Long Fall — Chapter 23

Thursday update time. Tonight’s episode of Biotech Legacy: Long Fall is Chapter 23: Adaptive Domain, which begins a three chapter side-story. The story shifts tone temporarily into a police procedural, and I’m keeping fingers crossed that I pulled it off. We’ll see.

If you’re just joining Biotech Legacy: Long Fall, you can find all of the preceding chapters right here at the Oktopod Blog.

The previous novel, Biotech Legacy: Stars Rain Down, is currently available exclusively through Amazon.

Story time go!


Chapter 23
Adaptive Domain

Charlie Hernandez woke with a start. It was raining outside the apartment and he could hear fat drops striking the roof and overhang like a thousand tiny drumsticks. It reminded him of sounds he’d prefer to forget, the sort whose memories often woke him in the middle of the night.

Lisa Albright lay beside him on her side, asleep and peaceful, probably in some land far away from all the fucking horrors back on Earth. Blue-green light shone in strips through the window-slats and outlined her shape beneath the ratty blanket, small but swollen at the middle. There was new life inside of her.

Charlie could hardly sleep recently, no matter if it was raining or not. If it wasn’t nightmares of long passed battles or recent grisly crimes, it was the creeping feeling that something just wasn’t right in the air. There was something coming for him, and he had no way to know what it was.

He managed to get by on an hour or two a night, and the occasional cat nap when he could force himself, but the deficit was catching up to him. He felt like a marker that’d run out of ink, but he just kept scraping himself along.

The thought occurred that he would probably kill a man for a single night’s rest… but then again, he’d killed men for less. His service with Carbon Corps had started off idealistically enough, but at some point he realized he was manning guns for a paycheck, and the fact never left him.

Charlie slowly turned in bed and lowered his feet to the floor. He stood up and tucked the blanket in behind him, then started hunting for his clothes.

He found them in a heap on the floor and quietly slid inside. Pants from his Carbon Corporation uniform, combat boots, a utility belt, and what had once been an ugly sweater but which was now simply available clothing. There weren’t a lot of options out there, and he was just glad to have something produced in a factory before the Fall. The things he saw people wearing on the street now made his heart heavy. It made him angry, and he didn’t even know at what.

He’d long ago come to depend on anger in times of need, and it seemed like he needed it more than ever before.

Then he grabbed the one piece of clothing in his collection that was genuinely new. It was a short, slate-grey jacket with bright orange stripes at the shoulders and elbows. This was what passed for a uniform in Amiasha’s Civil Protector Corps.

His brother would never admit it, but Charlie just knew the color scheme had bubbled up out of Jack’s imagination. Even with Charlie here in this amazing city working his balls off to keep innocent folks safe from harm, he couldn’t escape his brother’s mark. He doubted he ever would.

As he went to pick up his badge and weapon from the nightstand, he heard a rustling in the blankets.

Lisa rubbed her eyes and looked up at him. “What are you doing up?” she asked groggily. Her slightly curly, strawberry blond hair was mussed from the pillow.

“Got called in,” he lied. Lisa had enough to worry about right that second; she didn’t need Charlie’s creeping neurosis heaped on the pile. “Someone has a lead on this Bright Cipher thing.” There was at least a seed of truth in that.

“Okay,” Lisa said, continuing to watch him. She obviously knew something was wrong but neither of them wanted to talk about it. If there was any true thing Charlie knew in this world, it was that everybody already had plenty of their own shit to deal with.

He picked up the badge and slid it into a hidden pocket, then lifted the sidearm (what they’d nicknamed a thumper) and gave it a quick inspection. Not that he understood a damned thing about it, or would even recognize it as a weapon if he’d never seen one before. It looked like a thin piece of dark metal shaped to wrap around his knuckles, and it might’ve worked as a subtle piece of jewelry if it hadn’t been designed to knock suspects clean off their feet.

The thumper was yet another Amira Saladin special, but these too had Jack’s fingerprints all over them. The weapon fired some kind of pulse that hit like a heavy beanbag, and dissipated completely after fifty yards to prevent unfortunate accidents.

In another life, Charlie would’ve laughed at such a thing. Nobody went to war carrying a stun-gun. But lives changed.

He slipped the thumper over his fingers, and felt a small buzz as it woke up and initiated contact. He could fire it at any time just as easily as he’d bend a finger or pucker his lips. It was just like another muscle suddenly integrated into his body.

Charlie looked back to Lisa and said, “Go back to sleep, eh. You and the baby need rest.”

Too tired to maintain suspicion, she nodded and curled back up around her pillow. She was asleep and lightly snoring seconds later.

Charlie gave her one last glance. Despite everything else, sometimes the sight of her was enough to make it all seem weightless. For a tiny instant, all the blood and shit and despair was washed away, down a gutter and gone.

And he could never seem to bear that feeling for long.

Charlie left their flat and the door sealed itself shut behind him, leaving him on a walkway that spiraled up the outside of his building like the blades of a screw. The dizzying sight of Amiasha stretched out in front of him, a city full of neon light and activity at all odd hours of the day. The domed ceiling loomed above, so impossibly large that the sight of it gave Charlie a twinge of vertigo, with a surface that glowed soft blue speckled with brighter points like twinkling stars.

The inside of Amiasha was the most beautiful thing Charlie had ever seen, and each night it surprised him just as much as the last.

He marched along the walkway until he came to the nearest lift, which waited stashed between apartments for its passengers. He ducked inside and touched the top of the panel, then the lift whisked him away.

Unlike nearly everything else in the alien city, that experience was shockingly familiar.

The doors opened and Charlie stepped out onto the building’s circular roof. The space was ringed with stables for Yuon Kwon, the alien vehicles that were Amiasha’s brothers and sisters, and they sat there contentedly feeding from soft tubes.

Charlie crossed the pad and found his personal flyer, Remmy, one of the new Selim Yuon Kwon which looked like mutant offspring of a sport-bike and a tuna. Its cradle cavity spread open as he approached and waited eagerly for his link.

Charlie slid inside and the cavity closed, hugging him tightly from all around. A moment later, he started to see spots on his vision, and he reflexively blinked and blinked again. Then the link washed over him.

He felt Remmy’s presence like God’s love, a wellspring inside of him that seemed to warm and comfort without any effort at all. What the creature felt was unconditional and pure, like a child’s affection distilled to 200 proof.

When they first linked, the name Remmy had popped into Charlie’s head like a random memory plucked from the air. It was a name that brought back pain and resentment—the family dog stuck in a trap, which Jack had been forced to put down—but given to the small flyer, it took on a new life.

Remmy and his pilot released the feeding hose and lifted up into the air, driven by a pair of organs near their aft which Charlie couldn’t help confusing for his legs. The flyer climbed up into the traffic filled air and rocketed off toward its destination.

The Selim flyer was faster and more maneuverable than the various other Yuon Kwon clotting the skies. It was smaller and could easily dart around the ponderous transports and cargo carriers, and that made their journey together disappointingly short.

They swooped down at the precinct building, a reddish, rounded hexagon that sat wide and low over the ground, and they approached the rooftop. Remmy set himself down in an open stall, and with some regret opened his cavity once again.

Charlie dropped back into his own body like being snapped out of a daydream. It was as if he’d had his hand rapped by a teacher’s ruler while imagining what color bra she was wearing.

He stepped backward, stumbling just a little, and shook his head to clear the cobwebs. The combination of chronic sleep deprivation and a high-speed acid trip left him off balance for a few seconds, but it cleared quickly and he was off on his way.

Two floors down, Charlie entered the administrative level and found his squad-room, an orange and lime colored office with dozens of desks in rows. Like the open streetway outside, there was always life here; men, women, and the sexless Sey Chen aliens battling piles of paperwork, while others walked purposefully past from one meeting room to the next.

There was endless work for Amiasha’s Protectors, and never enough people to do it.

The squad’s chief, Gibbs, approached. He was an older black man with a South African accent, and a very stately mustache. He had a big chin and kind eyes. “What the fuck are you doing back here, Hernandez?”

Eyes lied sometimes.

So did Charlie. “Had some ideas about Bright Cipher. Thought I’d come in and see if they panned out.”

Gibbs squinted at him. “Yeah, bet you did. Doesn’t matter. That partner of yours is still at it.”

Charlie looked past the chief and saw Shazz hard at work. He was Sey Chen, a species whose body filled roughly the same space as a human’s, but couldn’t have been shaped more differently. Thin curved legs that bent backwards held up a torso like a swollen football, where his slit of a mouth and pointed ears were found. A pair of thin stalks at the top held his head-pod and its bright green eyes. Both arms branched at the elbow, ending in four-fingered hands.

The entire shape of Shazz reminded Charlie of some high-tech broadcast antennas he’d seen, and after some thought, he doubted it was a coincidence.

Shazz held his hands out on either side of a metallic orb, and an electric lightshow connected them. The device had a diagonal slice across it like a bishop in a chrome chess-set, and the surface glowed red wherever Shazz’s lightning danced.

“Good,” Charlie said, “I could use the help.”

Gibbs turned and allowed Charlie past.

When Charlie got to his desk, Shazz opened his eyes and the arcs of electricity disappeared. He turned and brought his two sets of hands together, and the air between them began to faintly throb with light. “Back already, Hernandez?” The words had a strange buzz, but sounded unnervingly human.

“You know me,” Charlie said. “Just can’t get enough.”

Shazz’s eyes rolled in opposite directions. Charlie was told this was how the Sey Chen laughed, but he couldn’t help wondering sometimes.

“You’re still working on Bright Cipher?” Charlie asked.

“Yep. Not getting anywhere, though. I just can’t see the waveform.”

Charlie squinted. “Come again?”

“Sorry,” Shazz said. “The pattern.”

Charlie sat down and pulled the case file out of his desk, then flopped it down with an audible slap. He opened it and started idly flipping through pages and pictures. It looked like a big mess.

“Maybe there isn’t a pattern,” he said.

“Ever cynical, Hernandez.”

“Yeah,” he said dejectedly, then dragged his fingers over his face. The skin felt dry and cold. “Christ, I feel like I’m getting had.”

Shazz’s eyes bounced away from each other and came back, an expression that was totally opaque to Charlie. “I didn’t quite understand that,” the alien said.

“Which part?”

“I feel like I’m getting had,” Shazz repeated in an exact reproduction of Charlie’s voice.

It made his skin crawl.

“Like I’m getting conned. Ummm… deceived. Misled. Gas lighted.”

“Ah, gotcha. So, who’s getting to have you then?”

The fact that appeared to make sense made Charlie a little dizzy. “Oh, uh… I didn’t mean that literally. Just how I feel right this second.”

“No, I think there’s something there. Gimme a second.” Shazz tuned into his computer again, then stopped abruptly and looked back at Charlie. “We’ve been looking for connections in so many places… the Birthing Complex vandalism, Talia Reiser’s murder, rumors of a blackmarket explosives deal… dozens of other open investigations. The only thing that seems to connect them is that phrase found at the scenes. Bright Cipher. But what if someone is raising the noise level to hide their signal?”

Charlie shook his head and blinked. “You lost me there.”

“Misdirection,” Shazz said. “Someone is leading us in circles to divert our attention.”

“Fuck,” Charlie said.

“Fuck indeed.” They were both quiet, and the other noises of the room seemed to grow a little louder.

Charlie’s addled brain lurched into motion. The trouble with the case had always been the seemingly random nature of the incidents. The three highest-profile cases seemed the least connected of all.

The birthing complex had been covered in hate speech and set on fire, with the code phrase written alongside a lot of familiar anti-alien propaganda. The damage was minimal but the message seemed clear, and it sent shockwaves through the Yuon Kwon. Their shaky trust in humans suffered a deep setback as a result.

Talia Reiser, a mother of three who worked at a human/Oikeyan outreach center, was electrocuted to death in a way consistent with the Sey Chen’s abilities. Her charred remains were pinned to the center’s outer wall, and the code phrase was found on a folded note inside her mouth.

Last, they’d been hearing constant rumblings through informants and other channels that someone was buying up mining explosives all over town. Some said that it was for one heist or another, others thought it was for a terrorist action, a fireworks show, even for mining. But the phrase Bright Cipher popped up again and again as the code-names of buyers, sellers, projects… That was the one thing that always turned up without fail.

“Bright Cipher. What does that mean, anyway? Like smart encryption or something?”

Shazz’s heavy lids drooped. “You’re asking me what English words mean?”

Charlie shrugged. “Humor me. I wasn’t super good at school.”

Shazz said, “Well… not encryption. A homonym. Cipher as in zero, naught, something worthless, an unimportant or unknown person.”

“Didn’t even know that was a word,” Charlie said while scratching his head. “So, wait… like, nothing?”

“Yeah, that’d fit.”

Maybe Charlie had been looking at the other word wrong, too. Not bright like that chubby kid with glasses, but bright like a signal flare. “Flashy nothing,” he said, “a distraction.”

“Fuck,” Shazz replied. “So, where do we begin?”

As Charlie tried to look at the whole picture, he suddenly found the shape familiar. He saw battlefield strategy—feints and disinformation—and that was one subject he’d always had a keen affinity for.

“Let’s assume all of the big events are far from the real thing, either physically or style-wise. They’ll draw a big circle around the real deal.”

Shazz’s eyes bounced outward again, but he said, “Oh, I see. Follow the peaks until you find a conspicuous valley.”

“Right,” Charlie said hesitantly. “So, for instance the Birthing Center… that was an attack against Yuon Kwon. Maybe the real target are humans. Or on the other side of the city. Not a huge lynch mob but just a few motivated individuals.”

Shazz’s hands pulled away from each other and the charge between them made a sound like a frog croaking. It was supposedly similar to a Hindu head-shake, which Charlie also didn’t really get.

The alien said, “Or maybe the target is the older Yuon Kwon. Or Sey Chen. Or the target is in the air. There are too many variables, Hernandez.”

His partner was right, but Charlie still felt a rush like he was onto something. It was a lot like being on something. He started writing every crazy notion down on a piece of paper. “It was a symbolic attack, so what was the message? That humans are dangerous to them. To go home.”

“They defaced the place where Yuon Kwon young are born. The Yuon Kwon would retract and focus on protecting their own.”

“Good,” Charlie said. “That’d leave other things unguarded. Something less personal to the Yuon Kwon.”

Shazz tilted his head. “Or something less vulnerable.”

“I can work with that. How about the Reiser murder?” Charlie asked. “She was a social worker. Were they trying to shut down the outreach program?”

“No,” Shazz said, “I think I’ve got something here. You have to understand how horrified my kind are by this. We’re a peaceful people, and would never use our abilities like that. Many have redoubled their efforts to live close to you humans, but the way you look at us in the street now…”

“Someone wants us to distrust you.”

“And incite your people to attack us, maybe?”

“Maybe,” Charlie said. He thought of all the terrible things he’d seen done by otherwise ordinary men in uniform, things that were okay because they were at war. He said, “Maybe the goal was to get humans to turn a blind eye on one another.”

Shazz waggled his many fingers. “Alright, what do we have so far?”

Charlie scanned over his notes. “As far as my conspiracy theory skills are concerned… Hmmm. A few humans planning something against a normally well protected target. But what about these fucking explosives? I can’t seem to turn this one around. Who’s reacting to that?”

“We are,” Shazz said. “Civil Protectors.”

“Yeah?”

The alien went on, “This has us chasing leads all over the city, seeking out people we suspect are capable of making or distributing explosives. We’re trying to figure out who they’ve sold to, and we’re looking for a big cache.”

Charlie scribbled on his paper. “Backwards, backwards, backwards,” he mumbled. “So… instead of shaking down lowlifes and scumbags, we should be looking for someone respectable, I guess.”

Shazz said, “We’ve been looking for something that’s already here. It’s not a bomb, it’s small, and it’s on its way.” His buzzing voice carried a tone of grim finality.

Charlie’s heart froze with dread, but skepticism swelled up against it. “I really can’t tell,” he said, “if this is someone really fucking brilliant, or if we’re just incredibly stupid and desperate.”

“I don’t know about you, Charlie, but I’m not stupid.”

That was the moment Charlie would normally slug his friend’s shoulder, but from the look of Shazz, that might break something.

Half-baked theory or no, it still left them without suspects. It didn’t give them any leads to follow. Charlie began to drum on his forehead while the fact gnawed at him.

He began to flip through the files again with his other hand, glancing at descriptions of evidence and dozens of witness statements. Something caught his eye but it took a second to register, and he flipped back to find it.

The page in question was covered in notes, containing nearly twice as many as anything else in the stack. It was an interview with the outreach center’s administrator, Maxwell Lee. Was this the product of an over-enthusiastic interviewer, or a very talkative subject?

Charlie held the page up and waved it at Shazz. “Once you know you’re getting played, the most helpful guy in the room suddenly looks the most suspicious.”

Shazz’s eyelids lowered again. “I can’t see anything,” he said with very affected annoyance.

The Sey Chen couldn’t read at all. Their eyes didn’t see in the right spectrum to pick up something as subtle as writing on a page, and Charlie felt like an ass for forgetting.

“Maxwell Lee,” he said. “Outreach Administrator. We should go have a word with him. I’ve got a hunch he’s reaching out in more ways than one.”


And that’s all for tonight. On Saturday, we’ll take on the next segment, Chapter 24: Procedural. I’ll set a place for you at the table.

~Chris

Copyright 2013. All rights (currently) reserved.

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