Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2012: Lace Downstairs

Lace Downstairs

by Arkady Martine

I needed her.

If the official description of what I did is more along the lines of illegal co-option and immoral use of a registered para-empath – that’s how it got cited in my record, at least – at least I did it because I had to. As good as I am, and I was one of the best before I went Topside and got myself rewired on legal subroutines, no one turns down the services of a truthreader when her business is selling information to the worst scum Downstairs has to offer.

That, and she walked into my office with an unmarked credit chip and a sob story, and I’ve never been the kind of woman who could resist either of those.

Zelle – pretty name, isn’t it? – was the real thing, too. Not many of those around. Truthreading hardware is rare enough, and then there’s the programming on top of it. Strictly military, strictly Upstairs; what we’ve got down here doesn’t get close, and if it doesn’t melt your brain to slag outright, it’ll burn you out in hours. Whatever it is that’s in truthreader cybernetics is something that Downstairs programmers haven’t cracked, or Downstairs citizens can’t stomach.

The smog was creeping in through my windowpanes faster than the air scrubbers could get rid of it, and I’d been in virtual for more hours than I wanted to count. I pulled the jack out of my neck and cracked my eyes open. And there she was, standing in the middle of my personal office like she belonged there. Just waltzed in right past my security. Could have zapped me with that nice military-police shockstick she carries around.

She didn’t. She bared her teeth in a very approximate imitation of a smile, and said, “Nice of you to rejoin meatspace,” like I wasn’t half a second from getting my pistol from its holster under my desk and getting rid of my problem the easy way.

“Miss,” I said instead, and I’d’ve tipped my hat if I was wearing it. “Give me one good reason you’re here and maybe I’ll let you stay.”

“I need your help,” she said. From her expression, saying it must have tasted like something foul.

The first thing you notice about Topside military is the uniforms: that impenetrable, immutable black. All pristine in my office, Zelle looked like a xeno, not just a Topsider. Messy spikes of white-blonde hair; narrow, pale features. I remember thinking at first that she must have replaced her whole damn skeleton with neuroplastic alloy. There was no other way she could hold herself like she did, with that subtle sense of wrong – it almost hurt to look at her. Fey is what I’d call it now. At the time I just knew she made me nervous.

Then I spotted the open eye on her shoulder, neatly stitched in silver and saffron.

“What does a truthreader need my help for?” I asked.

“You’re Euphemia Irene Lace, which means you’re the scum to talk to when I can’t trust the scum I’ve got to tell me what I need to know. Unless I’ve walked into the wrong office.” When Zelle smiles for real, she looks like every shade of ironic self-deprecation and doesn’t know she’s doing it. She smiled like that, and I thought, shit. “And I don’t walk into wrong offices. Hazard of the wiring.”

“Your programming give you a sense of direction along with making sure you never tell a lie?”

“If the name on your door wasn’t yours I’d know it,” she said. The name on my door says E. Irene Lace. No one had called me Euphemia since I was old enough to reach their balls when I kicked them. Zelle’d picked it up out of whatever ether it is that truthreaders listen to. She wasn’t lying to me. Couldn’t lie to me. Makes a hell of a contrast with most people I talked to.

“Let’s say it’s my name,” I told her. “What exactly won’t your usual scum tell you that you think I can?” I waved my hand – the one that wasn’t an inch from the pistol under the desk – at the chair across from me.

Zelle didn’t sit. She walked over and propped her hands on the chair-back and leaned down so her eyes, pale glass-grey, stared right into mine. I bet she learned how to do that in interrogation rooms. Pretty good trick. I’d have to try it sometime. “My partner’s dead. Shot, line of duty. Except when I came in to identify the body, it turns out my colleagues Upstairs don’t have the body.”

“Dead guy just got up and walked away?”

Zelle laughed. It was an awful noise, and for the first time I noticed how dark the circles under those eyes were. “Pretty much. Marcus climbed off the gurney, stole some mortician’s clothes, and conned his way out onto the street. Not bad for a corpse with a hole through his gut, right?”

“Miss – hell. You have a name? I can’t keep calling you ‘Miss’ if you’re going to talk about dead military police in my office.”

“Zelle,” she said, and glared. I didn’t tell her it was a pretty name. Didn’t seem like the right moment.

“Zelle,” I said, “that wasn’t Marcus.”

“You think I don’t know that? I watched him die.” She grit her teeth. “And now somebody’s running him around like a puppet. What can you tell me about skinstealers, Lace?”

“Bad news,” I said. Skinstealers are bodysnatchers. Usually dead bodies. They hack them up, scavenge the cybernetics and the hardware. But that’s the nice side of a skinstealing ring. If they get a live one – some dumb kid with too much metal in his head and not enough sense to stay Upstairs where he belongs – and wire him just right, a talented skinstealer can walk around inside his skull. There’s a good market for shells like that. Pretty bodies for ugly people to vacation in. Cannon fodder. That kind of thing.

Until Zelle’s little problem, though, I’d never heard of a skinstealer setting up shop inside a corpse.

“Real bad news,” Zelle said. “Real bad news you’ve got more information about than any of my colleagues are willing to tell me.”

“They afraid you might know if they’re lying?” I asked.

That time I got the rictus smile, the fake one. “Something like that.”

I took the case.

First thing I did, I dressed in a clean suit and waltzed myself up to one of the elevators that take you all the way Upstairs. Handed over my actual ID card, too, announced myself properly. When the uniforms who make sure that no one with my street address gets to bother the nice people who see the sun every asked me who the fuck I was kidding, I put on a bright smile and made them call Zelle.

She showed up. Not sure she had a choice, and she glared at me like they installed laser-cutters behind her irises instead of just a mess of hideously complex hardware.

“I’ve got business with the truthreader,” I said. “Don’t I, Zelle?”

“She does,” she said, all chilly stillness, and I remember thinking that we scum are supposed to be afraid of truthreaders.

I got my ID code updated with a day-pass, though, and she took my arm and walked me into the elevator, and even held on until the doors hissed shut behind us and we were racing Up at thirty kilometers an hour.

“What do you want?” Zelle asked, dropping my wrist like I might stick to her fingertips.

“Your partner. He got a family?”

“Yes,” she said, and I watched her bite off the rest of her sentence. Truthreader cybernetics make it damn hard to not spill your guts after you start. Zelle’s good at stopping, but I can usually tell when she has to make herself. “Why do you care?”

“They forget to teach you people basic police work when they install the TR package? Victimology, Zelle. There’s got to be a reason it was his body they walked off with.”

“Marcus was a good partner.”

“Sure. Was he a good guy?” I thought she’d have to answer me.

She smiled instead. Just teeth. “I don’t know.”

“How do you not know? You worked with the man.”

“I know he was married.”

“Truthreaders get married?”

“As often as anyone else,” she said, and shrugged. “You want to play policeman, Lace? Okay. Let’s go pretend.” When she enjoys herself, Zelle’s face goes all angles and she stops looking like anything human. I wanted to back away and I didn’t. “But you’re going to have to do all the lying.”

The elevator cracked open and the sun hit me like a punch in the gut. Upstairs is just the top layer of Downstairs, the part of the buildings where they peek out of the dust and the smog. It’s built right on top of us. They’ve got air scrubbers in the floors to keep themselves clean, and when you walk around out there the sky is blue.

All that open space makes my skin crawl.

Zelle led me down huge boulevards where the metal underfoot was hot enough I could feel it through my shoes. By the time we got to where Marcus and his wife had been shacked up, I could feel my heartbeat banging sluggish in my temples. Apartment complex, middle-range for Upstairs, which means the kind of slick security I would pay a month’s work for.

She opened the door when Zelle held her ID up to the peephole. Small woman, sun-tan over skin that was dark to begin with, and skinnier than anyone Upstairs ever gets without being upset over having her husband shot by some Downstairs piece of shit.

“Sorry to bother you, Delia,” Zelle said. “This is Lace. She’s going to ask you some things about Marcus.”

Delia didn’t invite us in. She just got out of the way and let us stand around in her foyer.

“You staying, Zelle?” she said.

“Yeah.”

“Fuck. Okay. This official, then?”

I cut in. “No, ma’am. This here is your TR friend going entirely outside the appropriate bounds of police investigation.”

“Zelle’s not my friend,” Delia said.

Great. Uncooperative witness. My favorite kind.

“Whatever. She was your husband’s partner, it bothers her someone walked off with him before he got a proper burial or cremation or whatever the hell you people do to corpses up here. Bothers her enough she hired me to do the snooping she can’t. Now I don’t much care about whether you and your husband had a pleasant marriage, though if he was fucking around on you that’s probably relevant. But I’m going to ask about what you think he was up to when he wasn’t being her best truth-telling buddy. And Zelle’s going to tell me if you lie. That sound reasonable?”

Delia didn’t even crack a scowl. “No,” she said, and shot a glance at Zelle, over my shoulder. “But I’ll do it. It’s more than anyone else has done for me and Marcus.”

Zelle either didn’t have the courtesy to flinch on behalf of the military police, or truthreaders get trained out of flinching. Not my problem. I forged ahead.

“Did you and Marcus have a good marriage?”

Delia’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. “He was a truthreader.”

“So he never lied to you.”

She laughed, unpleasantly. “No. But he left things out, same as any man.”

“Or any woman,” I said. Behind me, Zelle snorted. “So he left things out. Maybe he went out at night, didn’t say where? Maybe he had friends he wouldn’t talk about, people you wouldn’t like?”

“Oh, he was into something,” said Delia. “I thought it was truthreader business for a long time.” She kept looking at Zelle like she wanted to watch her curdle. Zelle wasn’t cooperating.

“It was truthreader business,” she said. “Just not how you thought it was.”

“I hate when you people do that,” Delia said. I was inclined to agree with her. Spooky shit.

“So what was it?” I asked.

“You going to arrest me if I tell the truth a little, Zelle?”

I looked at her. Zelle shook her head, slowly. “—I can’t,” she said. “Not an official investigation.”

I’ve never seen anyone look as grimly pleased as Delia was right then. “Marcus thought your whole damned organization was rotten,” she said. “Corruption in the highest ranks. He said he didn’t know what kind, or why, but he knew there was money changing hands.”

I turned to Zelle. She was expressionless, truthreader-dispassionate. “Did he tell you about this?”

“Partners don’t talk about conspiracies,” she said evenly.

“Oh, come on,” I said, before I remembered she couldn’t lie to me even if she wanted to. One side of her mouth crooked up.

“We don’t talk about conspiracies to each other,” she said again, slower, like she was explaining to the idiot kid she seemed to think I was, “because suspicion is contagious between us. We convince one another. When you talk, Lace, I hear all the ways you’re lying to yourself and lying to me, even if all you’re doing is telling me what the weather’s like. When we talk to each other it’s all right. Correct. If Marcus wasn’t sure – if he wasn’t absolutely sure – he would have never said anything where I could hear it.”

Well, didn’t that just fuck everything up even more.

“So your partner was up to his eyeballs in a conspiracy involving the military police, and you don’t know anything about it, and you can’t ask another TR.”

Zelle shrugged. “All true.”

“Guess there’s a reason you hired me.”

Delia sounded like she was trying to stifle a fit of the giggles. “I don’t know what hole you dug this chick out of, Zelle,” she said, “but she is exactly the shit you deserve.”

Back in the comforting embrace of the smog Downstairs, I spent a day in my office chasing down some unsavory old friends. Karin wasn’t always a skinstealer; he started out trading in a lower class of out-of-body experience. Street theater drugs, hallucinogenics, information-scrambler inhaled nanites – a couple years ago, you wanted a head-trip, you went to Karin. Then he lucked into some skinstealer hardware – won it in a bet, if you believe the rumors, and I do, since I was there – and jumped at the chance to have his own little herd of empty zombie shells to upload into.

He keeps an office in an converted warehouse out by one of the hydroponics factories. It’s under two false names and owned by a nonexistent corporation, but I had the address by that evening.

For Karin, I’d even dress up. The smog makes walking around outside Downstairs an exercise in picking the kind of clothing that won’t leave you covered in damp sweat when you finally get to whatever hellhole you’re going to. I stuck with white. White means clean, and clean means power. And besides, I liked the cut of the suits, with just enough space under the jackets to hide the holster for my pistol, and nice deep vees in the vests to provide some distraction while I got the pistol out to shoot people. The fedora? Keeps the light out of your eyes and the smell of the street out of your hair.

Karin’s warehouse was sweltering inside. Rows of white-sheeted cots covered the floor. About half of them had empty shells lying on them, their chests rising and falling gently like they were sleeping. Most of them had their eyes half-open, and there wasn’t much of anything left behind them. Skinstealing is a dirty, dirty business, even down here with the scum. I’d bet only one in ten of those shells could remember the names they’d gone by before Karin and his crew got their hands on them.

He’d partitioned off the back end of the warehouse with cubicle walls. I walked right around them, took off my fedora, propped my hand on my hip, and waited for him to notice I’d come in.

The year or so since I’d seen Karin last hadn’t done him any favors. He was thinner, the skin under his chin starting to wattle and sag, and there were red veins shot through the whitish parts of his eyeballs. Sleep-deprived. Maybe running a skinstealing ring wasn’t all he’d cracked it up to be.

“Lace,” he said. “To what do I owe the pleasure, darling?”

I sighed and shook my head at him. “Still not your darling, Karin.”

“Oh, but surely there must be something you want.”

Running a skinstealing ring also hadn’t made Karin any less of a smarmy asshole. I shrugged. “The usual,” I said. “Information only you’re going to tell me.”

“Price has gone up, Lace. You don’t come betting with me anymore.”

“The scene got old. Only so many times I can wager on whether or not you’re going to throw up whatever chemicals you’ve ingested.”

He laughed. I hadn’t expected him to. “What do you have to trade? If a night on the town is off the table?”

I reached inside my jacket, skimming my fingertips over the butt of my pistol and settling on the envelope I’d tucked away instead. “Names,” I said, and held it out.

Karin didn’t take it. “Names of what?”

“Two headshops that are installing street theater hardware in pretty little Upstairs boys and girls come down to slum. They have rejects sometimes, they’re looking for a place to offload.”

He quirked his fingers, give it here.

“Ah-ah, no,” I said. “First I tell you what I want.”

“Darling, you can do that whenever you like –”

“Is there anyone you know who could skinsteal a corpse?”

One corner of Karin’s mouth curved, drooping disdainfully. “Someone’s been telling you stories, Lace. Dead pretty bodies are just dead. Oh, people try, every so often, but it never works.”

“You ever tried?” I asked.

Karin shuddered, delicately. It didn’t suit him. “No. They rot. It’s hideous, and the stink gets into the living ones.”

“So you’ve seen someone who’s tried.”

“Do you have a corpse you want walking around, is that it, Lace?”

I rolled my eyes so hard I was looking at the corrugated metal ceiling. “I want to talk to someone who thinks he can raise the dead.”

“I know a whole selection of priests, any kind you like –”

“A skinstealer, Karin.”

He sighed. “And then I can have my names?”

“Yes.”

“And your assurance that you never heard this from me.”

“Why Karin,” I said, leaning over palms-flat on his desk, “I thought we knew each other.”

“Used to know each other,” he said, smiling, “And rumor has it you’ve been palling around with the military police.”

Hell. “Work,” I said. “I’ll take Upstairs cash as fast as Down. It all spends the same.”

Karin shook his head. “Not quite,” he said. “But the man you want to talk to goes by Marsh. Andrew Marsh.”

“—of Marsh Pharmaceuticals?”

“That’s Elliot Marsh.” Karin’s grin showed all the places where his gums were receding from his teeth. “Andrew’s the younger brother.”

I went back to my office and plugged myself into the wall.

I am not a genius codemonkey. I didn’t grow up hacking for my daily hit of adrenesynth. Most of my formal training happened after I was already a teenager – just about full-grown, synapsewise. It’s not my language, never could have been. I can’t rewrite your hardware or lock you into a compulsion subroutine.

What I can do is find out just where – and who – you’ve been.

It’s a pattern. Everyone in virtual leaves traces, no matter how many pseudonyms and holding corporations they stack up between what they’re doing and what I can see. You just need to look macroscopically enough. And be the kind of scum who will scam and lie your way into a mainframe or eight.

I’m still that kind of scum.

Marsh Pharmaceuticals was a big company, for a Downstairs outfit. They sold a bunch of legal shit – vitamin injections, anti-cancer inhalants, air filters – and some less legal but still marginally commercial items, like a pill to make your dick hard for eighteen hours. Overkill. But the advertising was all over the back doors of their code, yelling about all the sex I could be having with my amazingly stiff nonexistent erection. That kind of thing will make a casual hacker go pick on prey that won’t give them a headache and the virtual version of the clap.

Casual I wasn’t.

Marsh the elder, Elliot, kept his little brother in R&D. Andrew had his own department, with its own budget and cashflow stream – half of which was coming in from accounts that were strictly below-board and double-blind, and half of which had mostly dried up. Looked like Andrew Marsh had turned skinstealer and smalltime drug lord to pay the bills, since his big brother wasn’t fronting him the cash for whatever he was inventing in his lab.

All terribly interesting if you care about corporate espionage. I didn’t.

I spent some time rooting around in the back directories of Marsh’s financials, shaking them a little, seeing if anything would fall out. Not much did. The best I came up with was an interesting little exchange between a man named Stephen Sauvage and a person whose codeblock signature had Upstairs military all over it. This Sauvage character was bargaining hard, gaming for a cushy government contract. Big Upstairs subsidies for Andrew’s R&D department to field-test some new kind of drug on unsuspecting Downstairs citizens who probably just wanted hard dicks.

Not often that companies run from Down here got that kind of subsidy.

I copied the files as quietly as I could and jacked out. I hadn’t been there long. I thought I’d gotten in clean.

I opened my eyes. Off to my left, Zelle said to me, “You really should lock your office.”

I grabbed for my pistol and jumped up from my chair. The virtual jack yanked me backward and then snapped out of its port in my skull with a sharp, ozone-flavored crack. I cursed, slammed the pistol down on the desk, and bit my lip til the edges of my vision stopped being static.

“We keep meeting like this, Zelle,” I said through gritted teeth.

“You, plugged in and twitching; me, waiting and bored to hell?”

“Yeah. Sure. Why are you here?”

She shrugged. “Nowhere else to be.”

“The police not keeping you busy enough?”

“Administrative leave, Lace.” She smiled, bitter. Sharp. “My partner’s dead. And no one cares where a truthreader goes, Up or Down. We’re incorruptible.”

All true. Every last bit. She can’t lie, the hardware in her head would kill her. Or the software would make her want to kill herself. Same thing.

I sat back down. “You going to be helpful, while you’re here?”

“I hired you, didn’t I?”

“You did. So tell me everything you know about Stephen Sauvage.”

She opened her mouth and closed it again. “—everything?”

I leaned forward. “Spill, truthreader,” I said, and then I watched her eyes roll back in her head.

The whites of TR eyes aren’t white. They’re silver and static, like electric shocks.

What came out of Zelle’s mouth had Sauvage’s name in it, sure, Sauvage and a Detective-Captain First Class he’d been talking to, Jason Whittaker, but the rest of it was babble, a long liquid stretch of sound. Strings of numbers. His birthdate, his chromosomal profile. Addresses, times of meetings, sums of money large enough that I thought they were probability values at first, account numbers to accounts I wanted to trace but wouldn’t know where to start with. A list of chemical compounds, mostly hydrocarbons and silicate. She didn’t breathe. She stood there in my office and trembled, just her hands, the corners of her mouth, and every bit of truth she knew about Stephen Sauvage gushed out of her like a poison river.

I didn’t breathe, either.

“Andrew Marsh,” she said, at the end, stuttering like a feedback loop gone wrong. “Andrew Marsh Andrew Marsh Andrew Marsh Andrew Marsh Andre—”

I slapped her.

She gasped and looked right at me.

“Where’d you hear that name,” I said.

The air dragged past her lips like she was choking. “Don’t fucking know. Just – know it. Sometimes I know it. His real name. Sauvage.”

“Sauvage is Marsh.”

“Yeah. Couldn’t prove it –” She laughed, coughed, and kept staring at me. “Except I said it so it’s the only proof you’d need –”

“I’m not trying to prove that Marsh is double-dealing with your people Upstairs.”

“Who the hell is he, Lace?”

She didn’t know. She knew all that and she didn’t know. “Skinstealer,” I said. “Bad news.”

This time she only smiled with one corner of her mouth. “Figures.”

“I need you to do something for me, Zelle.”

“That wasn’t enough for you?”

I didn’t want to talk about what that had been. I wasn’t sure I knew how I felt. Cold. Shocked. Interested, maybe. Acquisitive. Didn’t want to tell her that. Concerned. Really didn’t want to tell her that.

“I need you to ask Detective-Captain Jason Whittaker about Marsh.”

“And you, who I hired, can’t do this because what?”

I grinned at her. Grinning was easier. “Because I’m scum, Zelle, and you are incorruptible.”

We laughed, both of us, together.

Nothing much happened for almost a day. Zelle went back to wherever good little TRs go when they’re not slumming; I actually checked my messages (including the monthly demand from my office’s landlady for rent I didn’t quite have until Zelle coughed up that credit chip she’d promised).

It was after midnight when I jacked out again. Not worth going home, especially when I had a pull-out couch and a shower in the back room. I stripped, everything but my pistol and its holster. That came into the shower with me, hung over the rail, out of the spray. As hot as I could get the taps to go, decontaminant shampoo and soap.

They were waiting for me when I came back out into the office my holstered gun in one hand, toweling off my hair with the other.

There were three of them, all in black suits that glistened plastically. The broadest was sitting spun around in my desk chair, leaning over the back of it.

I threw the towel at his face and dropped to the floor. The streamers of a shockstick went over my head and I rolled, trying to get back into the bathroom, but one of them got there first and his foot hit my kidney hard enough I wanted to curl into a ball and scream. You can’t do that in a fight, not when it’s three-on-one and you’re built like a human being and not a tank. I’m tall for a woman, and I was in good shape, but brawling has never been my strong suit.

I had a gun. If I didn’t get to my feet and use it I was in trouble.

It was the wrong way around – I was clutching the barrel through the holster, not the grip. I flipped onto my back, thumbed the safety off and scrambled for the trigger. The man who’d kicked me raised his foot to stomp on my stomach and I shot him. The holster blew to pieces. So did his head. Grey brains spattered everywhere. He’d had implants, hardware for something. It glistened wetly inside what was left of his skull before he fell down.

The third man, the one with the shockstick, cursed. I staggered to my feet and tried to dodge him as he came at me, duck behind him or get enough space that I could take a shot that’d hit somewhere useful. The broad one tossed my towel away from him and picked up the chair. Shit.

He swung it and it hit me in the shoulder, hard enough that I lost my bead on the shockstick guy and nearly dropped the gun. Then he hit me with it again, in the side of the head this time. Getting beaten with my own office chair has never been high on my list of good ways to die. Too funny.

I squeezed off another shot, wild, and then a third. That one was better, that one tore a hole in the shockstick man’s throat that gushed. The noises he made sounded like he was drowning a long way under water. The chair came at my head again, and the man followed it up by grabbing at my wrists. He wrestled my hands upward, the gun pointing at the ceiling. There were brains up there. There went my security deposit.

“What do you want,” I said.

He shook me like I was a rag. It hurt, especially at my temple where the chair had been. “My employer found someone snooping around in his private directories,” he said. “He asked around a little.”

“Yeah?”

“And turns out there’s this chick who thinks she’s some kind of policeman –”

“Private investigator.”

“Whatever. If you know this chick, you tell her, maybe that wasn’t so smart.” His hand twisted. I felt the bones in my wrist grind against each other and I lost my grip on the gun.

Then he jerked, shuddered, and collapsed to the floor.

Zelle was standing behind him, her military-issue shockstick still sparking a little. There was a raw scrape riding her cheekbone and her lower lip was split and swollen.

“I leave you alone for one day,” she muttered.

I prodded the collapsed thug with my toe. He didn’t move. “—you kill him with that thing?” I asked.

Zelle looked down, like she was just registering that there was a hired gun sprawled in the middle of the floor. “—probably,” she said. “Tends to.”

Well, that solved whether or not I was going to. Handy.

“Huh,” I said. I’m not very articulate when I’ve just been hit with a chair. Twice. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, sincere. Like it was nothing.

There was blood soaking one of her sleeves. That didn’t make sense. She hadn’t been here when I killed the shockstick man. He couldn’t have bled on her. She looked more beat-up than I did.

“What the hell happened to you?” I asked.

She flinched like I’d hit her again. “I asked your questions,” she said. “What happened here?”

“Marsh doesn’t like me snooping around and what do you mean you asked my questions?”

Zelle wrapped her arms around herself, hugged her ribs. “I made an inquiry about Andrew Marsh.”

“And?” I said, louder. “And your Detective-Captain –”

“Pistol-whipped me,” she spat.

I grabbed for her elbows, tried to hold onto her. “What did you say?”

“Don’t ask me that.” She tore herself away, took two fast steps and ended up leaning against the wall, her hands like claws, pressing into it. “Don’t ask me that. I’ll answer. I’ll tell you. Don’t ask me.”

I stepped over the body, went to her. “Shit, Zelle. You’re bleeding.”

“Yeah? So are you.”

I wanted to touch her. I wanted to make her talk.

“I’ve got a shower in the back,” I said. “Hot water. Disinfectants.” The blood from her sleeve was dripping onto the floor. When I reached for her again and took her hands down, she shuddered.

Compared to the front office, the back room’s lack of bodily fluids or corpses looked absurd. Too normal. Well, normal except for the truthreader leaning on my arm.

She slipped out of my hands, heading for the sink, and stripped like the soldier she was, the pieces of her uniform discarded like a useless skin. Her arm was bruised to the elbow, torn open at the shoulder, smeared red.

The disinfectant was under the sink. I had to go around her. She moved like water and kept her mouth shut and it drove me crazy. When I stood up again she’d ruined one of my towels getting the blood off her cheek.

“Give me that,” I said. She did, one eyebrow raised. I ran the tap over it, sponged the brains off my face, rinsed. Then I said, “Scream if you like,” and poured most of the bottle of disinfectant into the gaping slash in her upper arm.

She didn’t scream. She went still, exhaled harshly, and bit her lip hard enough it split open again, but she didn’t scream.

“You don’t get this from a pistol,” I said. I prodded at the edges of the wound. They were ragged.

“Metal grating,” she said. “I fell.”

I waited for her to go on. She didn’t. “How much omission does it take before your circuitry kicks you in the balls, Zelle?”

“More than that. Fuck. Don’t ask. He pushed me. After.”  Static arced over her pupils and she jerked away from my hands. “I fell. He left. Please.”

“I just want to know what I got you into.”

“Nothing I didn’t get myself into first when I hired you,” she snapped. I could hear her breathing, light and harsh. I opened my mouth and she reached across, pressed her fingers to my lips, shut them. Her skin was chilled. The pads of her fingertips were soft. No gun-calluses. She carried the shockstick instead.

“Still bleeding, Lace,” she said. And didn’t move her hand.

“I know,” I said, and then I sucked her fingertips into my mouth. Her eyes stuttered closed. Truthreader blood tastes the same as normal human blood, salty and stomach-churning. She stroked my tongue where I’d slid it between her knuckles. I could have asked her anything, and she’d have told me. She’d have to tell me.

When she opened her eyes again I let her go. “Shower,” I said. “Now.”

She followed me in.

Afterward, I left Zelle asleep on the couch and went to dispose of the bodies. There’s a dumpster halfway down the block from my office, behind my neighborhood’s Whole Goat Dinner Shack franchise. It took me three trips, one per dead guy, and by the time I was done whatever afterglow I’d had was pretty much gone. Next time I sleep with an accomplice I’m making her help with the corpse wrangling.

There wasn’t a chance of getting to sleep myself. Even if I’d been in the mood, Zelle took up all of the couch.  She sprawls. I sat at my desk and shuffled papers and files around instead. I’d have jacked into my home system but I kept imagining how easy it’d have been for Marsh’s men to have shot me between the eyes while I thought I was safely in virtual. I’ve always heard that dying in virtual hurts as much as dying in meatspace, just you don’t get to know why you hurt.

My phone rang.

I knocked a stack of magazines onto the floor with my elbow and scrambled to answer it.

“Lace.”

“I see you’re unscathed enough to pick up the phone. Elegantly done.” The voice on the other end of the line was distorted, clipped Upstairs vowels all out of rhythm. “I particularly liked the part where your pet TR murdered the last of my men.”

“Marsh,” I said.

“To be sure. Now listen carefully. I’d like to settle this like gentlemen, without anything so severe as informing the military police just where their truthreader ended up tonight. Why don’t we talk in person?”

“Are you trying to threaten me?”

“I’m not trying. Delancey’s, in fifteen minutes. I’m waiting for you.”

He hung up. I dropped the phone onto the receiver like it was going to scorch my palm.

There wasn’t time to wake Zelle up.

Delancey’s is smoke-filled and dark enough to hide a few sins. Marsh was waiting for me at one of the high two-person tables they have instead of booths, off in the shadows against the walls. He was tall, broad-shouldered and shaved bald, and he waved me over with a snap of his hand that should have belonged to a much smaller man. Something off about it. For a moment I thought he was like Zelle, that same uncanny posture, how she holds herself like her bones are made of liquid instead of human flesh.

Then I realized. “Marcus,” I said.

Marsh – Marsh in Marcus, crouched behind his eyes – shook his head. “Not quite.”

“Taking the merchandise out for a spin?”

“There are many advantages to this body, one of which is that it isn’t mine. Do sit down, Lace.”

I sat. This close, I could see that Marcus’s body wasn’t breathing. His eyes were the same as Zelle’s, palest grey. “For a dead man, you’re in good shape.”

“Modern technology,” said Marsh, “and the marvels of sufficiently complex neural hardware.”

Something clicked. “That why you needed to steal a truthreader, Marsh? Sufficiently complex neural hardware?”

He smiled. Between the skinstealing and the TR body, it didn’t look human. “An experiment. A successful one. And one I’d like to continue. Call off the hounds, Lace. Leave me to my business and I’ll leave you to yours.”

“You’re wearing Zelle’s partner like a suit. Your business is my business. What if I don’t?”

“Then you return to your office and discover that Upstairs has come calling with murder charges for you and your – ”

“Client.”

“Client. Worse for her, I’d think. Finding someone of her qualifications with her hands this dirty, down here with us in the smog.”

“I shot your men in self-defense,” I said, and smiled hard enough to make my teeth grit. “They broke into my office. No charges will stick on me. What happens to Zelle is Zelle’s problem.”

Marsh tapped the side of Marcus’ skull. “Ah-ah, Lace. I can tell when you’re lying. It’s the most wonderful tool.”

If he really could – if he was running the TR hardware as well as using it to walk a corpse around – “Upstairs business is out of my price range,” I said. “And my interest.”

A burst of static flickered across his eyes, like a glitch in virtual. He breathed out on a sigh. “No,” he said. “It’s very much in your interest. You – want her. She has access to information you’d never get on your own, she tells you the truth – she – she’ll do things for you that you’ve never trusted anyone to do. She’s warm.” A flush rose under his cheekbones, spread. “Well, isn’t that interesting.”

I staggered to my feet. The chair tipped over behind me, crashed to the floor.

“It won’t be murder you go down for,” Marsh said, brightly. “It’ll be a court-martial for her and corruption and illegal use for you, when her colleagues find her spread out for Downstairs trash –”

“Call them off,” I said.

Every inch of liquid disappeared from his spine and the look he gave me was the closest I’d seen to the real Andrew Marsh. Wherever he was.  “If you like. I understand. I don’t want Upstairs knowing about my new business myself.”

Upstairs was funding his new business, every sordid corpse-stealing inch of it.

Upstairs was funding his new business and he’d just flatly denied the fact, from the mouth of a TR.

“Liar,” I said.

Marsh shrugged Marcus’ shoulders.  “Are we finished, Lace?”

I hadn’t ordered a drink. He could pay his own tab. I spun on my heel and walked out.

Zelle was waiting for me, sitting cross-legged and naked on my couch, with the kind of neutral expression that means explosions later. She looked me over.

“Hot date?” she asked.

“Hardly.”

“Where’d you run off to, then?”

I didn’t have time for this. “Zelle. We have to stop investigating Marsh. Actually, we’ve already stopped, and I need you to take back your credit chip and go Upstairs where you belong.”

She unfolded, each stretch of her limbs predatory. “Where were you just now.”

“Talking to Andrew Marsh,” I said. “Who is, by the way, wearing Marcus like Upstairs flesh is going out of style.”

The glitter in her eyes wasn’t TR static. “You met with Marsh. In person.”

“As in-person as skinstealers get –”

“I don’t care. After what I’ve done for you – after everything I’ve done for you, you left me here to go betray my interests with the man who desecrated my partner’s body?”

“Did you think that afterward we’d cuddle, Zelle?” I snapped. “You bought my time and my connections. Fucking me doesn’t get you anything else.”

“I killed a man in your house for you. I questioned my superiors for you. What I did after that isn’t important.”

“You did those things for Marcus.”

“For Marcus and because you needed me to do them –”

“I met with Marsh,” I said, fast, cutting her off, “I met with Marsh because he threatened to call down the military police on both of us, get you court-martialed and me arrested for being scum and being near you at the same time. I met with him to find out if he was bluffing.”

She exhaled through her teeth. “Was he?”

“I don’t know. But while he’s in Marcus? He can read truth.”

“That’s impossible,” Zelle said. “Even if the hardware’s undamaged you can’t use it without the software and the training, it doesn’t work, we’ve been trying just the hardware for years. It’s dead metal without the rest.”

“Not for Marsh. And it gets worse.”

Zelle looked like she was daring me, and that if I won the dare she’d probably throw up.

“He can lie,” I said.

She didn’t throw up. She put her head between her bare knees, and laughed convulsively.

“Zelle?”

“It makes a lot of sense,” she said, muffled with giggles, and dragged herself back upright. The skin on her chest and over the tops of her breasts had gone to gooseflesh. “It’s a liability. We’re a liability. You’ve seen just how. We can’t lie. The software does that. We’re supposed to kill ourselves if we’re ever captured and held hostage, did you know?”

I shook my head and kept my mouth shut.

“We are. My superiors – Detective-Captain Whittaker would love it if we could protect ourselves. Protect the interests of Upstairs and the police.”

I met her eyes. “How much would he love it?” I asked.

She stared me down. “Enough to work with Andrew Marsh, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Enough to set Marcus up?”

She shrugged. “Available evidence suggests it. I don’t – I don’t want to know. That way.”

I did. But that’s why I’m a private investigator, and Downstairs scum. “Then we’re done. You asked me to find out who stole Marcus’ body. Andrew Marsh did it, on your Detective-Captain’s credit chip. Case closed.”

“No,” she said, and got up off the couch, heading for the bathroom and the discarded pieces of her uniform.  She talked while she dressed, her hands automatic on the buttons and zips. “We’re not done. I owe Marcus a real death. Delia deserves something to bury. We’re going to kill him beyond use, whatever else happens. I’ll do it myself, if you won’t help.”

“Marsh won’t meet with you,” I said.

She fastened her cuffs. The black clung to her, made her alien and terrifying again. “I’ll track him down.”

I sighed, and sat down where she’d been on the couch. “Like the truth-sniffing jackal you are, sure. I’ve got a better idea.”

I never want to see that much naked hope on her face ever again. “You’re going to help?”

“I’m going to get Marsh to come to you, Zelle,” I said. “Come for you.”

“How?”

“I’ll trade you to him. He needs more TRs to make his walking dead, doesn’t he? And guess what I’ve got. A truthreader of my very own. A liability of my very own. Giving you to him solves all my problems. No one can arrest me for co-option and immoral use. I get more cash than you’d give me anyway.” I smiled. It hurt a little. “And you get a free shot at Marcus. He’ll come wearing his TR skin, he needs the confirmation that I’m not pulling one over on him.”

Zelle didn’t say anything for a long time, long enough that I was counting my breaths, in, out, a shade too fast. “He’ll know you’re lying,” she said, finally.

“So I won’t lie.”

I went into the front office and asked the phone to redial the last call. Zelle followed me, silent. When Marsh picked up, he sounded genuinely surprised.

“Lace,” he said. “I thought we had an agreement?”

“I’ve got a better one,” I told him. “Better for you and better for me.”

His laughter was distorted over the wires. “I’m listening,” he said. “Very hard.”

“I have some merchandise,” I began. “Of course you’ll have to kill her before she’s useful to you, but I think it’ll be worth your time. She’s a TR, just like the corpse you stole, and this one can be yours for good – no Detective-Captain Whittaker asking for his soldiers back after you turn them into dead little liars.”

“What an interesting idea.”

“I thought you’d like it.” I felt sick, and scared, and honest. “You can keep her. She’s too dangerous to have near me. You convinced me of that. She knows too much and she’s going to know more, and who the hell can trust a Topsider?”

“Not even another Topsider,” Marsh said. “How’s thirty thousand? Unmarked credit, clean.”

“Generous of you. Let’s do it tonight. Truthreaders don’t make my skin crawl when they’re dead like this one does while she’s alive. Better to have someone inside running the show –”

“Of course. At the old press, the one that printed the Oversight before it went virtual.”

“It’ll take me an hour to get there.”

“An hour, then.”

He hung up. I swallowed. Zelle was staring at me, composed, inhumanly still, and disgusted.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” she spat. “Let’s go.”

All three blocks the Oversight used to take up are abandoned now, the huge wheels that spun the newsprint still and rotting. The floodlights were working, though, either never disconnected or something Marsh had rigged up to keep him busy until we got there. Zelle still wasn’t talking to me. I had my pistol pressed to the side of her head and I could feel her breathe through the vibrations in the metal.

When Marsh came out from behind the largest of the presses, he was wearing half a virtual rig, a submachine gun, and Marcus. Which meant at least one thing had gone right.

“You couldn’t have knocked her out?” Marsh asked me.

Zelle bared her teeth at him.

“Thought you might want to check that she’s what I say she is,” I said, and walked us closer in. The gun was a problem. I was going to have to get that away from him, or get Zelle close enough that she could shockstick Marcus and fry the hardware keeping him useful and not the pile of dead flesh he should have been.

“Stay just where you are,” he said, pointing the barrel low on Zelle’s chest, “And let her go, won’t you? I’ve got her.”

I slid my finger against the trigger of my pistol. “Don’t try it, Marsh,” I said. “I want to see my thirty thousand in my account, or I’ll blow her hardware out through the other side of her skull and she’ll be no good for anyone.”

Marsh didn’t even look at my hand. “Zelle,” he said, “tell me if I’m lying. If you’re wrong, I’ll shoot you. Got it?”

“You’re going to shoot me anyway,” she said, precise.

“True,” Marsh said. I wondered if his voice was the same as Marcus’s had been. I couldn’t ask Zelle. “Try another one. How about I’ve already paid Lace what I owe her. True or false?”

Her tongue swiped at her lower lip. It was the first time I’d seen her be anything but pristine while she was being TR. “Liar,” she said. “I should never have had to hear lies in Marcus’ mouth.”

“I’d apologize but you’d know I wasn’t sincere,” Marsh said, and I thought he was close to laughing. I have better aim than Zelle does. I could have shot him in the head before he pulled the trigger on that gun. The barrel of my pistol shifted against Zelle’s temple, and she seized my other wrist in her hand, held me still.

“Come on over and get your property,” I said.

Then the doors behind us exploded inward and we were drowning in a storm of black uniforms, searchlights and shocksticks and those clean Upstairs guns that look like they’ve been carved out of one solid piece of metal. The military police. Zelle’s colleagues.

I saw Marsh’s face go blank with surprise and his eyes track off Zelle and onto the nearest soldier, and then Zelle had driven her elbow into my stomach hard enough that I doubled over and lost my grip on her. She was running straight for Marsh, crossing the fifteen feet between us in the ten seconds it took for some black-clad policeman to finish what she’d started and kick my legs out from under me. I went sprawling.

Zelle’s shockstick thrust into Marsh’s – Marcus’s – mouth, and went off.

Smoke and sparks come out of every hole in your face when someone fries your hardware like that. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you live.

Too late for Marcus.

I spent most of the ensuing clean-up with my cheek pressed against the concrete floor and an Upstairs cop kneeling on my back while Zelle talked to someone who outranked her and said a thousand formal, calm, entirely true things that were just avoidant enough to keep them from arresting her for killing her partner. Or for un-reanimating him. It helped that the military couldn’t admit to funding Marsh’s little adventure into the zombie trade. She didn’t have to sidestep much.

She could have done it, I think. She’s good, Zelle. She deceives you by telling you only true things. She even got them to let me go. Explained the whole ruse, how I wasn’t actually going to blow her precious wiring to shards if I didn’t get thirty thousand in blank credit.

She even came over to say goodbye. She got close, close enough that I could smell my shampoo on her hair, under the scent of electricity and charring brainmeat. She touched my cheekbone with her fingertips and it took all the willpower I had to flinch away instead of toward her hand.

“Zelle,” I said. “You’re going back Up with them. How long before –”

Those fingertips moved from my cheek to my lips, and then disappeared. “I’m a truthreader,” Zelle said. “Incorruptible and irreplaceable. I’m fine.”

So was Marcus, I wanted to say. And look what you Upstairs scum did to him.

I kept my mouth shut.

Sometimes it’s easier not to have to lie.

_______________

Arkady Martine lives somewhere in the airspace between New York City and Oxford, and occupies herself with histories of the future. She can be reached at arkady.martine@gmail.com. This is her first story sale.

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