by Rich Larson
Nyx sold his product in the exercise yard, in a blindspot the rusty autoturrets couldn’t swivel to anymore. Inmates walked in slow circles around the synthetic track and every so often one would stop off for the furtive exchange. Nyx slapped neoprene baggies into palms with every handshake.
Basta wasn’t furtive about it: Woadskin crew didn’t worry about things like follow-cams or autoturrets, not now that they ran every cell block in the prison. Nyx reached into his sleeve and produced a particular bag.
“Color’s different,” Basta said, juggling it in his hand. “You run scant on fucking, uh, ephedrine again?”
“Better filter,” Nyx said bracingly. “Better batch. Floats like, whoa.”
”You best not be cutting my shit.” Basta bit the corner and tongued the blue-tinged powder. “I’ll know.”
“Hey, hey, it’s pure. Ask Cade and his units.” Nyx tugged his jumpsuit down and scratched at his neck. “Dosed them the same batch this morning.”
“I told you to cover that tag,” Basta snapped.
Nyx looked down at his collarbone where a zodiac sign was tattooed in bioglow ink.
“You’re not getting no fucking points for loyalty.” Basta touched his pocket where it was tented by a shiv. “He’s on ice. He’s not coming back. Nobody does.”
Nyx kept his eyes on the zipper as he dragged it up slowly, carefully. “Year later, you still don’t say his name?”
Basta wrenched him down by his ear; Nyx wailed at the feel of crumpling cartilage. “Capricorn. And nobody comes back from cryo. He’s in 114 till he’s dead.”
“Okay, unit, okay, fuck,” Nyx choked.
Basta dead-eyed him for a moment longer, then let go. “You’re lucky you mix this shit so good. Or you’d be dead with the rest of his old crew.” He slipped the baggie into his waistband as the buzzer started to bleat.
Nyx rubbed his ear, then joined the inmates slouching back inside, ushered by the creaking autoturrets. They always cleared the yard when a new shipment of prisoners was coming in.
In decontamination, Boniface seemed more naked than anybody else. His skin was pale and paper-thin and free of any ink, flays, or ritual scarring. When the chemical mist billowed up around their waists, he looked like a lean ghost. Only his face was colored with bruises.
“Hundred percent prisoner retention,” said the man beside him. “Nowhere to escape to when they stick you on an asteroid, is there? Only one man ever came close.”
“So I hear,” said Boniface. His bright blue eyes raked the shrouded room. He crouched down, where the mist deadened voices and obscured faces, and his companion did the same.
“When they caught him, they put him in cryo for life,” the man went on, muttering now. “Braindead on ice. They’re supposed to thaw you every few months for a physical, Bremnes Act or whatever the hell it is, but I think they probably just leave you frozen. Who would know, right? I’d rather be dead.”
“How are you feeling?” Boniface asked, smothering a cough. The fog tingled cold on his skin.
“Rather be dead and have it all over with,” the man said, staring into space.
“How are you feeling?” Boniface repeated, meaning the purpled sutures across the man’s stomach.
His face twisted. “It hurts.”
“All be over with soon,” Boniface said. He jackknifed over another cough, a worse one.
“Yeah. Yeah.” The man grinned shakily, unperturbed by the noise. “Teach them a fucking lesson. Out with a bang.” Vacuums came to life with a roar and began sucking the mist away, pulling it in wreaths and tendrils away from Boniface’s bent head. Specks of rust red floated off with it.
“That’s right,” he said, straightening up, wiping his mouth. “Try not to whimper.”
Boniface put a finger to his lips as the doors slid open and a synthesized voice ordered them forward.
The sweepers came in the middle of the night, but Nyx didn’t sleep anymore. He hid his glassware and bottles of knock-off chemicals mostly out of habit, shuffling them into the gouged-out wall behind the bed. The sweepers scanned the cell door open and marched inside, all matte black body armor and clouded facemasks. They were dragging someone behind them.
“What is this?” Nyx demanded, pulling out his earbuds.
They dumped the man on the floor. His head was a canvas of cuts and his eyes swollen mostly shut, blood vessels burst. He groaned.
“Hey, it’s the chemist,” said one of the sweepers. His mask retracted and Nyx recognized one of his more valued customers. “Got you a roomie for the night, chemist.”
“This is my fucking cell, Dirk,” Nyx said. “It’s my workplace. I don’t share it, you know? Thought you had that figured out upstairs, unit.”
“Concussed, internal hemorrhaging,” Dirk said, nudging the man on the floor with the toe of one boot. “Probably going to die overnight. Either way, I’ll come pick him up in the morning. Maybe you spot me some of that new batch I’ve been hearing about.”
“Welcome party?” Nyx asked, staring at the blood smears.
“Grigio Krewer,” said the sweeper. “You remember. He chopped up all those little girls on Penance.” He resettled his mask and gave the injured convict a once-over. “What did you expect, you piece of shit?”
“Fuck you,” the man gasped. “Said it would go off. Promised.” He clutched his stomach and Nyx noticed the puckered scar for the first time.
“He’s panned, man.” Dirk gave a snort of disgust, translated into static by the mask. “You have a good night, chemist. We’re going to. You animals get so riled up every time the fresh meat comes in.” He hefted his stunstick, jaunty. “Think I’ll have to torch a few fuckers before morning. Just to keep everyone zen.”
“Thought that was the Woadskins’ job.”
“Yeah. Well.” Dirk slid the cell door shut. “Basta, he’s no fucking Capricorn, is he?”
Both guards disappeared down the gloomy cell block, tips of their stunsticks whirling electric blue in the dark. Nyx was turning to find his earbuds when the child-killer’s head snapped upright. He squinted puffy eyes.
“You told me it would go off,” he said, pushing words through split lips, shattered teeth. “You motherfucker. You said if they touched me it would go off, but it’s not, it’s not going off.”
“I didn’t tell you shit,” Nyx said. “I don’t know you.”
“Not a biobomb,” the man gasped. “You fucking liar. It’s not a bomb, is it? Oh, fuck, fuck. It’s coming. Out.” He was fetal on the syrupy red floor, arms clutched around his abdomen. Nyx straightened up to ask what he meant, what he was talking about.
Something shuddered through the man’s body and made him vibrate like a rag doll, made a noise like a buzz-saw coming to life. His blood-burst eyes winched wide. Burning fat smell, a long rattling howl, and then the man’s stomach erupted.
Nyx stood frozen while clots of gore slapped across his jumpsuit. A grip-pad rasped out of the ragged hole, slicked wet and struggling for purchase. The rest of the limb appeared, and then the next, and then the spidery medroid was pulling itself out of the dead man’s stomach. Nyx could tell it had been antiseptic white once, but now the plastic plating was drenched in blood and yellow bile. The medroid lurched forward on its tripod legs and Nyx could see the saw it had used to cut itself out, a syringe bundled beneath that.
He jumped backward as the machine made a bee-line for his stash. Red laser light raked the beakers and baggies, lingering on the vial of iodine additive Nyx had been using for the past week. The medroid’s feeler slipped inside, probing, then the machine turned back to face him.
Nyx didn’t move for a sweating minute, two minutes, as the scanner danced carmine lines up and down his body. The medroid’s red eyes blinked once. Then the machine slipped through the cell bars and was gone in the gloom.
“Who else was in your prisoner transport?” Nyx asked faintly, scraping off the front of his jumpsuit, but of course the corpse didn’t answer.
In the morning, three Woadskin lieutenants were dead in their cells. They’d all had their cams scratched, a perk of status, so nobody had seen the shankings. Nyx heard about it in bits and pieces: bodies drained to husks, mysterious needle marks in places not even a headfucked mainliner would inject themselves. The whole cell block was a buzzing hive, and it took until afternoon for someone to come clean up Grigio.
“You really have to bust him like that?” Dirk demanded, rolling the body onto an inflatable stretcher. “Shit, chemist, I didn’t know you even kept a razor. Slashing him belly-open like that? With all this other bullshit going on? Don’t make more fucking work for me, man.”
“So what happened?” Nyx asked. “Cade, Darius, and who?”
The sweeper held out his cupped palm.
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Nyx scrambled back to his stash and snatched up a baggie, tossed it over. “Now tell me.”
“Have to get an autocleaner down here,” Dirk muttered, peeling back the corner. “Have to take someone off-shift to supervise, already got too many fuckers clocking security so your Woadskin friends don’t riot—
“Cade dead, Darius dead, who else?”
“That broad-nose motherfucker from the lunar colonies.” The sweeper raised his mask and snorted a bump. He blinked. “Going to need this today. That’s punchy shit, chemist. Pure. Must be that stuff I got for you.”
Nyx blinked. He stared at the white rim of the man’s nostril. “Yeah. Uh, yeah. Thanks for that.”
“Someone thinks they saw a medroid,” Dirk went on. “You know, one of those field medic things that they used in the Subjugation. Unit in question was slammed to the eyes, though. Not a reliable source. And medroids don’t murder people.”
Nyx paused. “Heard someone smuggled in psychotropics and they’re going around,” he said. “People think they see all kinds of shit.”
The sweeper grunted and resettled his mask, then floated the stretcher out of the cell. Nyx sat down as far as he could from the blood stains.
They found Boniface in the food line, staring down into his empty tray. Basta knocked it away and protein slop gurgled from the nozzle onto the floor. Two Woadskins pinioned Boniface against the wall.
“So.” Basta cocked his head. “Your shipment shows up, one day later, three of my best men get toe-tagged. Who are you?”
“Not the only prisoner on that transport,” Boniface said. The food line shuffled on past him, all eyes averted.
“You’re the only one who went in for a fucking reskin before you got here,” Basta snapped. “Who were you? Who’d you claim before you took off all your tags?” He peered closely into the bruised face. “You remind me of someone, motherfucker.”
“This is my first skin. I don’t like tattoos.”
Basta put himself level with Boniface’s blue eyes. “We’re going to have a conversation, like it or not. But the more you talk, the less it hurts.”
“It was a medroid. Refitted, reprogrammed.” Boniface told it to the tray on the floor. “I convinced another inmate to smuggle it in for me. Grigio Krewer.”
“That lunatic we tuned,” one of Basta’s men mumbled. “Panned him real good in the showers.”
“Knew I saw a droid,” the other one said. “Fucking knew it.”
“Reprogrammed to do what?” Basta demanded.
“It’s the kind they use for triage,” Boniface said. “Assessing injuries on the fly. Dope here, cauterize there. Tag corpses for disposal, live ones for pick-up. They can be out there for a long time. Days, weeks. That’s why most models take biofuel.”
“Those track marks? You saying that thing used Cade for fuel?”
“It’s been reprogrammed.” Boniface looked up. “It’s always hungry, now. It just went after whoever was closest.”
Basta nodded, then suddenly Boniface found himself sprawled on the floor, cheek mashed on concrete. “I’m going to put that thing up your fucking ass when we catch it. Where is it now?”
“I don’t know. It’s got avoidance AI. Probably in a vent. A closet.” Boniface began to cough; Basta’s foot was an aching weight on his spine. “Won’t come out again till night.”
Basta crouched down, brows knit. “You’re trying to fuck with me. Who sent you here?”
“Nobody sent me,” Boniface said, wiping his mouth. A gossamer spit-strand webbed his fingers.
“That thing killed three Woadskins. Not adjacent cells. Nobody else. How would it know to do that, huh?”
“Ask your supplier,” Boniface said. “Ask whoever gives you phetamines.”
Out of the cafeteria, into the corridor. Basta was in a hurry and Boniface was mostly dragged, arms wrenching in their sockets. Nobody looked at them as they passed by. Boniface looked at them all, the feather-white scars and tattooed necks, the steroid-popped shoulders and sinewed arms. He wondered what the chemist would look like now.
They trooped into a large cell, through shatter-proof glass blotched with dry blood. Inside, a man in the standard slam jumpsuit crouched over a stain on the floor, scrubbing at it with a wet rag. He scrambled upright when he saw who was coming to visit.
“Nyx, who is this motherfucker?” Basta asked, pushing Boniface forward.
Nyx’s eyes went wide for only a split second. Then he gave a careless shrug. “Don’t know. Ugly-looking unit. Why?”
Basta ignored him, striding to the dark spot on the floor. He pointed. “The fluids. Krewer? Don’t tell me no fucking lies, Nyx.”
“Krewer. I gutted him.”
“You? Or the fucking droid?” Basta pulled his shiv. It glinted on its deliberate arc towards Nyx’s throat. “You say you don’t know this unit. But I can tell he knows you.”
Nyx managed a grunt. His larynx bobbed at the tip of the blade.
Boniface, arms tethered by the two Woadskins, had turned his attention to the ceiling.
“You two are both in something,” Basta snarled. “I’m taking your ears off, first.” His shiv skimmed along Nyx’s jaw, up to the fleshy nub of his earlobe. “Then his balls. Then maybe one of you’ll tell me why the fuck he’s here.”
Nyx opened his mouth, but only managed a whine as the shiv drew its first drop of blood.
Then a white plastic meteorite plummeted from the ceiling and smashed Basta to the floor. He howled as the medroid’s legs churned for grip. Nyx scrambled; he didn’t see the needle go in, but he heard the flesh puncture and felt the fine mist of blood flick out into the air. Basta shrieked. When Nyx looked again, the droid was straddling the Woadskin general’s neck, sucking a carmine torrent through its fuel tube, and Basta was writhing, kicking—
Limp. The medroid whirred upright, scanners winking. Basta’s men, who’d been rooted watching, dropped Boniface’s arms. One of them retched.
“I’d leave, if I were you,” Boniface said. “It regains its appetite pretty damn fast.”
Dying nerves sent a final shudder through Basta’s legs, and the men bolted. That left Nyx and Boniface to watch the medroid skitter its way back up the wall and onto the ceiling. It flattened itself down, retracting its spidery limbs, before squeezing into the vent shaft and vanishing from sight.
Boniface turned to his brother. “Hello, Nicholas.”
“I wasn’t sure if you were getting the final messages,” Boniface said, straightening his jumpsuit. “About the additive. And the other chemicals.”
“You could have told me that homicidal junkbucket was going to pop out of a unit’s stomach like a fucking—”
“Your seller told me it was the only way to smuggle it through.”
Nyx dropped down on the edge of his pad, hiding the shake in his legs. “Didn’t tell me it was programmed for the additive, either. What if I’d been nosing that batch? Motherfucking thing would have gone after me, too.”
Boniface snorted. “I broke you out of that habit a long time ago.”
“I’ve been in here a long fucking time,” Nyx snapped. “I could have started up again, how would you know?”
“I know you, Nicholas.”
“Because you’re so wise.” Nyx gave a dry laugh. “I bet mum never thought you’d end up in here with me, right? Both sons in the slam, the deadbeat and the family man.”
“We both know you didn’t have to end up here. You could have—”
“Gone to work on the pharms for the rest of my life, been someone’s bitch, doing the mix-work they’re too cheap to hire AI for. What did that get you, huh? Besides two rotting lungs.”
Boniface shook with a cough. Nyx’s eyes flickered away.
“This king under the hill,” Boniface croaked, when the cough subsided. “This Capricorn. You trust him to help you once he’s on the outside? You trust him with your life?”
“Yeah, I do. With your family’s, too.” Nyx squirmed. “He always pays back, good or bad. They’ll keep. He’ll make sure they keep. You can trust it.”
“I don’t have any other choice.” Boniface’s voice was brittle. “Not one.” He scanned the cell, eyes moving quickly past Basta crumpled on the floor, and when he spoke again he was business-like. “You cook in here? You have equipment?”
“Been here a long time, Bo.” Nyx pointed back to his cubby-hole. “Got the equipment, got the precursors. You remember how to cook a psychotropic?”
“I think we’d do best to wait until after they come for the corpse.”
“Hope they flush him,” Nyx said, staring down at the body. “Capricorn wasn’t in the freeze three days before those fuckers broke pacts. Rooted Johns in the yard, did Murr and Damola in the showers.” His glob of spit missed just to the left of Basta’s head. “Just a week, everyone was either dead or taking a Woadskin tag. Was only me left.”
This time Boniface looked away. “I didn’t know about that.”
Nyx shrugged. “Hard to work all the details into one epacket per fucking month on the state of chemical engineering.”
Word spread like a hantavirus: Grigio Krewer was wreaking his vengeance from the grave, via black-market retrofitted medroid, and five Woadskins were already dead, Basta included. The power vacuum was the biggest problem, but a rogue droid gave the sweepers ample excuse to come down with full body armor and autoguns.
“They should be moving us soon,” Nyx said, stashing the last baggies in his jumpsuit.
“And your sweeper friend is sure about the EMP?” Boniface was at the wash basin, first for his chemical-stained hands, now for everything else. His pale skin had a greasy tinge to it, looking almost like wax. He was scrubbing himself down to nothing, scouring the last loose hairs and skin particles, and one fingernail cracked against the basin as he set the brush down.
“Yeah, it’s like I guessed it. They’ve got an hour to try to flush the thing out, then they cut timecost and drop the EMP. If the, uh, the avoidance AI is good as you say. . .”
“It is.” Boniface wiggled the nail free with a slick wet scrape; Nyx cringed.
“Then sixty odd minutes from now, the EMP goes off.” Nyx paused. “Speaking of time estimate. What did they give you?”
“Keeping on with the aggressive gene-chemo, I could maybe hold out another three months. Medical AI projects a cure in twelve to fifteen years, and medcenter cryo would take roughly two centuries to pay off.”
Nyx nodded. “I never got to meet your girl. She old now? What did you name her?”
The yellowed nail clattered into the basin. “Sybil,” Boniface said. “Seven, now.”
“Shit.” Nyx scratched at the tattoo on his collarbone. “Does she know she’s got an uncle?”
Boniface turned from the basin, and the lines of his face softened just slightly. “No,” he said. “She doesn’t know you exist. She doesn’t know I’m here. She thinks I went to a better hospital in space.” He stuck his hollowed nailbed under the tap; water stuttered out. “But her mum’s going to tell her everything, and if the plan goes off, I’ll tell her someday, too.”
The arrival of a sweeper guillotined the conversation. “Pack your parkas, units, everyone’s going to the freezers until we sort this droid shit out.”
Nyx rearranged his face, back to his customary squint. “Fucking finally. Can’t feel safe in my own damn cell these days.”
“Get along.” The sweeper waved them towards the door with his chitinous black autogun. “If you don’t want frostbite on your cocks, better find somewhere warm to put them.”
They joined the stream of orange jumpsuits all filing out of their cell block. Sweepers herded from the sides, more liberal than usual with the stunsticks. The air buzzed thick with tension. Nyx saw a Woadskin staring at him, then at Boniface, but he didn’t approach. With Basta dead, the most immediate problem was succession. Nyx knew there were still enough Neo-Mara and Sixers in the block to make things messy if the Woadskins didn’t get their shit in order.
A customer tapped Nyx on the shoulder; he jumped.
“Got me something, chemist?”
“Don’t fucking do that. But yeah.” Nyx pulled out two of the baggies. “Got Samir’s, too, but tell him pay comes first next time.”
The customer took both, gave Boniface an up-down, and melted back into the orange jumpsuits. A moment later, one of the Sixers came sniffing. The sweepers were distracted, and by the time the crowd reached the corridor gate to the freezers, half the prisoners had already bumped the new batch. Nyx had helped the circulation with a few more uncharacteristic giveaways.
“This is the prep-room?” Boniface asked, as they packed into a blue-gray chamber with machinery dangling from the shadowed ceiling.
“Yeah. Decontamination, blood tests, all that shit to get you cryo-ready.” Nyx paused. “I mean, ideally, you’d be getting a saline pump.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Listen up, fuckers!” One of the sweepers had followed them inside, rolling back his facemask. “You sit tight right here with me and Dirk during this little droid hunt. Anyone starts shit, they’re going in iso. Start shit in a big way, well, autoguns get buggy like anything else.”
The other sweeper hauled the door shut behind them with a pneumatic hiss and metal click.
“This’ll be done soon,” the sweeper continued. “The motherfuckers in entry / re-entry are going to learn to spot when a unit’s fucking robopregnant, and you’ll be back in the block before you know it.”
The prisoners were milling, rumbling. Nyx nodded his brother towards the back of the prep-room, where a metal-and-plexiglass door led to the freezer itself. He tried to peer through the frosted porthole.
“Been inside twice, on scrub duty,” he said. “Eerie as fuck in there.”
Boniface coughed into the crook of his arm, then straightened. “How did you meet him?”
“Saved me from being someone’s socket,” Nyx said shortly. “Told him I could cook, he got me my own cell. All the glass, all the precursor I needed. We ran this place.”
“And he stamped you.” Boniface traced his own skin, mirroring the zodiac inked into Nyx’s collarbone. “Like a cow.”
Nyx’s eyes went cryopod cold. “He made me family. I wanted the tag. He was a father for me.”
“We had a father.”
“Don’t even fucking remember him,” Nyx said. “Only pretended to for mum. All I remember is the hologame outside the hospital. But I guess he was a vegetable anyways, by then.”
Boniface started to cough again, more loudly this time, and when it ended he didn’t speak. Nyx sat down on the cold floor; a moment later Boniface did the same. A Sixer and two Neo-Mara were engaged in fierce hushed conversation. Lost-looking Woadskins camped in the corner. A few games of craps and one short-lived fight broke out.
Nyx and Boniface watched, and waited.
It started with Samir from the lunar colony trying to gnaw his own fingers off. His crew pulled his bloody hand out of his mouth before he did real damage, but a moment later half of them were flat on their backs, laughing madly at the ceiling.
“Fifty-eight minutes,” Boniface said. “You always did have a way with timed release.”
“Yeah. Be ready to haul ass through that door soon as the EMP drops the lights.” Nyx swallowed. He slapped his brother’s shoulder. “She’s seven, yeah? She’ll remember you. Should even recognize you in a decade; you’ll look the same.”
“Likewise.” Nyx gave him a push towards the door. “If it works.”
“Chemist!” Dirk’s crackly shout blared across the room. “Get the fuck over here, man!” Nyx threw his brother a salute, then turned and ambled over to where two baffled sweepers stood over Samir. The man was rubbing himself furiously against the floor.
“What the fuck did you give them?” the other sweeper snarled, snagging Nyx by the arm and hauling him forward. “What the fuck did you do?”
“Bad batch, unit,” Nyx said, wrenching his arm back. “Bad batch, is all.”
“He’s fucking panned.” Dirk shook his helmeted head. “So’s the crew. You do this on purpose?”
Nyx raised his hands. “No, fuck no. I like repeat customers.” He checked the time display on Dirk’s faceplate. “Get him to infirmary if you want. Shouldn’t your boys have dropped that EMP by now? Said we were stuck here for an hour, max.”
“They can’t pinpoint the thing,” Dirk said, with a snort of static. “Hoping it wandered into a furnace and fried itself. It’s not in the cells, not in the vents.”
Nyx froze, then snapped his head up towards the ceiling, to the spires of dangling machinery. He searched the deep shadows for a flash of spidery legs or winking of red optics. He saw nothing, but his spine still tingled cold.
“How many units bumped?” Dirk demanded. Nyx pulled his gaze down. Pandemonium was spreading from all four corners now: he saw Sixers swatting at invisible insects and Woadskins howling into each other’s faces. Boniface had disappeared. Some sort of disturbance was building at the end of the room, inmates rippling towards and away.
“Don’t know. Plenty.”
“You fucking waste,” the other sweeper snapped. “I’m going to call in for tranqs. Fuck this.” He chinned his mic, but his mouth slackened and formed no words. Nyx followed his eyes to where the inmates’ panic had reached crescendo. They were splitting off, backing away, as the medroid skittered through. Its carapace was crusted over with half-congealed blood, and traces of the most recent refuel dripped red in its wake.
The machine halted in front of Nyx, scanners flickering over his face. Nyx watched the laser move down his chest like a sniper’s sight and thought of all the nights of cooking, sweating into his facemask, squinting at the froth and hiss of reaction. He thought of how much additive had seeped into his pores.
“Don’t move, chemist,” Dirk muttered, but Nyx’s legs still shook as the medroid clambered slowly up his body, hanging off his shoulder like some cold metal fungus. Its wicked syringe snaked out from the underbelly, glinting razor-sharp.
Nyx probed his mummified mouth with his tongue.
“Autoguns don’t miss,” the sweeper said, taking aim. “You’ll be fine, unless there’s some crazy fucking ricochet.”
Nyx wanted badly to shake his head, and then everything happened at once. The medroid levered off his shoulder, springing for Dirk as Dirk strangled the trigger. Half the autogun slugs slammed into metal body; Nyx saw the droid crumple mid-flight, then he was shoved down and felt the spray as the other half of the bullets tore wet holes in the inmate standing behind him.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Nyx choked, scrambling to his feet. Boniface helped haul him up as they turned to see the eviscerated medroid scrabbling for purchase on Dirk’s faceplate, needle scraping and sliding off at angles. The other sweeper was screaming into his helmet, screaming for them to drop the EMP, it was in here with them, drop the fucking EMP. Inmates surged all around, erupting; Nyx saw a Sixer shiv drive through a Woadskin neck, an inmate clutching a stump instead of a finger.
Nyx and his brother fell back as the Neo-Mara dove into the crush. “That autogun software isn’t worth shit,” he gasped. “They have to drop it now, if they don’t drop it now . . .” On cue, he felt a whine shiver through his teeth, and in the same instant the lights blinked out. Nyx grabbed Boniface’s arm in the dark as bodies rushed around them. “Get to the door. Ten minutes till the locks resynch.”
“They’re killing everyone.” Boniface’s voice was shaky. “You need to hide.”
“Get going,” Nyx said, and when the emergency lights thrummed to life, sickly green tubes along the floor, his brother was gone.
The EMP had reset the palmprint lock that led to the freezer, leaving it a tabula rasa for Boniface’s sweating hand. With the room devolving into a full riot, nobody watched as he slid the door open, releasing a billow of cold, and slipped through. At first he was in icy darkness, then, as the lights came back on, he was forced to shut his eyes.
When he opened them, he saw the freezer, high-vaulted and surfaced in stark white composite. It made him think of cathedrals, and the cloudy cryopods lining the walls of sarcophagi. Boniface went to the end of the row, footfalls echoing. He could dimly hear the clamoring inmates from the other side of the door, but only just.
At cryopod 114, he stopped. It was identical to any other, a slick white cylinder with blue-green vital displays splashed across its glass top, spare nitrogen canister and the emergency override tucked away exactly where the schematic had shown. Boniface’s long breath unfurled in a slink of steam. He gathered himself, and pulled the handle.
Emergency resuscitation flooded the bloodstream with an adrenaline cocktail, jumpstarted the muscles and hotwired the heart. It could kill. But his brother had been certain that it wouldn’t kill Capricorn. Vacuums sucked away the suspension gel in thick slurps, and when he peered Boniface could see the faint silhouette of a tall thin man.
The pod gave an electronic bleat; Boniface pulled it open. The man inside was gaunt, black-browed, and his naked body was covered in constellations, in an inky starmap that covered him to the neck. Above cobalt blue tracery, his face, the one Boniface had paid the cosmosurgeon to match, was lean and pale. Capricorn twitched once, and then his eyes sprang open, a deep cold blue that matched his tattoos. With one atrophied hand, he seized the tube snaked down his throat and pulled. It came free with a wet rasp, and Boniface took an involuntary step backward at the spray of fluid.
“You’re me, now,” Boniface said. “Boniface Morrow, brother to Nicholas Morrow, sentenced to life term on the asteroid by clerical error.” He began peeling off the orange jumpsuit. “And I’m you.”
Capricorn’s eyes tunneled holes in him. Boniface couldn’t be sure he could even hear.
“The inquiry goes through tomorrow. You’ll be transferred to a minimal security gravity prison.” Boniface shook out the empty jumpsuit. “Nicholas will explain things. Nyx. He says you pay your debts.”
Capricorn’s eyes flickered. He moved one hand to the edge of the pod, and with a fierce twist, hauled himself over the edge. He grunted; Boniface could see the man’s limbs shaking as he pulled the canister of liquid nitrogen out of its cradle beside the pod.
“We have to reskin you,” he said quietly, looking again at the ink constellations webbed across Capricorn’s pale body, an endless night sky.
Capricorn nodded his pale head. When Boniface offered him the bunched sleeve of the jumpsuit, he ignored it, clenching his teeth instead. The nozzle turned with a hiss, and Boniface set to work, quickly, methodically. The man stayed silent as the nitrogen burned, peeling away his skin with a wet sizzle that crept the nape of Boniface’s neck. He moved from Capricorn’s ankles upward, watching tremors run through the muscle with every spray. When it was finished, his body was flayed raw and glistening.
“It’s chemical burn,” Boniface said. “From a cook gone wrong in Nyx’s cell.” He helped Capricorn into the jumpsuit, zipping it all the way up. His shiny pink skin was so cold it stung. The fabric stuck at it. “Can you make it back to the door on your own? The lock is going to reset in three minutes.”
“Yes.” Capricorn’s voice was like bone shards.
Boniface stepped backward into the pod, feeling the cold like a hot iron on his calves, his ass, his shoulder blades. “If you would tell him something from me.” He leaned his head back and the automated arms positioned him in the pod. “When he puts in the request for re-identification, in ten or twelve or however many years, if I’m braindead, I don’t want them to send me to my wife. Tell him to kill me. He’ll find a way.”
“I’ll tell him.”
Then the lid slid shut. Boniface fed the tube down his throat, slowly, slowly, willing himself not to cough, easing it past the gag point with his toes clenched against each other. Gel seeped back into the tube, creeping up his ankles. The last thing he saw was Capricorn crawling on hand and knees, jaw set, eyes fixed on the door. Then he was a smear of orange jumpsuit and white wall, and then there was only the dark.
Nyx was flat on his back, watching tendrils of tranq gas descend in ribbons from the ceiling, momentarily disconnected from the stunstick jabbed under his ribs. Then the sweeper flicked the power high, and Nyx howled as it scorched him.
“He told you not to fucking move,” the sweeper said, half-snarling, half-weeping. Nyx couldn’t speak, but he wanted to apologize, to explain that he had never intended for the medroid’s needle to find a soft puncture point in the webbing that let Dirk turn his helmeted head. He liked repeat customers.
Through a tangle of legs, Nyx could just see the sweeper’s corpse, faceplate blotted with vomit, and further on the medroid’s scattered carcass. The inmates had been tearing it to pieces, using the limbs as clubs, but now the gas was taking effect.
“You fucking piece of shit.” The sweeper punctuated it with another jab, this one to Nyx’s thigh. It felt like a circle burned clear through.
Nyx convulsed. He saw, dimly, the stunstick come up again. He rolled, caught it on his shoulder. As his eyes watered and blurred he saw, past the imploding crowd, a tall thin man standing, swaying, against the freezer door. His shoulders sagged, his head was bowed. His cold eyes sliced back and forth through the chaos, sharp as scalpels.
“Long live the king,” Nyx breathed. His ribs shook around a laugh. The sweeper gave him a final kick and moved off as the inmates began to domino against each other, toppling with lungs full of gas. Nyx held his breath as long as he could, watching the Sixers and the Woadskins and all the rest of them drop to their knees, then prostrate on the floor.
When he finally succumbed, Capricorn was still standing, still watching, lips peeling back in a frostbitten grin.
Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island, and at 21 now lives in Edmonton, Alberta. He won the 2014 Dell Award and received the 2012 Rannu Prize for Writers of Speculative Fiction. In 2011 his cyberpunk novel Devolution was a finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. His short work has since received honorable mention from Writers of the Future and appears or is forthcoming in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, DSF, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, AE and many others, including anthologies Futuredaze and War Stories. His self-published spec-fic can be found at Amazon.com/author/richlarson.