his dead grey eyes.  “If you miss it so much why don’t you modify the slave program and download it into yourself?”

“Don’t you think I’ve thought of that?” Scab snapped, causing me to take an involuntary step back.  “But it’s artifice, all of it, a simulation.  I want to feel something real. This is my past being sold for cheap thrills.”

“Expensive thrills,” I quietly corrected him, receiving a sharp look for my troubles. “For fuck’s sake! What difference does it make how these rich fucks kill?  Burning a planet or tailored flesh-eating automatons, what does it matter?”

“Mr Matto,” Patron said.  “There is a difference between mid-term business strategies and some sordid little street crimes.  To kill hundreds is murder, to kill millions is justifiable profit rationalisation.”

“So if I was to kill the entire population of one of the Prime Worlds in the Consortium I could describe it as justifiable profit rationalisation?” I asked.

“Only if your actions rationalised profit.  Look, the millions you seem so concerned about are surplus semi-sentient biomass.  The Prime Worlds contain useful people who contribute.”

“To what?” Scab asked.

Patron gestured around him.  “To this.  Can you think of anything more important?”

“So all this is so people can replace their heads with goldfish bowls?” I asked sarcastically.  “I guess I underestimated the degree of evolution present.  You shaven monkeys are so cool.”

Patron sighed at my acid onslaught.  “Coming from a co-operative society, it may be difficult for you to understand that some lives are more important than others.  Evard may be slightly gauche but he does know a great deal about conflict investment.”

I’m not sure why I was surprised about being patronised by someone who wished to be addressed as Patron, but never the less I still found myself bristling.  I leaned forward across the desk and received neunonically-transmitted proximity warnings for my trouble.

“I think I understand something about the cheapness of life out there and you clearly know nothing about Hives.”  Patron met my multi-faceted gaze with equanimity, an unusual ability in humans.

“You’re wrong anyway,” Scab muttered from behind me as I straightened and stepped back from the desk, tired of the shrillness of the proximity warnings.  “Every life is a series of complex interactions, requiring millions of coincidences of biological synchronicity for them to happen.  They are a work of craft.  Each one’s existence is completely unique and as entirely unlikely as the next.  They are not a currency to be spent casually.”

“But surely you kill casually, Mr. Scab?” Patron asked.  “We saw you do so earlier.”

“Oh, its never casual.  The secret is to look casual, but to care and remember because you are destroying something unique and special.”

Patron smiled and according to my human behaviour analysis subroutines the smile was approving.

“Wonderful, but none of this tells us who’s using pirate copies of Scab,” I pointed out.

“Presumably he wants to pit himself against the original version,” Patron suggested.

“The mentally spayed version,” I said in a genuine case of speaking before I’d thought and not an intentional attempt to piss off Scab.

“Vic,” Scab said, warning in his voice.

“Sorry,” I said.  “Psychologically neutered?”  I asked in a moment of suicidal humour.  Scab turned to glare at me.  I tried my best to ignore him and change the subject.

“Look, it doesn’t matter anyway,” I said.  “These people don’t want the killer caught.  It’s entertainment to them.  This is an attempt to prove that this new you is the smarter you and your presence here is all part of the game.”

“The skill set involved in murdering people and getting away with it, and catching said murderer, are completely different, and clearly I’m not very good at either,” Sacb explained when he finally stopping glaring at me, or more likely deciding not to kill me.

“Despite what you both may think I do not find these murders a game.  I find them disruptive to my daily business and I do want them stopped,” Patron said.

“Then why tie our hands?  With access to information on the passengers we would be able to find the murderer quickly,” I told our host.

“The intention of tying your hands, as you put it, is not to block the investigation but rather to protect my interests by protecting the interests of the passengers.  What you have to understand is that the majority of people on the Semektet are so powerful and rich that nothing is denied them.  They are to all intents and purposes as immortal as modern technology allows, all they have is their secrets and their intrigues.  I allow you access and they will no longer wish to work with me.  That is without mentioning the danger of some of what you may find out tangentially in the course of any such investigations,” he finished.

“You know we don’t care about that, don’t you?”  Scab asked.

Patron nodded.  “Sadly it is not your perception, or even mine, that matters in this case.  However, anything else I can do to help, any other resources I can put at your disposal, I will do so.”

Scab considered this.  “I can still get your killer.”

“How?”  I asked.

“Programme the ship’s security system to ignore me and my actions.”

“Yeah right,” I said, knowing full well that Patron would never agree to something like that.  Patron considered Scab’s request, then he smiled.

“A Gordian Knot approach?” he asked.

“I don’t know what that means,” Scab said.  I searched my neunonics database for the phrase but came up with nothing.

“An anachronism, nothing more,”  Patron said and then did something insane.  “I agree.”

Scab started getting undressed.  “You need to leave,” he told me.

 

*                      *                      *

 

And Scab got the killer, or at least that’s the assumption.  But it was pointless, except perhaps as a catharsis for Scab.  Maybe Patron decided it would be safer for all to allow Scab that release.  I was there when Scab’s PSat brought him the Scorpion from our ship. He was naked by that point.  Patron watched with a kind of detached interest as the vaguely arachnid-looking bracelet dug deep into flesh. I heard Scab cry out as the exotic alien tech sent streamers of intelligent alloy shooting through his body.  Scab and I were never sure whether the Scorpion was a weapon, or perhaps a strange symbiotic life form that enjoyed causing pain as much as – or perhaps even more than – Scab did.

I ran back to the Basilisk, our ship, as fast as my hard tech enhanced legs would allow.  The screams were beginning as the airlock slid shut behind me.  I had to neunonically hack myself clearance to depart the Semektet.  It was surprisingly easy so I must have been “allowed” access.  No mayday beacon went out. Doubtless if I’d monitored comms I’d find audio and visual of terrified people begging for help but I didn’t.  I find the noise frightened humans make shrill and unpleasant.  The weird thing was they let Scab massacre them.  Scab was dangerous but I’m pretty sure he would’ve lost out against the yacht’s security system.

They all had clone insurance, so they would all live. Scab knew this and they knew this, so why would they go through with it?  Scab would not make their ends easy or gentle.  Their insurance would be expensive enough that they would remember how they died.  Would their painful death at Scab’s hand become an anecdote at their next dinner party?  Neunonically transmitting the gory details to their friends round the table?  What a colossal fucking waste of time.

What made it worse for Scab, I guess, was the loss of power.  In an endless space with countless vaguely sentient bioforms in it nobody mattered, really, or very few anyway.  The cost of life was low because it was so abundant, but Scab prided himself on mattering a bit, on having power over himself and his immediate surroundings, but these fucking rich people had shown him that he didn’t matter.  Sure he could kill them all, probably even get the murderer, but so what?  They’d be back.  All this was just pissing into space, albeit pissing into space for money.  It’s a wonder that someone like Scab could actually be so stupid.  Once you realised that nothing mattered you could get on with doing whatever you wanted as long as you didn’t anger someone who ‘didn’t matter’ slightly less than you.

Four hours after I’d left the Semektet someone, probably Scab himself, simultaneously blew all the airlocks.  Despite the size of space it still looked like a lot of frozen blood and corpses doing zero G ballet.  Like I said about the abstract of mutilated human physiology: if you’re not human, it all looked quite beautiful.

I brought the Basilisk in close enough to hear them bump off the hull as I performed full spectrum active scans, cursing him for his stealth enhancements.  It was the Scorpion’s weird pattern that I finally picked up.  I didn’t relish having to get that thing off him.  I neunonically manipulated the ship’s waldos to bring him on board.  The ship’s medical systems frantically tryed to revive his vacuum traumatised body.  I walked over to our medical suite and looked down at Scab’s cold, naked body, a map of broken blood vessels, his eyes just pools of blood.  The Scorpion curled around his arm, digging into pale flesh in an almost needy manner like a malevolent bio-metallic child.

This was the thing about Scab. He did not have clone insurance, he operated without a safety net.  I think he feared to have himself cloned.  So all I had to do was reach down with one servo-assisted hand and tear something and it would be over.  I would be free of him and famous in one quick move.

Somewhere at the back of what was left of the organic, un-enhanced part of my mind, the bit that was instinct, I knew that this would not be a good enough death for Scab.  Perhaps my humanophyllia had reached a point where I was developing superstition but I could not move.   Scab coughed back to life. The moment was gone, the fear returned.  The blood on his cheeks looked like tears.

 

Gavin G. Smith is the Dundee-born author of the hard edged, action-packed SF novels VeteranWar in HeavenThe Age of Scorpio and A Quantum Mythology, as well as the short story collection Crysis Escalation. He has collaborated with Stephen Deas as the composite personality Gavin Deas and co-written Elite: Wanted, and the shared world series Empires: Infiltration and Empires: Extraction. You can find out more about Gavin by visiting his website or following him on Twitter @gavingsmith