Chapter I: Kyle

 

 

OF THE million people in Kyle City, there was none so aimless as Violet MacRae. That’s not to say she walked into walls or spoke in tangents, only that she lacked a purpose in life. Every night since she could speak, her parents asked her the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They would have asked even earlier, but this was the civilized world and children didn’t get their vocal cords until they proved they knew when not to use them. Violet didn’t get hers until she was three. At seventeen and a half, she had just passed her adulthood tests, and that old question was more pressing.

On the night of January 3, 2230, Violet and her parents stood on the deck of their apartment in Arcolochalsh, her native arcology. They watched the demolition of Skye Bridge 193 floors below. The decaying concrete monstrosity that had linked the Isle of Skye to mainland Scotland for the last 235 years was finally obsolete: Any vehicle that could jump its way past the wall of skyscrapers to the sea could easily jump the water itself. The bridge’s destruction by explosives was marked by great celebration and pageantry, though it could have been accomplished at less cost by hiring a four-year-old to kick the thing. Not a minute after the bridge fell, June, Violet’s mother, used the impressive spectacle to push Violet toward a career.

“How about demolitions?”

It wasn’t bad compared to her usual suggestions. Violet’s mom had recommended careers in everything from xenobiology to cosmetology, somehow managing to avoid the mention of a single job Violet could stand considering. Demolitions seemed almost tolerable until the stink of sulfur and concrete dust made its way past the filter pumps up to their nostrils. Violet didn’t need to say no; the toxic cloud said it for her.

The trio walked indoors to escape the air and eat dinner. As her father closed the door, he was already planning a new tactic.

“Is there any place you want to visit?” he asked, “Any sights you want to see?”

Violet knew the question for what it was but appreciated the subtlety. She tried to think.

“The aurora borealis,” she said. “Maybe the corona from orbit. Oh, and I want to see snow.”

Having grown up in northwestern Scotland, Violet had never seen snow in person, only online. There it lacked the sparkle, the painful cold, and the underfoot crunch of the genuine article. She had learned in class that it was once a common sight all over Scotland. And she’d spent some of her free time looking at simulations of the far north, where snow still fell and people had to wear clothes all year round just to stay warm.

“Maybe you should get into solar science,” suggested her mom.

Tracking photons was dull enough, but science meant working online. Violet had spent most of her life online, logged in to school. She wanted to live her life in the real world, doing something more physical.

“I’d rather fix zoo robots or fly trucks through the desert,” she joked.

Her mom laughed. “How about sports?”

Now there was an idea, but Violet’s interest was short-lived. Violet didn’t care who could jump highest or run fastest. All the best sports were online anyway. Boxing and bullfighting and death-match wrestling had all been reduced to online versions that dared not let any real harm come to their champions, or animals. Even synthetic beasts with advanced enough artificial intelligence were gaining protective legislation. Sports had no real stakes, nothing to be ventured or gained. She wanted something meaningful but feared to say so. If she admitted she wanted a meaningful job, her dad would push his own choice yet again.

Nelson MacRae was a police officer and proud of it. When Violet was very young, that meant she heard tales of yakuza wars and Orange Gang massacres, and even some stories about the mysterious Cetacean Divisionists and the dreaded Hall of the Slain. Of course she grew out of believing in such monsters. Her father’s stories lost their mystery when pirates were revealed to be common net thieves and monsters turned out to be no more than ordinary humans who had engineered and modified their bodies beyond recognition.

Violet liked how her dad was respected by people around the arcology. He looked impressive in uniform, though he rarely wore it. She might have wanted to be a cop herself but to her shame, she couldn’t apply. When she’d taken the maturity tests she ranked a twenty-nine on the VVPS (Verhoeven Violent Predilection Scale). Police specs demanded ranks under twenty-five. If she were one point higher, that would have meant neurorecalibration. Luckily, after years of having her test scores reported to her parents, the maturity test offered adult citizens their first private results. Violet didn’t want her parents to know the real reason she couldn’t be a cop, so she feigned disinterest in the job.

Her VVPS score was no surprise to her. Kids used to mock her angry demeanor often in the arcology playgrounds. The mockery made her want to rip the lips off their laughing faces. Such violent thoughts were relayed to the supervision programs through the net link antenna behind her ear, resulting in a lecture about violence from the nanny programs. She’d heard lecture 12D so often she knew it by heart: “Good kids don’t think that way,” it concluded. “Only bad little girls want to hurt people.” She let every lecture go in one ear and out the other without a word of dissent. Dissent just triggered lecture 14B. Ignoring the words did no harm, she thought. But after so many lectures, something eroded its way into her subconscious. Not that she decided to be a good kid. She just came to think she was no more than a bad little girl.

So from time to time, she acted like one. More than once she had been logged out of class early with a note of bad conduct. Sometimes she would get into fights with other students. A fight between two children’s avatars in a virtual classroom wasn’t much to see, but it was enough to get them punished. They were punished by (what else?) a lecture from the teaching program. It was a gentle AI for kids, so they were never harsh, just horribly demeaning. Then after class she’d get the same lecture from her mom, in a voice even softer yet somehow more insulting. Sometimes it seemed to her that every adult and program in the world existed to talk down to her, except one. Her dad never gave her the lectures. He would just ask what happened, and sometimes she caught a hint of amusement hidden behind his eyes. He never even reprimanded her for playing games in class; he just thought it was funny she played Othello during a lesson on Shakespeare.

Violet was also plagued by the Lecture’s elder sibling, the Apology. Whenever an incident involved another kid, she had to cough up a few apologetic words. When it involved an adult, the words were doubled and often dictated by her mother, thus resembling one of her lectures. To apologize was the ultimate insult, a lecture forced into her own mouth. But at long last, the days of lectures and apologies were at an end. She was an adult now. She was allowed all the privileges, rights, and responsibilities of a citizen. She could vote, work, hire, receive pay, pay taxes, own property, apply to own a company, fornicate, marry, adopt, apply to give birth, apply for military service, apply for apprentice education, file a lawsuit, enter adult zones online and off, commit suicide, drink, smoke, caffeinate, use adult-rated drugs, and best of all, if she did something wrong, she could go to jail for it instead of hearing another damn lecture. And she had to find a job.

“I’ve got it! How about carpet pattern design?” said her mom.

At times like this Violet envied programs and robots. Sometimes she wished she were just an AI. They had no choices before them, no field of a million options, no questions about their future. They had a purpose. They were designed for it. To Violet, it seemed a flaw that humans were made with none in mind.

Her dad appeared ready to suggest another line of work when she smelled something strange. It wasn’t the debris cloud outside but a hot metallic smell. It was coming from the front door. Violet turned her head and looked across the apartment to see that there was no door. It had been melted off its hinges. Her dad saw it too and cursed loudly.

“Get Violet out of here! Get out now!”

Where the door had been, there were three men in orange hats and orange business suits coming in. There were two tall, tough men and one fat, ugly thug with a slack jaw. Her mom took her by the arm but had no chance to escape with her. One of the men already had a microwave pistol aimed at them.

“Do not move, not any of you,” said the thug in a Dansk accent.

“Herr Kray,” demanded her father, “what is this?”

“You know exactly what this is, Nelson. We know who you are, Officer MacRae.”

“Hrothgar, I don’t know what you think you—”

Then her father was dead. Violet had never seen a microwave go off, but she knew it when she saw it. A black burn mark just appeared on his chest, over his heart. She knew that a beam had just burnt through his ribs, and in an instant he was gone. She knew it happened. She didn’t go into denial. She would deal with it all when she was safe. The microwave was pointing at her and her mom.

“Do not move or speak,” said Kray. Violet stayed frozen. She could feel her mom behind her shaking, holding her tightly. The thug waved to the third man, who took a small pack from his belt. From it he produced a nail gun. Then Violet realized what was coming. Her dad had told her once how the Orange Gang crucified its enemies. She’d never believed it before, but it didn’t surprise or scare her now. She simply knew the likely course of events. She was keenly aware of every move the men made and aware that her mom was growing frightened and enraged. It occurred to Violet as strange that she was not scared too.

She watched Hrothgar Kray and the other man take hold of her father, preparing to nail him to the wall. Her mom couldn’t stand it. She shouted out. Violet didn’t hear what she meant to shout; the gunman was too quick. As soon as sound waves passed her lips, he shot her. Violet felt the hot air pass over her head. She smelled her mother’s skin burn, and she did not move. It wasn’t fear that held her still: She stood knowing that if she moved, she would be shot as well. She heard her mom’s body flop back to the floor, then all was silent. Herr Kray looked to Violet. She stood still and expressionless. She knew he was deciding if she should live or die. The gunman waited for the order. Violet gave him nothing to inspire her demise. Kray quietly turned his back, leaving the gunman to keep an eye on her as he knelt down to her father’s body.

The second man came to his side and helped him with the corpse. They tried to prop him up to the wall, but Kray was too short, and he let the arm slip. Her dad’s corpse fell halfway to the floor. The gunman turned to see if they needed help. For a fraction of a second, he took his eyes from Violet and let his microwave drift a few centimeters off target. In that instant Violet showed an extraordinary skill she never knew she had.

Through the entire episode she had remained oddly, totally detached. The emotional impact of her family’s death didn’t register so much as the acute awareness of how it had happened. She saw how the gunman had unlocked his weapon and how he pushed a key on its side while pulling the trigger to fire. She saw how they were struggling with her father’s body. She knew that behind her, her mother had fallen in a position that could trip one of the men if he were not careful. She knew with utter clarity that for the moment all three men had their eyes off her. This was all a defense mechanism, one that separated the hysterical, panicked fool from the calm and able. Her dad had told her ages ago how some victims wept and shook during a traumatic event and how others became strong enough to lift a car and focused sharply to fight at their best. That focus was now introducing itself to Violet.

She knew as soon as the man’s eyes were turned that they might not turn again. She knew that though all of them were likely armed, only one had his microwave ready, and that if she were shot by the small nail gun, at this distance it wouldn’t be fatal, not immediately. She knew that there was no way they could let her live after this, and only briefly did she wonder why Kray hadn’t ordered her death a second ago. It only took her another instant to decide what to do. The gunman was standing within a meter of her. His finger was off the trigger. His grip looked loose. She put that to a test and grabbed it. She was wrong; his grip was quite firm. Now that he knew what she was doing, her element of surprise was at an end. She thought it best to surprise him further by twisting the weapon away from herself and toward the man with the nail gun. That proved a good idea when the microwave went off and fried the man’s eyes out.

Violet saw that Kray was slow in recognizing the threat. The gunman was putting all he had into wresting the microwave away from her, so she kicked him very hard in the shin. As she expected he shouted in pain, but he did not let go. So she kicked him in the other shin. He still didn’t let go, but he did fall to his knees, and that put his testicles so close to her foot that she kicked without thinking. That loosened his grip. She pulled the weapon from him and moved it to her other hand, letting go of the barrel and gripping the handle firmly, finger on the trigger. She was new at gunplay, so she tested what she had seen by pressing the same key he had and pulling the trigger. She was careful to test it in the safest possible direction, in this case at the gunman’s forehead. A black burn mark erupted on his skin, and he fell limp and silent. Violet was content with this test and used her newfound skill on the blind man, who fell onto Kray.

She shot at the thug. Using his former companion as a shield against the beam, he managed to stand up and throw the remains at her, knocking her down and sending the microwave sliding far from her hand. She wasn’t scared when she hit the ground. It registered only as a change of advantage, and that change didn’t favor her, so she scrambled to her feet and ran, considering where best to regain control of the situation.

Knowing she had a better idea of the apartment’s layout than the intruder, she ran through the kitchen and around the corner, down a hall and into the bathroom. She looked for anything that might be used as a weapon. In the instant before he came in, she ripped the safety controls from the molecular dispersion toilet. It was easier to break than she expected. She hid behind the door.

She expected him to have taken the microwave as she ran, so she was prepared for it. When he pushed the door open, she slammed it on his hand. It would have made him drop the weapon had he held it, but he wasn’t holding it. A glimpse of his other hand revealed that he didn’t have it at all. He must have felt she was no threat without the microwave. He would come in fast with brute force. She let him come. He burst in with such strength she had no problem pushing him farther, forcing his head down into the toilet’s bare dispersion field. There was a harsh smell of ozone, a loud crackle, and Hrothgar Kray fell limp from her hands, his head absent, leaving only a cauterized neck stump.

She didn’t let down her guard. It seemed possible that in her haste she hadn’t killed the two others, merely stunned them. There could be more men outside. She left the bathroom with great caution, looking around for anyone else who might have entered. She found the two men on the dining room floor, one twitching, one not. She considered leaning in to take pulses but decided against it. She found the microwave under the table where it had slid. She ensured their deaths by firing point blank into their heads. She held the beam on the first until he stopped twitching, and on the other until his body began to heat and bloat, then burst. She watched the tissues blister, burn, and peel until the weapon began to overheat. Only when her hyperactive attention reminded her that overheating weapons can explode did she release the controls.

After glancing outside the melted door, she was satisfied that the immediate danger was over. It took her some time to figure out what “over” meant. While the event sorted itself through axons and dendrites and filed its elements into their proper lobes, she stood still. She became aware of the beeping sounds of microwave detectors and door alarms and of approaching sirens. The sirens echoed as noise in the air and over her link antenna. The link siren carried warnings and instructions: “We have detected microwave fire in your residence. Drop your weapons. Remain still.”

She set the microwave down where she could reach it quickly. She was no doubt expected to collapse and sob, to lean over her family’s bodies and lose all control, but she had no real desire to do so. Instead she stood there with the odd feeling that she had forgotten to do something important. She went over the events. The bad guys were dead. Her parents were dead. Authorities were en route and didn’t need to be called. The air was thick with the smells of ozone and debris and metal and microwaved flesh, but this was no concern.

Soon a flood of police officers came in through the melted door. More landed on the deck. They all scurried about and took stock of the situation. They told her to sit down. One pulled up a chair. He asked her what had happened, so she told him calmly and clearly, giving every detail she thought might be important. She watched as a parade of medics, coroners, and detectives came and went. They prodded the bodies, scanned her, scanned the room, linking back and forth through their antennae and talking in whispers. She saw neighbors, the Frasers, through the doorway, demanding to come in and see her. As the police explained what happened, Mrs. Fraser broke into tears and held her husband. Violet felt nothing.

She felt nothing as they loaded her parents’ bodies into body bag pods. She felt nothing as the pods took off and headed for the morgue. As she watched them fly away, there was a fraction of a second where she thought she felt something: a deep stab of fear—at least she thought it was fear—but then it was gone and forgotten, a drop of feeling lost in an ocean of numbness.

 

 

IN THE next few days, Violet learned just how little she knew about her father. She knew he was a cop. She had heard the stories. But now she heard the other stories, stories that fathers don’t tell their daughters. Officer Nelson MacRae was the secret weapon in a war that had gone on for almost thirty years.

Everyone had thought the late Hrothgar Kray and his twin brother were the heads of the near mythic Orange Gang, raised together in Danmark, where they don’t restructure their problem kids’ brains.

Nelson was the one who’d discovered that Hrothgar was a mere lackey, in fact the gang’s weakness. Wulfgar Kray was a genius, rarely seen and never vulnerable. Hrothgar was only in the gang because his brother didn’t have the heart to kick him out. Hrothgar liked to nail people to walls and drench his hands with blood. Wulfgar knew that in criminal enterprises such panache was a liability. But it was his twin. He couldn’t tell him to stop.

“So when the time came,” explained Officer Lochroch, “Nelson volunteered to lure Hrothgar into a trap.”

“Why my dad? What was the trap?” asked Violet, eager to hear more details.

“Well, he was very brave, the bravest—”

“How was it supposed to work?”

“Well, you see, Violet, he didn’t think Hrothgar would ever find you, his family—”

“Obviously. What was supposed to happen? Where did it go wrong?”

“Well, we—Your father was a great—”

“You told me what he discovered about the gang. You didn’t spare a gory detail, but you won’t tell me what my father did to take them down? Or how they caught him?”

“It’s classified.”

“The rest wasn’t? It wasn’t classified that he was a cop. Everyone on our floor knew it. Did one of them blow his cover? And I want to know why he… why we weren’t guarded, how the gang found his home, his family, why he didn’t expect it, why—”

“Violet,” he interrupted, “all of that is classified. There are good reasons we can’t explain it.”

She’d thought such treatment would end when she’d passed the maturity tests. She understood that police didn’t give out such information, but she didn’t want to know in order to tell the media or to post it online. She tried to explain herself clearly.

“I want to know the details because my parents are gone and this is all I have left of them. I want to know because the more I know, the more I might be able to help.”

She thought it was a good logical plea, one that should push the right buttons. It had the opposite effect. The officer didn’t want or expect cold logic; he expected tears. He and all who heard the girl’s resolute statement were disturbed by her lack of emotion.

“It’s okay to cry,” said Lochroch, leaning close. He spoke to her as if she were still a child.

“I don’t need to cry,” she explained. She spoke to him with the same insulting tone. “I need you to stop talking down to me, stop trying to protect me, and tell me what the fuck went wrong.”

That bit of honest clarity got her a ticket to the police psychiatrist office. They linked her in to post-traumatic programs that tried to bring out the tears, release the emotional pressure, and begin the typical human grieving process. They couldn’t diagnose that in this one oddity of humankind, the process had been over the second her parents died. In such an enlightened era of psychological empathy, nobody recognized what a warrior a thousand years prior would have known and praised as incredible strength of mind.

Violet didn’t recognize it either. She was vaguely worried that she wasn’t all tears and sobs. She was also at a loss for why, with Wulfgar Kray on the loose, she was not getting rushed into protective custody. That part they were willing to explain.

“Hrothgar was so fast to… to uncover your father that he didn’t fall into our live trap. He’s useless to us dead. We need a new trap. We think Wulfgar will come to avenge his brother’s death in person. And so we need you, well, see, we need you to—”

She was amazed at their shortsightedness. They were trying to use her as bait. She spoke quickly so as not to hear another pathetic euphemism. “You’re ignoring the most important thing Dad discovered—Wulfgar is the brains. His brother was the one going out in person. Wulfgar wouldn’t do anything so stupid.”

As the police coddled her, lied to her, and tried to convince her to play along, she realized her father must have been an anomaly among cops. The rest were idiots.

They never guessed that Violet had her father’s skills. The deductive abilities and razor-sharp wits that cut into the Orange Gang for her dad were the same that saved her life and the same that let her kill three very dangerous men. She knew more about the gang than the cops had told her, gleaning a multitude of useful knowledge from every scrap they gave her. Violet had always thought so efficiently and had always been hushed by her elders. As a result she didn’t try very hard to explain it. She was unsure she even knew what she knew, and she’d never learned to have faith in her deductive abilities. Instead she learned in the company of officers to keep quiet about important things.

One thing she couldn’t keep quiet about was the state of her parents’ bodies. Though her mother’s brain had been destroyed, her father had only been shot in the heart. If they’d had enough money, that wouldn’t have ended his life: Within a few hours of death, anyone with a healthy brain could be salvaged by the skills of a good doctor. The police pussyfooted for hours before admitting they couldn’t afford those doctors. Neither could her family accounts.

The cops left out one fact entirely. They didn’t tell her that even if she somehow collected the millions needed, they still wouldn’t have been able to save him, because her father’s body never made it to the morgue. Nobody even considered telling Violet what the entire local force now believed: that the Orange Gang had hijacked the body to be desecrated. They expected the corpse to show up crucified publicly within the day. They were prepared to hide its discovery from Violet’s eyes. They kept silent and let the horrible notion affirm their cause. “For Nelson,” they said, “we must do anything to bring Wulfgar down! It’s what he would have wanted!”

So they cast his daughter out as bait. The bait was far smarter than the fishermen, but without a scrap of real meaningful information about herself or the situation, she felt only a brick wall of ignorance. Amid math and science and language and history, students were not taught the difference between intelligence and knowledge. The tests themselves no longer knew the difference. Though Violet was smart enough to outwit the thugs and cops, she had no clue that she had any wits at all. Her educational tests came out below average because she couldn’t care less about what company owned what country in what year. They could load information directly into children’s minds but could not make them care. The police didn’t tell her the facts that would have made her as sharp a weapon as her father, so she felt terribly stupid and considered herself useful only as a worm on a hook.

She knew Wulfgar wouldn’t come for her, certainly not at home. Lacking the confidence to tell the police again, she resigned to let them try. She didn’t really mind being bait. She didn’t fully understand why she didn’t mind it. If she were inclined to introspection, she would have decided that it was not for shock or depression but that old childhood bloodlust. If there was a man out there who wanted her dead, she wanted to confront him herself. She wanted him to come and try. She’d killed the last trio, and she felt deep down against all logic that she could take him too. The cops would have to fight her for the kill.

But he never came. Wulfgar, in mourning in Danmark, was as patient as Violet expected. He predicted the trap, the police, and Violet’s danger to him. After all, his brother had killed her family, and she would want revenge. Wulfgar knew that if this little girl had killed his brother, then there was more to her than was apparent. Hrothgar had always been quick to the punch. He kept the company of sycophantic friends instead of skilled workers. Now his poor judgment and poor company had gotten him killed. Wulfgar also knew of his brother’s lust for all females young and blonde. He wouldn’t have killed the girl when he should have because—Wulfgar couldn’t finish that thought. Hrothgar was dead, so he didn’t shame his brother’s memory by thinking it.

Wulfgar was not subject to such obvious hubris and overconfidence. If Wulfgar did have a weakness, it was brotherly love. Hrothgar had been a liability, but he’d given him high rank and power in the Orange Gang. Hrothgar was a rapist, but Wulfgar turned a blind eye. Hrothgar got himself killed, so Wulfgar assumed that meant his own weakness had died as well. With his brother gone, the gang was stronger than ever. Strong enough to indulge in terrible vengeance.

It didn’t strike Wulfgar that his need for revenge was the last vestige of love for his brother. This revenge couldn’t be a weakness, he thought, because he was going to do it cautiously. He would let the girl find new friends and new parental figures for him to murder as she watched. Then he would keep her where he could hack her mind apart with great safety and solitude, and when her mind was broken, he would destroy her body as painfully as he could. He would do it all correctly, without any possibility of failure, and after so long his prey would taste like the nectar of the gods.

Violet waited. The cops waited. The Fraser family next door offered her their company and spare room along with an abundance of pity and hugs. Violet saw no reason to leave her own apartment or indulge in common emotional onanism. As an adult she was now sole owner of her family’s quarters and belongings. Same with the money her parents had in the bank, now accessible through the monetary implant in her hand. Her mom had taken Violet to have it installed the day before she was killed. That should make me sad, she thought. I could piss away all they ever earned with one handshake. She tried to think the worst, to dwell on it. It struck her only as bad ideas and useless actions. No tears.

Before long she gave up trying to get herself to feel bad and cry. It was a waste of time. When she ate at the table by herself, she could stare at the places where the bodies fell, yet she felt only a slight concern that she should probably be feeling more. Soon that concern faded away too, and she found herself living a plain and aimless life.

Weeks passed. By day she shopped and paid bills, ate and exercised. In lucid sleep she wandered the nets in search of a job. Her inheritance alone would not keep her alive forever. She floated around the search sites, surrounded by the avatars of other job hunters. They came and went, but for hours she remained. Her intelligence scores were too low for the best business work, so again she lamented herself an idiot. Her VVPS scores were too violent for police work, so she lamented her temperament. She wondered where stupid, violent young adults went when they had no life, no ambition, and their only skill was killing people. She ran a search and found her answer.

Having decided to pursue a military career, she sent her test scores, status, and brain/body scans into the recruiting sites. She informed the police forces watching her, and they were happy with the idea. The trap wasn’t working, and she would be safe. Violet realized shortly after applying that she was hopeful about the prospect of life in the armed forces. Had her parents lived, she’d probably have ended up there anyway.