The desk sergeant languished a passing glance at Aaran but paused on her companion. She measured him up and decided to let Aaran set the tone. The fit of her new rank and the uniform that went with it gave her confidence.
“Where’s DI Broken?”
“Need to talk to her?”
“Cafeteria. Who’s this,” she asked, gesturing with a writing implement of some variety toward her company.
“Gideon Marcus. Grab me a guest card, will you?”
No deference at all, Aaran reflected, handing Gideon the card that would run interference for any required Soft-ID sign ins during his visit. ‘I don’t need you signed in here as a material witness,’ she signed to him. ‘I don’t think you’re going anywhere. Your Hard-ID is tracked by Relay because of your military record and training. You’re too valuable to go missing.’
‘I want this to be over tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then next week. If not next week, then next year. As long as Trust is alive I don’t care how long.’
‘Follow me and don’t touch anything unless I tell you to. Some readers don’t look like readers and aren’t very selective.’
Gideon nodded obediently. Two halls and one floor down later, Aaran and Gideon entered Research and Records. Pierce was anxiously tapping away at a keyboard, filling out a report. So engrossed, he didn’t notice their arrival until they sat beside him. With a start and grunt, he sat back, smiling awkwardly.
“I did it! Look! Wait, who? Gideon?” His smile broadened. He signed, ‘Hi! Oh … this can’t be good news. Why are you here?’
‘Trust had an accident.’
‘Ah flak. So now they know.’
“ ‘Now they know’ ?” Aaran snapped. “You knew? Oh blast it, of course. It’s in Gideon’s statement. Known associations …”
“Hey, I wasn’t hiding anything. Gideon’s a failsafe,” Pierce remarked easily. “I’d bet my Ark on him anyday. It’s in his war record. Not a single casualty in his whole career.”
‘What are you saying?’
Aaran scrutinized Gideon and signed, ‘Is it true you had no deaths in your tours of duty?’
Gideon closed his eyes, scrunching his face.
“Hey, Gid …” Pierce started.
“No, give him a moment,” Aaran demurred.
‘It’s for Trust. It’s for Trust. It’s all for Trust I do it.’
‘Do what?’ Aaran started to sign, then murmured, “Oh flak.”
“What is it?” Pierce was mystified, staring wondrously at his friend.
~ @ ~
“Let’s have it.” Penny was patient. Gideon had the answers and all of the missing pieces fit. The interrogation room was cool but not cold, jug of water full and not flavored, cups ceramic, not plastic. This was Gideon’s confession. Aaran served as his mouthpiece, speaking directly as he signed, uncommonly emotional.
“Carso Haradin had the odds against us, emotionless tactics and no fear of losses. In the academy we were like paper plane pilots, promised death, not victory. Soldiers on the ground in our best gear fought for days, outlasting no one. Turned into ash, piles of molten metal.
“I was laughed at as a medic. No one believed in the morale of a young recruit, but I was not going to be shaken. I had a trick. A wish, actually. I did not tell my superiors, not even my friends, but I could heal others. Regrow limbs, restore vital organs. Brain tissue. Any part at all.
“The Watershed Unit formed a pact and declared that I was their secret weapon. Not to be shared with anyone. If I happened to heal non-unit members, they were approached and ‘obliged’ to take the pact as well. It was good to be a hero. Of course my superiors noticed, they weren’t stupid.
“They wanted to reprimand me, to promote me, to congratulate or curse me. They couldn’t make up their minds. In the end they decided to leave me where I was doing the most good, saving the most lives. Unfortunately they moved our unit to heavier action zones. That’s when I lost my arm.
“I couldn’t heal anyone then. We started taking ‘unacceptable’ losses again, and I could do nothing. Except that there was a fellow who talked to me. He promised that if I cooperated with him we could save people again. What could I do but accept his offer? He was a strange, but kind fellow.”
Penny raised her hand and Gideon looked at her. “Who was he?”
Aaran gave a little gasp. “Frei Temparo’s father. Fourth Trail Medical, the manufacturer of Simuplex.”
Gideon knew the facts and must have understood what she said. ‘He reverse engineered the tissue my gift creates to replace what is destroyed.’ Aaran repeated this aloud and turned to him, signing, ‘You’re not to blame for this, Gideon.’
Listlessly he nodded, but determined, ‘Someone has made it into a criminal trade, Aaran.’
Penny blinked. “What did he say?”
“He’s just saying that he feels responsible for the black market Simuplex.”
“That’s nonsense,” Penny replied. “If it wasn’t you, Gideon, it would have been someone else. The criminal trade of art isn’t the fault of the artists. This is theft of something precious. A gift. A blessing.”
Aaran signed her words to him but looked forlorn. “He said he’s doing this for Trust, Penny.”
“So ask him what it is he’s doing.”
“Protecting a Simuflesh Charge trafficker.”
~ @ ~
Gideon wasn’t considered a flight risk, but was a valuable witness in the case against … an ironic situation of mystery. Penny made him Aaran’s responsibility, but she didn’t mind. Meanwhile, The Crown volunteered a complete profile of Simuplex, its patents and the legal standing of Fourth Trail Medical. Penny was annoyed, Aaran was unimpressed. Lewis Grimes scanned the document and declared that Fourth Trail was off limits. “Or so this blasted thing says.”
“Profit and military application,” Penny recited. “You ever get tired of being right, Aaran?”
Aaran lifted an eyebrow slightly. “Was that appreciation I heard? Ever been in a fight, Penny?”
“I’ve got scars but no kids,” she remarked tersely. “So?”
“Cyborgs will break you without a thought, so you have to know them, like you’d know the right shade of lipstick for a date.”
Penny clicked her tongue behind her teeth. “I get it. Grimes, what’s their stance on Trust?”
“Fewer the better? No, oh … you mean the victim. That’s … a little bizarre. Representative Castlegar put in an application for her to be taken in by the Stargazers Program. It was accepted, and they’re covering her medical costs. So, she’s being treated like any other victim of criminal exploitation.”
“Ignored unless she breaks the law or is of some use to it. Doesn’t matter. She’ll be safe. Give me a moment to tell Gideon the good news,” Aaran said, rolling her eyes as Penny shot her a look. “Did you want to be the bearer of good news?”
Penny aimed for withering glare, but then sighed. “I’d hit you, and what would that tell him?”
“That you’ve got a mean right.”
“How’d you know I … flakkit. I’m getting a drink,” she snapped and departed briskly.
Gideon smirked, sipping at a still warm mug of hot chocolate. Setting it down, he signed, ‘I understood some of it, but is Trust truly safe from the law?’
‘Sort of. They’re requiring her to register a Hard-ID, but there’s no timeline on it. Probably sooner than later. She needs a legitimate body or they’ll confiscate hers. How soon can you get her one?’
Gideon squinted at the floor, then up at the lights and back to Aaran’s face. ‘You knew all this time? I cannot marry her until she wakes up, and my insurance won’t cover her until then.’
But you can’t do anything illegal to ensure her replacement body is paid for, Aaran thought worriedly. ‘We don’t have to skirt the law to keep Trust safe. Would you be opposed to having a prosthetic body for her for a while?’
Gideon’s face went blank, head tilting forward into deep consideration. ‘It could work?’
‘It’s been done. An electronic brain functions just as well in a prosthetic body and their owners have equal representation under Whitegraft law as any other citizen.’ Which was, Aaran thought, exactly what was housed in Trust’s braincase. ‘What do you think?’
‘It is so much, and I want to ask Trust what I should … no, at least, if I could have her approval.’
‘Might be possible. Look Gideon, we have some time. I have a friend who may be able to wake her so we can do all that. Can you stay with Lewis here while I contact my friend?’
~ @ ~
The proposition was risky at best and though in common practice, resource intensive and equipment specific, Doctor David Namiki elaborated, steeped in repair orders and official inquires. Aaran smiled, comforted at once by his typical overbearing attitude and dotage.
“She’s in Bethany General,” Aaran interrupted deliberately.
“And you’ll pay for everything?”
“Stargazers will pay for everything,” she parroted. “Satisfied?”
“And consent?” David’s long face stopped mid-smile when she would not reply. “No consent?”
Aaran shook her head at the small screen and shifted on the narrow, uncomfortable plank that served as a seat in the privacy assured room. “Her fiancée communicated with her just after the accident, but not since. He’s close to the technology and doesn’t want to incriminate himself.”
“He’s entitled to specialist consultation, and I can implement total privacy under Title 8.”
Aaran let out a thoughtful ‘hmm’ and smiled. “You could, and Gideon could do what he needs to.”
David shed his staunchness and indulged in a moment of excited curiosity. “I’ll make sure I’ve got enough space to record the entire session. If he doesn’t mind.”
“I’m sure he won’t. Thank you, David.”
Closing the connection prompted Aaran to stretch and put the final piece together: Bait the trap. Trust’s supplier had to go down and give up his dependents in the process. On the way to Grimes’ office, she received a message from Representative Reggie Castlegar:
“Aaran, would you believe Trust Capacity is the most popular, successful, and stable Drima of the last generation? She led a campaign to promote Drima contributions at the polls. I am aware that my policy of recognizing the rights of Drimas improved our relations. You don’t get to tell me none of this is altruistic, but maybe I believe this is love, deep down, in my cold, political heart. Oh hush.
“Trust Capacity Marcus. The name of the first married Drima in Canor history. I like it; burden of proof by pomposity alone. Oh, I trust by now you’ve got Dr. Namiki busily working out how to move her to a legal body? Good girl. How do you plan to shut down the distributor of Simuflesh Charge without jeopardizing everyone who depends on him? I’m glad I don’t have to figure that out, but if I can help I’m just a glyph away.
“Stay in touch, reckless girl.”
Gideon could not help but agree to all of Aaran’s conditions in light of her generosity, though he was less certain about the risk to Trust in shutting down her supplier. He laid out for Grimes a diagram that he had just one contact in the tidiest hairdressers this side of the Shiv. The Crown approved a network layout of his contacts but disappointment set in as none were found.
‘I do not know how Dale keeps in touch with us. I thought he used Relays like everyone else,’ Gideon repeated. ‘Unless he has a wish that makes it possible.’
‘Not a wish. Look,’ Aaran started, typing a name so that a profile appeared on Grime’s screen for their benefit. “A Catalyst Omen. Dale Regal is an alias for Carson Dial or Electric Sniper. He traded his wish for the ability to interact with wireless signals without cybernetic implants. He has a previous record but by all accounts went straight. Out on good behavior, or so we believed.”
“Flak! How’d a guy caught hacking the Decade Chamber ever get out of prison?” Grimes gasped.
“A monitor implant enables DEWAR to packet sniff his traffic …” Aaran’s voice drifted off, pondering. “Apparently he’s bypassing it. Bring him in. Gideon’s word is enough. While we’re packing him off to prison and taking him permanently offline, he can make up a list of all the contacts we need.”
“Who should I send and not tip him off?”
Aaran blinked and gave it some thought. “You’re right. Gideon, let’s go have a chat with Dale. Now I think about it, I knew him once before he decided wishes were a bargaining chip for power.”
When Aaran began to leave, she stopped when Gideon did not immediately follow. Slapping her forehead, she tapped his shoulder and signed to him that they were going to arrest Dale Regal. Confused but compliant, he followed as she waved off any suggestion of backup.
“Of course, that’d be no better than … Lewie you idiot,” Grimes sighed.
Aaran borrowed an unmarked police cruiser and checked the charge of her Blade. Gideon signed, ‘Do you think he will be that dangerous?’
‘I never hedge my bets,’ she replied curtly.
Dale’s corner of town was upscale; fresh money and the bravado of masking the past with as many layers of taste, poor and otherwise, as was feasible. Houses no less than three storeys, natural lawns mowed every weekend, patios bedecked with furniture and weather shielding of the most affordable kind. Children with a taste for expensively farmed fruits and vegetables and every expectation credits could provide.
“Aaran!” Dale chorused, a panic stricken ballad terminated in its opening notes. “How long have you been away? Ten years? Six years? Oh, who cares?”
A rainbow spectrum of hair care products and tools of the trade presented themselves on glass shelves between reddish wood wall beams. The ground was spotless, not a trimming abandoned. Scissors never needed sharpening in Dale’s shop.
“Five,” she responded sharply, leveraging a brief glance at Gideon and courting a chair but not sitting. “You’ve met Gideon Marcus.”
“How is Trust?” he asked with a touch of undisguised malice, not bothering to sign.
Gideon smiled in reply and signed, ‘Fine, Dale.’
“Comatose, actually. What put you back in the hands of the Black?”
Dale smiled hideously. “Simuflesh hair is exquisite. Never splits or loses its color.”
“Reprogrammable, too. Trust prefers copper-green,” Aaran replied quickly. “That’s how you got your start, isn’t it? Tending Simuplex hair, until Black Set came to you with a better deal.”
The grimace was not meant to be seen. “What could you mean?”
Dale glanced at and over Gideon with a concealed snarl. He flipped his shoulders forward, tilting his head to the side. “A deal? By the Pillars, Aaran, are you here to harass me about keeping a few people alive? Friends? Family? Dear Shards woman, I’m no criminal.”
Dale heaved a dramatic sigh and plunked down on a chair facing her. “Do you know what it’s like in the Candlestick? Oh, you’d call it Kindlewist. I almost gave up on women until Trust. She’s special. Gideon trusts me. I’m not the man I used to be.”
Aaran quirked an an eyebrow as he opened his shirt. A four inch wide scar ran from his stomach up to his collarbone. He buttoned it up again. “I came back to this place and some thug almost gutted me. Gideon saved my life. I made an agreement with the thug to sell the Charge, but ate the cost. You think it was easy? I stay in the black because of my legit clients.”
“And you’ll lose those when Black Set finds out you’re talking to me,” Aaran stated with a note of regret. “You still passed Charge along to the customers.”
“As a gift! What was I supposed to do? This is deplorable!”
‘He quaffs everyone this side of town, Aaran. He will cooperate,’ Gideon signed quickly.
‘You had no idea he was doing this?’
Gideon shrugged. ‘Trust might have told me once, but I didn’t think about it. I never asked her about how she got Charge for her body.’
Aaran took a breath and glared intensely at Dale. “You will cooperate, and we’d better move fast now that Black Set is wise to it.”
Guiltily he grinned. “As you wish! What should I do?”
“Mark every one who accepts your ‘gift’. Surveillance can be placed on every one of them and Black Set will be damned to make any stupid moves,” she growled. “How many are we talking about?”
Dale rolled his light eyes. “Oh, thirty or so, but … just eleven or twelve have Simuflesh bodies.”
“Good blasted gravy Dale,” Aaran gasped. “You had me for a moment. Now you’ll have to come with us to the station.”
He slouched in his chair. “That’s it. I’m ruined.”
“Not if you don’t mind getting some hair on this floor. There are a lot of girls in the Stargazers who could use a good haircut, and I’m sure …”
He darted up and clasped both of her hands in his. “You wouldn’t! Oh Aaran! Thank you!”
Awkwardly she smiled. “So glad you haven’t given up on women … you’re welcome.”
“But, what about … the rest?”
Aaran shrugged but privately pinged him an address. “Somewhere we won’t get ambushed or shot, okay? Let’s go. ”