It didn't hurt much. Kind of a pinch and then warmth, like I'd taken a drink of Dandy 101. If I had the words in me I might have described it as a slowly suffusing burn, only it wasn't limited to my throat and stomach, it was radiating out from my arm through my entire body. My head felt hot. My arms felt numb. Then I was dead. Hey, shit happens. Happens a lot. I'd stamped the forms before myself. People liked to make trouble and those people had to die. People like me.

That's the end of the story first. Some guy I talked to in the commissary a couple years ago told me it was a great way to frame a narrative. I don't know, sounded like bullshit to me. It seems like you're ruining the story right up front.

Anyway, I started working for Wuhl & Merrick 22 years ago. Since Wuhl merged with Merrick in '44 they've been the only show in town, so it's either good 'ol W&M or you sell kababs you cook over an oil drum to the scuzz in down sector. Not that I had even that much choice. I wasn't born into the corporation like some of the empty suits. My dad was an anarchist thug who died in the riots before I took my first steps and my mom was a temp. That's what she said anyway, by the time I was old enough to make my first zip gun I knew that temp was just another name for hooker.

I ran with some bad crowds back then. Punks with Molotovs, too much time and maybe a few surplus Usmil guns to shoot at the Red Rocks. It was just vandalism the way I see it. The thing about an 86-ton armored prowler is that a few shots aren't going to do a lot more than scratch some paint. Oh, sure, some of the older kids popped a Red Rock once in a while with an IED or something, but then you got the Black Boots on you and before you know it you're gone. Disappeared. Along with your family if you managed to kill one of the Red Rocks.

We vandalized, we robbed, we mugged and we made the mistake of following Carlos on a smash and grab at a company store. They netted us good. Three prowlers and a Bye Bucket to cart us all to holding. The Red Rocks threw us around like sacks of rice and the first one of us to get mouthy got some free dental work done by a rifle butt. I just kept my eyes down and my lips buttoned. They stripped me to my birthday suit and gave me a paper sack and called it a garment. They interrogated us individually. I got ten years in the hole for my efforts at Minky's Market and I don't mean prison. That's for corporate criminals. I mean the deep hole. Hard labor three kilometers under the blacktop mining semi-hot uranium.

Ten years turned out to be two weeks. My hair hadn't even started falling out. Turned out my mom had spread for some guy in sector security and she'd gotten my sentence reduced to five years with the Red Rocks. I hauled ammo, I fixed what I could on their prowlers and I'd even go out late at night and find shit for the Red Rocks down sector they couldn't buy in a company store. I busted my ass and they noticed. The thing about security - and I don't know if you can say this about any other department - is that they take care of their own. I might have been a scrawny kid doing an unusual mandatory sentence, but they helped me out.

Year three and they sent me to the training seminar in Detroit up sector. Year five and I was halfway through my first tour as an honest to shit Red Rock. I had the chiseled armor and the rifle and everything. Nobody even talked about my sentence being over, least of all me. I was getting regular paychecks, I had good housing and I thought I had a good group of friends. I even made my first big bust.

It was weird shit. I heard about a suit making trips down sector to a curveball brothel just about once a week, so I stop by when he's knee deep in a girlboy and put the hard case on him. He's totally freaking out so I search him and he's got some weird crypto lock case. I call it in and not five minutes later the place is swarming with Black Boots. Just one of these guys had our entire department's budget bolted to his head. I'm not just talking grafts either, I'm talking state of the art science-fictiony shit. Even the ones that looked normal still seemed all spooky with their shaved heads and dark circles under their eyes. Turns out the guy was selling R&D secrets to another department. I didn't get what the big deal was. I even said "we all work for the same guys, right?" which got the Black Boots to giggling.

About a month later I'm out with my boys on patrol and this stretch floater drops down from the skyway right in front of us. Tucker starts laying into them and even starts swiveling the turret, but then this crew-cut Black Boots gets out and walks over. He tells me that I have to go with him so I do. When a Black Boots says jump you don't even wait to hear how high you just start right in jumping and hope they'll say when to stop.

That day turned out to be the fourth most important day of my life. The third was the day I got busted by the Red Rocks. The first and second, well, I'll get to them in a bit. Anyway, the Black Boots decided I was hot shit and they drafted me into their little haunted house. I did a couple years as muscle for them. Rough shit. Those guys didn't kid around. We'd gun down an entire apartment complex down sector to get to one suit hiding in the bunch. But I actually liked it. Not so much the killing but the fact that I got to start breaking balls with the empty suits. If it feels good to drop some tracers into the punk who just threw a Molotov on your prowler it feels ten times as good to drop a knee in the back of some accounts payable shithead who has been skimming the books.

I did my time cracking skulls and not asking questions about why I was cracking skulls. After a couple years of that this guy named Hieronymus Reed comes up to me. Reed was a tall son of a bitch, built like a straw and with these big dark eyes that remind me to this day of an eclipse. Dark where dark shouldn't have been. This Reed guy tells me that my aptitude scores are all top shelf stuff. Like I'm the best thing since sliced myco. He tells me I got two options of where to go if I want to leave the muscle profession in my past. I can go work with internal affairs, but he says that even though I was a Red Rock I've also got a chip on my shoulder and don't do too good with people. He said to me that I was just the sort of sociopath he could use in monitoring. I asked how much and he added a digit to my paycheck, so I was with him.

If you want to get technical the proper name of the place was Asset Overwatch and Resource Monitoring. It was corporate stuff, not regional or whatever, we're talking global. I hadn't even seen a world map outside of the one above the blackboard at the Red Rock academy and then all at once I'm looking at ten different world maps on the Interact. I got a crash course on sitting on my ass all day and watching the live feeds. I was told to report anything interesting, but that happened maybe once a month in that first year. They had assigned me to the easy shift. I was watching the decks of freighters stacked with shipping containers hauling rollers to our distro offices in the Pacific Combine. I was watching orbital reflectors that kept the sun shining 24/7 on our automated greenhouses on the Dark Continent. In those early days I got the most fun out of watching primate research lab 6. They had a fairly inclusive definition of "primates" and they did all sorts of terrible cutting and dissecting in there.

I worked my way up over the years from Monitor 1 to Monitor 8. Those numbers after my job title just represented the amount and importance of facilities I was assigned to monitor. When I spotted someone deploying data sniffers into the ventilation at an organ harvester in East Bloc I notified Reed and I got my promotion. I'd been working for W&M for 17 years by then and I knew what it meant to get Monitor 9. I was in charge. I didn't just call shit in to Reed anymore, I was allowed to act on what I saw. I could send fire teams to extinguish electrical fires, dispatch cryo specialists to check out the temperatures on our embryo storage and issue kill orders to Black Boots looking for defectors.

Then came the second most important day of my life. It was late in the afternoon and I had spent most of the day managing a riot in the Calcutta down sector. Messy stuff. Dead Red Rocks, a downed helicopter, hundreds of dead scuzz and probably millions in property damage. Reed knew it wasn't my fault how things had spiraled out of control. The scuzz just got it in their heads to tear things up and no matter how many live fires I authorized it wasn't turning them back. I was sort of absently flipping through the feeds by that point just looking for anything to get my mind off the riots. Since I hit R9 I had just about full access to everything outside of StratCom and Corporate Private, but most of the new feeds had triple or quadruple monitor coverage so I had pretty much stuck to my old beat. I decided to cruise the new feeds.

There was a lot of pretty interesting stuff in those feeds, but the only one I remember was Europa. I'd seen my share of space crap. Mostly automated mining and bulk resource hauling. I knew Gateway Two in orbit around earth like the back of my frigging hand. Just a bunch of spokes, wheels, blinking lights and a couple of tin cans full of whiney industrial crews. I remember during blackouts in down sector as a kid looking up at the stars and imagining how wonderful it would be to live in the dark. But since then I'd learned the dark was monotony and cramped quarters. Not Europa. Europa was a moon or planet or some crap and W&M had landed some big pyramid looking things on it a long time ago. Somehow those things had sprayed out gas and shit and turned at least part of it into a place where people could go out and not have their blood boil.

What a place it was. It was green with trees and grass like in pictures and the sky above it was blue, although Reed told me later it was just Interact screens or something above them. There were old people, mostly old people, and they were sitting around eating or playing games or swimming in huge pools. The houses were all old fashioned with big stone blocks and columns and glass tops that faced the blue sky. I asked Reed what it was and he said it was sort of like the parts dumps in down sector but for rich corporates instead of people you don't want anymore. 30 large and you could buy a ticket on the monthly shipment out there. Once you're there you never come back, you just sit and have fun and don't worry about the shit back on earth.

I told Reed that I was going to save up the money and go. At first he laughed at me, but I wasn't joking. I didn't spend much of the money I made. My house was paid by the corporation, I ate in the commissary and the only person in my life was a down sector cat I'd picked up while taking some time to visit a friend still with the Red Rocks. I already had a third of the money in the bank and with my pay increase to M9 I would have 30,000 socked away before I hit 40. I had a goal in life. I had a course that I had set for myself for the first time.

I put it everything I had into my work. I put in double and triple overtime, I took on other people's work and I ruthlessly handled even the faintest indications of trouble. My efficiency ratings were so good that even Reed was beginning to be afraid for his job. I told him not to worry, that I would be out of the office before corporate even noticed, but I don't think he believed me. Hell, I don't think I believed myself. I figured he made at least a grand more than me and that would have been nice.

A few months later I found out that my mother had been killed by Red Rocks during a contraband raid of the flophouse she had been calling her office. I felt a twinge of some sort. Like maybe I should have done something to help her. She never did anything like that for me, but I could have made a difference in her life. She would have faded into my memory, but the most important day of my life was the day after she died.

I was feeling vulnerable and guilty, two things I'm not used to feeling. Just for laughs I switched to primate research lab 6. My timing was perfect. There were thirty guys on the monitoring floor who should have been all over the low-level feeds, but somehow it had slipped by. So I got the loose ape. One of the test subjects had escaped from operating prep and was on the run in the facility. It only took me about five minutes to switch through the feeds until I found their escapee. It was a girl, no more than 12, bald headed, naked and terrified. She was hiding in a medical refuse bin, but I had a three-quarters view of her hiding place. My finger was on the message interrupt to send a page to the security staff of the facility when she looked right at the camera. Right at the damn camera.

Those big dark eyes. Darker than they should be. Like Reed's eyes, but in reverse. I don't know if that's any way to explain it, but this isn't what I'm good at. If Reed was full of darkness it's because he wanted it, she was full up with it and she had no say. It had been put inside her.

I pressed the button anyway and inside a minute they had her. Drugged and clobbered, dragged back to holding because the sedatives would fuck with the operation.

While she lay in her temporary coma I ignored the voice in the back of my head telling me to forget about her and I called up the test subject files. Jane Doe 785. Born into captivity, recipient of four unnecessary organ transplants including a botched clone organ that had almost killed her and she was 12 years old. She'd been raped twice and one of the orderlies had been sentenced to two years in the corporate prison in Annapolis. Jane with no parents. No family. Jane with no future but excruciating pain and imprisonment.

I'll admit, it was probably stupid. The cardinal rule of being an R9 was that you never adjust orders covertly. You call it in the open so that corporate can look at the instant replay if they have to. Doing what I did just on that first day was enough to get me sent up for life or thrown back down sector with the scuzz. I cancelled Jane-785's operation. I introduced an order for antibiotics and double meal ration. I corrupted the way of things. I placed myself in the gears.

She became my pet project. Every day I would tune in to see how she was doing. I would send her special meals and make them give her normal clothes to wear. I forged a convoluted order for educational material and had them set up an auto tutor. She broke it to pieces and tried to escape using wires she stripped from one of the logic cores. When they burst into her cell she tried to stab them and I had to verbally command them not to kill her. They beat her anyway. I couldn't stop them.

My interest in Jane-785 wasn't entirely for her benefit. By breaking the rules I was getting a thrill of disobedience I hadn't felt since my days in down sector hurling bottles at the Red Rocks. I'd glance over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching me and then look back down at the Interact as she ate a bowl of ice cream with her hands or tried to pry open the door of her cell with puzzle pieces. Over the months there were a number of minor milestones. Jane smiled on day 84. Jane learned to say "yes" and "thank you" in the same day after almost six months. Her private muttering language slowly became broken English that she used, mostly, to plead for her release.

She was a clever girl. The more she added to her vocabulary the more she tried to coax, cajole and manipulate her jailers. She had a will to escape that made me proud.

Things might not have progressed beyond the occasional thrills had I not been joined by a co-conspirator. A fourth-tier researcher by the name of N. Laage had figured out that something weird was going on with Jane-785. I started intercepting messages he was trying to send to his superiors requesting clarification on why Jane-785 was being kept off the surgical docket. I made sure the messages never reached any of the recipients, but I knew I had to act. Sending out a kill squad to liquidate an innocent researcher would just prompt a lot of questions I didn't have any answers to.

That night I swept my apartment for creepy crawlies and then gave N. Laage a call. My plan was to tell him that it was all part of a special Black Boots operation and he was to keep it confidential. Unfortunately, even my years working dispatch had not honed my people skills and Nathan Laage was no fool. He saw through my stuttering attempt to brow beat him and he called my bluff. I cut him in on it. I told him everything. Laage was friendly enough and he agreed to help, which made things easier on Jane, but as the days rolled by he started wanting things.

First he just wanted things from me. He wanted me to delete some incriminating records from the research lab's logic core. Then he wanted me to arrange for an ex-girlfriend to be brought in for interrogation. I stalled on that one for a few days but eventually he started to get threatening and so I hauled her in on indecent conversation charges. She did ten days in a Red Camp and it probably cost her a tier at her job. I told myself it was for Jane.

Things were improving for her. She was getting better food than some of the staff at the lab. She had restricted Interact access and she had finally taken, pretty thoroughly, to an auto tutor. Another year passed and she was acting like a real girl. She sassed the orderlies and security guards. She drew pictures and hid them in a crack behind the padding of her cell that only she and I knew about. I watched her spend hours sketching a woman before I realized that she was using her reflection in the blank screen of the Interact to draw herself. Not herself as she was but herself as she wanted. Full-figured, with dark curly tresses and fashion she had seen on the terminal. She folded that picture up and put it in her secret place.

Three years had passed and I'd reached my goal for a ticket off-world. I was debating what to do about Jane if I left when Laage decided to stop playing my game. First he started in with demands he knew I could not meet. Then he told me he would take it out on Jane. He began paying her visits. He was a sociologist by trade so he knew his business. He gained her trust with gifts and a soft voice. He gave her an outlet for all of the things she wanted to say, all of the human interaction she lacked. It chafed to see them sitting together on her bunk talking about what it was like outside the facility. It broke my heart in a way when she showed him her drawings. It made me want to break his neck when he kissed her. He was my age for shit's sake! And she was mine. Mine to watch and take care of.

I could tell you that he tried to rape her or he beat her, but it didn't happen that way. He was seducing her because he knew it would hurt me, and he was right. What he didn't expect was that I could be stupid and rash. After one of Laage's particularly passionate embraces with Jane I made my move. I waited for him to leave the lab and then I scrambled a floater from a nearby Black Boots skybase. He was KOS. Weapons free. An escapee from a nearby corporate prison being held for the destruction of corporate assets. The most dangerous kind of criminal; the corporate-bred anarchist. Nathan Laage never knew what hit him. They shot out the tires on his roller and when he staggered out of the wrecked vehicle they put a cratering round through his brain.

As the kill team photographed, tagged and carted off his body I realized that I should have felt happy about my revenge. Instead I felt empty. Something bad had happened. Something worse than murdering Laage. I'd just showed my hand and it was going to come back to haunt me.

Sure enough, about three weeks later Reed called me into his office with some story about an R14 auditor coming in that very afternoon to review my dispatch logs. My options were limited. I could try to talk my way out of it and fake a core malfunction, but I've never been known for my ability to lie under pressure. I could run, but then they'd know everything and hunt me down. An R9 Monitor who turned on his department wouldn't be long for this world no matter how many rocks he found to crawl under. My final option was to give it up. Pack it in. Admit to everything. But I had a twist.

I had about forty minutes before the auditor showed up and I had a bit over the amount I needed. I transferred the money to a password-protected encrypted account and I began firing off orders while I still had the authority. The auditor showed up seven minutes late. Very unprofessional, in my humble opinion. He had heat, voice metrics, and ultrasound sensors built into his skull. He looked at me like a fat kid looking at a cake behind glass. Only he had a crowbar.

The questions came and I gave him the answers. Half an hour later I was strapped into a chair in the basement of our district headquarters. Two hours after that I'd lost three pints of blood, all of my front teeth, about thirty percent of my reasoning ability and my story still hadn't changed. They knew everything, but it was too late. I would have to be their whipping boy. They seemed satisfied with that and Reed personally signed the order authorizing my immediate liquidation. He shook his head and looked at me. So much wasted potential, I know.

I think I've established that I died, but I didn't mention what made them so damn mad at me: I died a married man.

The wedding certificate was easy enough. Then I issued my orders directly to my former district with the Red Rocks. Tucker, my old prowler commander, was instructed to personally execute the retrieval. One wife, age 15 and one cat, age unknown. To be held for nine days and then extradited to Europa, expense of extradition held in a password encrypted account. Under no circumstances was the order to be rescinded or countermanded. That last part might not have held up, I don't know, but I do know that the Red Rocks take care of their own. That extends to spouses and children.

The damn thing about dying is that I don't know if she made it. The story ends there for me. It ends with me in the chair, drooling a little bit, with a heart as still as a winter's night in the down sector. I'd like to think Tucker and my old buddies with the Red Rocks got her off this shitty planet. They got her to Europa where she could live free and take deep breaths of clean air. And they have catfood on Europa. The good stuff they make out of people.

– Zack "Geist Editor" Parsons (@sexyfacts4u)

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