"The Sorry-Making Machines" Issue

Down in Chaotica

     by Max Talley

     Brian Koldek sat on a stool at Somnambula Bar, almost as far downtown as you could go in New Hyperion. Modern dating had only grown stranger by the year 2040. When people filled out online profiles, under race, they checked human or synthetic. If they were open-minded, they would put "no preference," and dating sites didn't tell who was who. The first meeting involved dancing around the subject, as it was considered rude to just come out and ask.
     Koldek stared at the exotic Dalia Jansen, who swiveled on her bar stool to face him. I'd like to get under her skin. On the surface, she looked to be an Asian-styled domestic mod, with a little distressing to age her, but Dalia spoke like a human.
     "Who knows how long I'll last in New Hyperion," she said. "I mean, it's dog eat dog. Really unhealthy mentally, but this is where the good jobs are. Where the excitement is." She leaned closer. "None of us knows how much time we have, right? So we have to have fun, live in the now, like the Buddhists say."
     "Yeah, maybe so." Koldek remembered that richer pleasure mods upgraded themselves with an X-chip. The Existential chip made synthetics philosophical, imagine an afterlife, or deny the existence of a God altogether.
     "Are you comfortable?" Dalia asked. "Is this going well?"
     "Sure." Koldek smiled. "I've been through worse."

     Koldek had been the best crisis mediator in the City until he retired three years ago. After the Incident, he moved over a hundred miles west, beyond the exurbs, to a farmhouse that felt safer. Retiring at age forty-seven was unheard of, so if something major happened, he'd get called back in. TR status: Temporary Retirement. A glorious silence lasted for three years while the City renamed itself New Hyperion and went on rebuilding, re-imagining itself. The silence at his farmhouse increased once Lanie divorced him.
     When Koldek heard the whooshing jets of a hover car approaching from miles away while he puttered in his garden, he sighed and went inside to pack.
     "A week," the pilot told him after landing. "You'll live in a luxury muni apartment near the top of Apollo Towers overlooking the Ming River." He sounded envious.
     The Ming River. Koldek couldn't get used to the renaming of the two rivers that cradled New Hyperion. The Chinese insisted, so an agreement was struck as part of a trade deal.
     "What do I get out of going?"
     The pilot gestured toward the fields and the rustic barn. "You get to return to this."
     Koldek's whole professional life involved bringing peace, avoiding struggle, conflict resolution, but heading back to the City brought definite risk. He packed a Taurus .40 pistol into his travel bag.
     Koldek met with Kurt Metzger, his old boss at CSA headquarters in Midtown. He recalled Metzger as stocky, balding, and tired-looking. Time had only deepened and enhanced the memory. The Conurbation Security Association did the heavy-lifting in New Hyperion. The police, mostly corrupt, were better suited for street crime, vice, and parking infractions.
     Metzger stood up from his desk. "We have a situation down on the East Silt Beds." He pointed toward a wrinkled wall map.
     "Don't you use 3D vid maps?"
     "Hell no. Paper has worked for centuries." Metzger's grin sank quickly. "We're on the verge of a turf battle between synthetics and icebergs." He rubbed his brow. "I'll be honest. The two previous negotiators failed. One suspected dead, the other fled the City. That's why you're here."
     Koldek joined Metzger by the map. Icebergs were the youthful homeless, fried by RF waves from smart phones, players, tablets, and screens. After constant exposure, five percent of the youth got brain tumors or minor strokes—their attention spans shot and basic learning skills ruined. Brain freeze. Unable to socially interact, Icebergs did drugs, bartered goods, panhandled, and stole. They lived in shanty towns on the Ming and the Tao. The once massive rivers had shrunk down, their reduced flow exposing acreage on their banks: the silt beds.
     "Icebergs have been there for years," Koldek said. "Why would synthetics want to live in a sketchy ghetto that smells like low tide on a polluted river?" Koldek placed a hand under his chin. "They're all about upward mobility. Marrying humans, getting mental upgrades and such."
     "Not the bohemians," Metzger said. "Or the labor bots."
     "The most likely to turn to crime."
     "The labor bots should have been switched off until the economy recovered," Metzger said. "But no." He grimaced. "Anyway, about a hundred unemployed synths claimed an area on the Tao Silt Beds a year back. They settled in, but recently there have been feuds and attacks. When an iceberg got strangled a couple weeks ago, two synths were split apart in retaliation, then floated down the Tao River as a warning. And now with summer approaching..." Metzger's voice trailed off.
     "Where do I start?"
     "There's a woman who's on good terms with both sides." Metzger shook his head. "No, I don't know her status, but she can set up a meeting of the tribes where you go work your magic."
     "I've mediated human disputes, and tensions between synthetics before, but never between both."
     "Yeah, it's a helluva thing, but if not you, who?" When Koldek didn't reply, Metzger continued. "You'll meet Dalia in Chaotica, at a club called Somnambula."
     Koldek knew Chaotica, a sector on the Lower East Side. The nighttime playground for a mixture of slumming rich urbanites, decadent Eurotrash, iceberg drug dealers, and criminal synthetics. Police presence remained negligible. Instead, they manned barricades around the borders, treating Chaotica like a contagion to contain.

     "Should we keep talking here?" Koldek asked Dalia amid the echoing conversation noise in Somnambula. He sipped at his vodka on the rocks and studied the crowd. Whenever the bar door swung open, Koldek saw the pleasure mods in micro skirts strutting their stuff outside, and heard icebergs hawking tabs of nostalgia. "Twenty a hit. Remember who you never were."
     Dalia smiled wide. "Do you want to go somewhere quieter, more private?"
     Koldek couldn't ID her yet. Her teeth looked fairly white, but imperfect. When Dalia smiled, it emphasized the tiny lines around her eyes. "I'm fifty," he said. "How old are you?"
     "Thirty," Dalia said. Her face reddened. "Thirty-three."
     Koldek needed to know what he was speaking to. "That black dude by the door with the muscles and shaved head. Human or synth?" When Dalia turned away, Koldek squeezed liquid from a mini eye dropper into his vodka. If the drink got altered, the clear liquor would turn bright red.
     "He looks so perfect, so artificial," she said, "that I think he's actually human." Dalia stared at Koldek. "Why do you ask?"
     "I don't know," he said. "Excuse me." Koldek wedged through the press of drinkers around the bar, skirting the gypsy techno music throbbing from the dance floor to locate the men's room. When a young man rinsing at the lavabo exited, Koldek locked the door, tapped the earring stud on his right earlobe, and spoke a restricted number at CSA. Metzger's voice came through his iRing.
     "How's it going, Koldek?"
     "Did you get the heat photo I took through my jacket pocket?"
     "Definitely a synth, with upgrades and traces of nostalgia."
     Nostalgia, the drug favored by synthetics. A six-hour memory chip. They liked the buzz of fabricated memories, and it made them understand and communicate better with humans.
     "You hear me, Koldek? Dalia's a robot."
     No one said the R word in public anymore. Synthetics considered it a racial slur, a throwback to their crude beginnings decades ago. If you called one that, be prepared to fight. Or worse, get a lecture from a PC human. Artificial American was the official term, though synthetics wanted to blend in, so they preferred generic descriptions like "citizen" or "occupant."
     "Got it," Koldek said. "Now she knows we know."
     Synthetics could tap into iRing communication. It drained internal battery juice, but they did it whenever they felt suspicious. Koldek used a flip-top cell phone when he truly wanted privacy. This was just lighting a match near a liquid to find out if it was gasoline.
     "See how she handles it," Metzger said. "Good luck."
     When Koldek mounted his bar stool, Dalia wore a smirk, but her eyes looked sad. "Why didn't you just ask?"
     "Would you have told me the truth?"
     Dalia glanced away. "Maybe." She ran a hand through her dark brown hair streaked with purple. "What made you suspect?"
     "The fine lines around your eyes and chipping of a few of your teeth," he said. "Really good alteration work, but they peg you as closer to forty. Not thirty-three." Koldek noted his drink remained translucent, then took a swig. "What a topsy turvy world. Humans stretch their faces tight and shiny to look like dolls, while synthetics want flaws: moles, a scar, frown lines."
     "I heard you were the best," Dalia said. "Do you trust a synth enough to come to a private residence where I can explain things?"
     "I guess. You could have bolted and ambushed me outside," he finished the flavorless vodka, "or messed with my drink." Koldek signaled to the bartender to pay up.
     "It's on the house, bud," the bearded man said. "I can't believe I brought you a Negroni instead of straight vodka." He shook his head. "Lucky your ladyfriend straightened me out while you were in the can and I replaced it."
     "Oh, shit," Koldek said. "Too much time off." The bartender blurred and the faces in the wall-length mirror turned rubbery and grotesque. "I'm rusty." Then his head slammed the bar top.

     Koldek came to on an uncomfortable bed in a dark room. He rose toward the gray light streaming in the window. Through the thin walls, foreign voices sounded: Russian, Arabic, Spanish. From the window, he guessed he was ten floors up in a low-income high-rise on the eastern edge of Chaotica. Koldek gazed out over the Tao River and saw the iceberg encampments on the silt beds. A welter of ramshackle shelters surrounded by junkyard scrap metal, car parts, and yesterday's gadgets. Further north he could make out the edges of several clean, geometric structures. Must be the synthetics camp, he thought. They were logical and precise; no reason to be sloppy.
     Instinctively, Koldek looked up toward the sun, but the fine mesh of the Particle Canopy obscured the weather. People bitched and moaned when Homeland Security constructed it fifteen years ago, but not after the limited nuclear war in Iran, and not after the Incident.
     "Can you see what we're up against?" a man asked from the shadows of the far corner. He sat sunken into a scarred and torn black leather chair.
     Koldek's jacket had been removed, along with his pistol. He pressed a hand to his face as if in pain, then staggered unsteadily toward the voice.
     "Are you okay, Brian?" The man rose up to catch him.
     Koldek lunged at him, spun the man around, and slammed him down, face first to the floor. Who the fuck are you? He choked the stranger's throat in the crotch of his elbow. Are you partners with the robot bitch who drugged me? Koldek used the R word to see if the man was a synthetic. Something familiar about him.
     "My wallet," the younger man gasped out.
     Koldek pulled the old-fashioned leather wallet from the stranger's inside pocket. Rick Traxler, he read aloud. Security Oversight Agent. Damn, he was SOA. Koldek released his arm, but kept his weight on the agent. "Why am I here, why was I drugged?"
     "Do you remember me now?" Traxler asked. "Let me up." The man was handsome, but had a scowling mouth and hard, dead eyes.
     Koldek frisked Traxler and removed his handgun, then stepped back to the window. "We were partners for a couple of months, what, seven years ago?"
     "Eight, then you requested my transfer. I've been upstate in New Albans ever since." Traxler frowned. "The ass-end of nowhere."
     "I forgot about that."
     "I didn't," Traxler said. "Do you think you're the only person involved in this situation? New Hyperion doesn't want a summer of violence, not with the Convention coming in July."
     "SOA sent you down to babysit me?"
     "To provide back-up since you're just a mediator." Traxler scowled. "But the only one I've met who carries. I'll note that in my report."
     "Listen, Prick. I have a permit, and if you think I'd negotiate with potentially violent synthetics and icebergs unarmed, you don't remember how things work in New Hyperion."
     "The name is Rick, but yes, I'm starting to recall." He scratched at his dark spiky hair. "You got drugged because the last two negotiators were actually armed agents with a different agenda."
     "Assigned by Metzger?"
     "No, outside mercenaries. Maybe police hires." Traxler sat back down. "Dalia hacked their communications." His face tightened. "They were contracted to meet with a leader of the synthetics and of the icebergs, then terminate both of them."
     "And provoke a turf war?"
     "Speed up the inevitable, then clean out the silt beds before the candidates arrive." Traxler tucked his wallet back into his jacket. "Dalia heard a third assassin was sent down the pike. We figured it was you."
     Dalia entered the room, tossing Koldek's pistol onto the mattress.
     "So why aren't you negotiating the truce?" Koldek asked her. "You know the principals on both sides." He picked up his Taurus and noticed its clip was missing. He threw it to Traxler. "I'll keep yours for the time being."
     "Being synthetic, I'm close to their leader," Dalia said. "We're from the same 2032 vintage, but I'm trying to marry a human." She shuddered. "It's all so mixed up, and he doesn't know I'm..."
     "Well, you won't have the first marriage based on lies, confusion, and identity issues."
     "You come to Chaotica to negotiate, but armed with frag bullets," Dalia said. "Why should I believe you?"
     "I carry a gun for defense. You can access my case history," Koldek said to Dalia, "and you can access anything dirty that's been sponged off my history," he said to Traxler. "I don't want to kill. The only times I did, it was me or them, and I still see their faces in my nightmares."
     "I knew your history was clean, but a promise of UR can make people do things they never considered." Traxler's smile resembled a leer.
     "Metzger didn't offer me Unlimited Retirement, but he should have for working a hairy deal like this." Koldek exhaled. "You're going to have to trust me. If I fail, the police take over. You know the drill. They wait for a clash to occur, then wholesale slaughter in the name of keeping the peace."
     Traxler stood to stretch and rub his neck. "Koldek's right," he said to Dalia.
     "How did you two meet?" Koldek asked.
     "I confronted the first bogus negotiator," Traxler said.
     "You arrested him?"
     "No. He resisted." Traxler unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a scar from a laser blade inscribed across his chest. "Dalia terminated him." He coughed. "Saved my ass."
     "I left the second man naked and disoriented in a dumpster, just beyond the city in the new projects." Dalia smiled. "I don't think he'll be back."
     "Impressive." She was the most human synthetic Koldek had ever seen. He looked away.

     Koldek and Traxler scoped out an abandoned water works building where the silt beds ended on the southern tip of New Hyperion. The brick structure had been trashed and gutted, but after evicting three hobos they brought in folding chairs and a table. It appeared safe and suitable for the meeting. Traxler would stand back-up outside, while Koldek negotiated inside. After much debate, it was agreed he could carry a pistol.
     Koldek tried some small talk."What's work like in New Albans?"
     "Twenty years behind. We still use helicopters, not hover cars."

     The following afternoon, Koldek met the synthetics leader at the table inside the water works building.
     "Enchanted. I'm Paxil Ambrosia." He looked Latino and was theatrical, gesturing with his hands, acting effeminate, but his handshake felt firm.
     Some synths displayed an artistic bent, or even physical weakness to get humans to relax around them, to underestimate them. Koldek patted Paxil down. He never underestimated anyone. That's how he made it to fifty.
     "Cole Tyson," said the icebergs leader, a tall black man who seemed sharper mentally than the average iceberg. "Let's get this shit over with."
     Upon frisking Tyson, Koldek wondered if he was a regular loner who bunched together with icebergs for protection. Tyson was attractive, but had that frazzled thing in his eyes that Koldek recognized in substance abusers.
     "You know why we're here," Koldek said when they sat down. "The back and forth has to stop. It's nihilistic. If the body count rises, then the police will clean out the silt beds." He leaned back in a metal chair. "Jesus, you know how they treat icebergs and labor synths."
     "Like damn bugs to exterminate," Tyson said.
     Traxler watched from outside but Koldek didn't know if the younger agent was there for protection, or to take out Koldek if he deviated from the script.
     "Okay, concession time." Koldek moved the chair forward and rested his elbows on the table. "Paxil, the synthetics have to move their shelters a mile north."
     "We're settled," Paxil said.
     "No, we were there first," Tyson interjected. "The silt beds have always been iceberg territory."
     Koldek put his hand up to shush Tyson. "The rivers receded seven years ago and the encampments followed. You call that always?"
     "Why should we have to relocate?" Paxil rolled his eyes.
"Because you're synths and the silt beds run for miles," Koldek said. "You have the energy and unity to do it. Also, as the new guys on the turf, you should move as a courtesy."
     "No. We camped there because it's near the action in Chaotica."
     "You think Chaotica ends a half mile uptown? It's creeping, spreading throughout New Hyperion." Koldek slammed a fist down on the table. "Look, I'm not asking, Paxil. I'm here to save both groups from elimination." He breathed heavily. Neither leader spoke. "Once you re-settle, there will be a quarter mile no man's zone between, a DMZ where neither synthetics nor icebergs go. Until then, no more robberies, dead bodies, or dismembered synths."
     "Well, I guess, if we have no choice." Tyson grimaced.
     "We're the ones who have to uproot," Paxil said, "and do all the work."
     "You have the battery power and skills to do it quickly," Koldek said. "Icebergs work slow, and they operate like nomads. You've seen what they can build. A huge outdoor dump."
     "Damn. You got what you needed, mediator. No reason for disrespect." Tyson rubbed his forehead with the knuckles of his fist.
     Koldek instinctively placed his hand near his gun.
     "No, what I need, is for you to sign this truce and relocation agreement, pen and paper, then a DocuSign," Koldek produced a tablet, "then an audio verbal agreement." He tapped the iRing on his earlobe and coached them through the steps.
     Once finished, Koldek led them out of the crumbling foundation, past broken pipes running across exposed flooring with rats scampering about. The breeze came scented with dead fish, soot, and the ancient smells of building materials that constructed the City: cement and asphalt, limestone and rusting metals.
     Koldek stared out past the gas flames rising from the refineries on Gravel Island to where tributaries from the Ming and the Tao Rivers met, then slowly swelled up to the southeast before merging, somewhere out of sight, with the Atlantic. There was still beauty in the world, just not where he stood.
     "Hey, Brian." Traxler joined him. "I need to question our friends for the report I have to file."
     Koldek nodded. "Go ahead."
     Traxler's face became pinched. "Can you give us some breathing room? Your job is done. Congratulations, you're on your way back to retirement at the farmhouse."
     Koldek didn't like a government spook knowing where he lived, but he walked into the water works building and sat down. Outside, the men spoke by a crumbling balustrade at the edge of a balcony overlooking the confluence of rivers.
     Traxler stood between the other two, slightly recessed.
     When Koldek noticed Traxler removing his handgun to hide it behind his back, he jumped up. Koldek unholstered his Taurus, but two strong hands pushed him down, then he felt a needle pierce his neck. "Not again." He pivoted toward Dalia.
     "I won't let you kill them," she whispered. "Traxler warned me."
     The drug didn't knock Koldek out, just retarded his movements, a slow-acting paralytic. "You're... helping... Traxler."
     Dalia glanced over and flinched. "Wait!"
     Traxler shot his gun into the back of Tyson's head and the iceberg collapsed to the ground. When Paxil turned to pull a laser blade from his boot, Traxler fired into the right then left side of Paxil's upper torso until he spasmed. A synthetic's CPU was located in their chest cavity. As if a switch had been turned off, Paxil stiffened and fell like a wooden plank.
     Koldek's brain felt immersed in sludge, but he lifted his pistol and chambered a round. Dalia too distracted to notice.
     Traxler strode inside through the archway smiling ugly.
     "You killed Paxil," Dalia screamed.
     Koldek willed himself to squeeze the trigger. The gun discharged, stunning Traxler and Dalia.
     A moment later, Traxler laughed. "Blanks. I replaced your clip before we exchanged guns at the apartment." He noted Koldek's sluggish movements. "Thanks, Dalia. You've made this easier."
     "Traitor, you didn't want a truce. You were the third assassin."
     "Shut up." Traxler beamed an SOA strobe flashlight on Dalia and she fell down twitching. "Peace is terrible for us agents, Koldek. We need to be saving citizens from the scum living on the silt beds." His mouth twisted. "We're the heroes, the good guys. If not, we're out of a job."
     Traxler removed the useless pistol from Koldek's grip, then inserted his own handgun. "You told Metzger I was a hothead, prone to violence. Landed me in New Albans." He turned Koldek's arm back around and pressed the gun barrel to the mediator's lips. "Open up, Mister Famous Negotiator. You killed the two leaders, then in a drug-fueled depression, took your own life." Traxler's face came closer. "You'll be the bad guy in this story, old man."
Something yanked Traxler backward.
     In one deft motion, Tyson snapped Traxler's neck, causing the agent to crumple to the loose bricks and dirt.
     Dalia, who had been twitching nearby, rose to her feet. "I’ve got an antidote." She injected Koldek. "I'm sorry. Traxler told me you'd kill both leaders. Thought I was stopping you." She turned toward Tyson. "How are you even alive?"
     The iceberg leader's head lolled to one side with a large bullet hole in the back of his skull.
     "Haven't you figured it out?" Koldek said slowly. "Tyson's a synthetic." Koldek recalled an out-of-control synth in Chaotica with his head blasted clean off, who kept fighting until enough hollow-point bullets were lodged in his chest to shut him down.
     "Why would you want to live with... icebergs?" Dalia asked. "You're a synth. We're better than them."
     "I've taken nostalgia a hundred times," Tyson said, his voice thin and metallic from damage. "I began to feel human, imperfect, messy. I'm not comfortable with logic and order." His lips opened and shut twice. "No one expects anything from you as an iceberg. I like that, just drifting, no responsibilities."
     "We have to leave now," Koldek said, his reflexes recovering. "If Traxler's cleanup crew finds us, we're dead."
     "I've got a ride in a parking garage two blocks away." Dalia pointed.
     "What about me?" Tyson asked.
     "Go to the synthetics camp for repairs."
     "With Paxil destroyed?" Tyson said. "They'll assume I did it and disassemble me."
     "Think like a synthetic." Koldek frowned. "You have a record of Traxler's assassination in your memory, filmed through your eye-cams before you took the bullets. I'll send you the signed documents to your server. Whoever is in charge will do a data dump and realize you're innocent." Koldek gestured toward the river. "Go, run. Stick to the shoreline."

     Dalia put Koldek's arm around her shoulder and they retreated inland. She looked worried as they rushed to the garage.
     "You're susceptible to strobe lights," he said. "Traxler knew."
     She nodded. "A side-effect of my emotional upgrades."
     Synth parking attendants didn't try to appear human. They weren't going up the ladder. This one was hairless, no eyebrows or anything. He smiled though, recognizing Dalia.
     "Hey, Robot, you got a parking receipt?"
     "Robot, step off," she said. "You know I don't."
     He opened the entry gate.
     When Koldek eyed her, Dalia said, "We get to call each other that. You don't."
     They mounted the stairs, because elevators could be overridden and jammed. Second floor, third floor, fourth floor.
     "Where the hell did you park?" Koldek gasped for breath.
     Dalia motioned upward. They climbed the last flight and exited onto the rooftop.
     Koldek stared at the craft in amazement. "Sorry, Dalia, but how did a synth get a hover car?" He felt annoyed. "I can't even get one, and I have pull."
     "I told you about the human boyfriend I want to marry." Dalia clicked the auto-hatch doors open. "Peter runs City Transit. Get in."
     Koldek's iRing throbbed on his earlobe. High level emergency call.
     "What happened, Koldek?" Metzger asked. "You sent us the signed truce agreement, audio files, then I hear the iceberg leader and the synth leader are likely dead. Is Traxler down too?"
     "You never mentioned Traxler," Koldek said. "SOA had their own agenda to keep the chaos in Chaotica."
     "Traxler's not SOA. He may be a non-official op hired for dirty work. Anyway, I need your verbal report, in person."
     "I'm not coming in," Koldek said. "Someone set me up. If not you, then someone inside. Make this call private." Koldek heard the screeching of a blocked one-on-one line being initiated. "My temp apartment in twenty minutes, Metzger. Alone. If I detect any other motion patterns, I bolt, then release my documents to the media."
     "You sound hostile," Metzger said. "Why should I trust you? What if you take me hostage?"
     "You know there's only one thing I want, have wanted forever."
     "Unlimited Retirement?"
     "Yes, an official UR badge," Koldek said. "Bring one. I have zero to gain from holding or hurting you, Metzger. You should know that after twenty years."
     The call ended and Dalia piloted the hover car above the spires and parapets of the tallest skyscrapers. Koldek engaged the drone-blocker function on the dashboard, in case someone traced their coordinates. They sped west toward the sunset, toward the refurbished dock area on the Ming River where Apollo Towers rose six hundred feet into the air.
     Koldek heard the whup-whup-whup sound behind them. "Helicopter. Shit. Must be Traxler's team."
     Their sleek black craft closed in.
     "We can't outrun them this low in the City," Dalia said.
     "Go straight up, high as you can, but stay over the river. It's our only shot."
     "If I get near the Particle Canopy, we'll draw—"
     "Exactly. Go." He grabbed the stick shift when she hesitated and yanked it back.
     The hover car rose and the helicopter followed. When they were within four-hundred feet of the Particle Canopy, Koldek said, "Sit tight and wait."
     Dalia's hand shook like a human's. "This is suicide."
     The helicopter reached their altitude, gun barrels elongating from it's body. Then an enormous shadow loomed above both crafts and descended from the clouds. An HS airship.
     Their hover car began to shudder wildly.
     "Total drop, now," Koldek shouted. They plunged a thousand feet instantly. Koldek felt the stomach-churning sensation he remembered as a kid from roller coasters, but much worse. Once they slowed and stabilized, Koldek checked their monitors.
     The giant Homeland Security airship descended until its armored hull struck the helicopter's rotor blades. They snapped off and got cast into space. The helicopter spun like a top as it fell, crashing into the river off Gravel Island. HS were extremely zealous about protecting restricted airspace, and didn't think twice about knocking unmarked aircraft out of the sky. Not after that homegrown nut-job used an unmanned glider to cause the Incident. The airship ascended back toward the Canopy.
     "Good job, Dalia."
     "You improvised," she said. "No matter how many upgrades, we're not good at doing whatever needs to be done to survive." Dalia rested a hand on Koldek's leg. "Maybe that's why you're fifty and we only last fifteen years."
     "That's for our protection." Koldek tried to stay focused, but Dalia's hand felt good there. He'd been divorced a year—a long, lonely year on a farm where the neighbors were suspicious of his mysterious background. "How soon is your marriage?"
     Dalia laughed before turning serious. "You know, we almost have parity."
     "Yeah. I saw the 2044 Overthrow graffiti outside Somnambula Bar. We built fail-safe devices, but you synths will overcome them. I figure I have ten years on my farm before it gets dire for humans, then I'll get off-the-grid."
     She sighed. "There's your landing pad. Prepare for descent."
     The hover car settled on the Apollo Towers roof with a whooshing sound and a blue-gray plume of air brake exhaust.
     Koldek jumped out. "Will you wait?"
     "I can say yes," she said, "but how can you believe me after..."
     Koldek squeezed her hand. "I want to trust you."
     She nodded. "And I want you to."
     Koldek paced inside his luxury apartment that held no luxury for him. He locked the windows and turned off the A/C before initiating the motion tracking device on the scope of his gun. When the pings began, he studied the small screen. One figure approaching from elevator, two-hundred pounds. Koldek checked Metzger's current weight stats: 198. A handgun might add two pounds, but no heavy weaponry.
     Metzger knocked and Koldek rushed him inside. He frisked his boss, removing a pistol and electronic devices. "Did you bring it?"
     Metzger pulled the laminated UR badge from his breast pocket and flung it onto the bed. "Give me your verbal."
     After Koldek made his sworn statement and placed a time-dated hard copy of the truce agreements in Metzger's private carry case, he grabbed his bag and scanned the room. "My mediation would have worked if not for Traxler. I don't know who backed his gambit, but they used me as the fall guy to pin the murders on. They got their mess, and now I have what I need."
     "How did it feel teaming with a robot?"
     "Stop calling her that."
     Metzger shook his head. "You're getting soft in your old age, and desperate."
     It was early June and humid as hell, but Metzger, a short overweight man, wasn't sweating. No perspiration on his forehead. Koldek threw his boss down onto the bed and scanned him with his scope's heat sensor.
     "You're a synth." He pressed his gun against Metzger's chest. "How did you get his memories?"
     "Metzger died last year in a Chaotica shootout," the synth said. "Department took brain scans in the hospital before he passed. You think I'm happy? Sometimes I think I am him. CSA thought it would be bad for confidence if their top kick got killed in battle. I'm keeping the dream alive."
     "Or the nightmare," Koldek said. "If you follow me, I'll shoot. I don't want to kill anyone, not even a bogus Metzger."
     "Why don't you trust me? You're exonerated."
     "Someone in New Albans used you to use me."
     After checking his sensors, Koldek rushed out. Utilizing Metzger's electronic override device, he jammed his apartment door lock and the hall elevators, then struggled up six flights of fire stairs to the roof.
     Dalia looked anxious. "Come on, come on," she said.
     They rose with a blast of vertical thrust and rocketed west out of New Hyperion. Within a half-hour, Dalia began descending toward his farmhouse.
     "Can you stay a while?" Koldek asked when they landed. Silence. "At least tonight?"
     "I can't." Dalia gripped his hand. "I have to return his car right away. I didn't exactly ask permission." She exhaled. "Peter will be home from the capital by morning."
     "Will I ever see you again?"
     "Yes." Her long eyelashes fluttered. "You'll be back." Dalia kissed him softly.
     Koldek watched the hover car levitate into the clouds. He waved until only a distant jet noise lingered. Noticing a weird ridge on the glossy badge from Metzger, Koldek scraped at the laminated UR pass. The U soon peeled off to reveal a T.
     Temporary Retirement. That damn treacherous synth, Metzger. He tossed it in the trash. Maybe Dalia was right.
     Koldek considered her last words, spoken in a breathy whisper as they hugged, her hands roaming his body. "See you down in Chaotica."