Inspecteur Hollins and The Integral Assassin
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Inspecteur Hollins and The Integral Assassin
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Inspecteur Hollins sat in the passenger gantry of the Aloha space elevator reading a Poirot novel as she waited for her boarding call. Her holiday was at last official, though it had involved a level of conniving and pleading with commissaire Jarvis and eventually registering herself dead on the computers. That hadn’t stuck for more than three hours but it had worked long enough to get her on a sub. Hollins was still uneasy about it being so simple, Jarvis was no doubt already sharpening the department knives, but had decided to just relax and enjoy her holiday.
“So, this is what I don’t get,” Bast began, her virtual image curled up in Hollins’ lap. It was not unusual to have a VI as an assistant on Zharus, a fully sentient RI core however was more often found it their own RIDE frame but Hollins wasn’t about to get Bast one of those. It was a trust issue. A few months of good behaviour after a sentence for murder had not resulted in a huge amount of trust on the inspecteur’s part, though she had at least relented and bought an alternative for when they were at home.
“What don’t you get?” Hollins inquired, closing her reader app.
“Why do you spend so much time reading crime novels? You are a detective.”
Hollins shrugged. “Shouldn’t you be able to tell? You did take a copy of my brain after all.”
Bast chuffed and flicker her ears. “Yeah, that’s not exactly how RIDEs work.”
“So how do they work?” Hollins pressed.
“Are you interviewing me inspecteur?” Bast asked, grinning. “Or are you just pulling my leg.”
“You don’t have a leg,” Hollins shot back. “And I’m genuinely interested. I’ve never had much reason to pay attention to RIDEs before.”
“Oh yeah, you’re from that little Terran backwater.” Bast stuck her tongue out at Hollins. “Well okay, I can understand the confusion but you’ve got to realise our fusing was exactly under laboratory conditions at the time.”
Hollins nodded, Cleo had been trying to cover up the fact she’d killed a man and Hollins had been busy being transformed into a cat-girl. She’d gotten the ears and tail removed but turning back into a man was a no go for some time due to hormone reasons she didn’t really understand.
“Anyway, what with the short time we were fused and the active resistance we were both putting up your memories are just a fragmented load of half corrupted files in a big, unindexed folder marked ‘Hollins’.” Bast grinned. “I probably should take a week or two and sort them out but haven’t really had the time. If I had access to your head I could maybe drop that down to hours.”
“Yeah, not going to happen,” Hollins snapped.
“Excuse me.” A lion fuser loomed over Hollins, he was huge and muscled and Hollins felt an involuntary blush rising as she found herself staring at a set of chiselled abs. Some day clothing was going to become common for fuses beyond the modesty plates but till that day Hollins was forced to look at the very male lion. She couldn’t bring herself to complain. “But are you on the seven twenty as well?”
“Yep,” Hollins clipped. “Spending a vacation throwing myself into the upper atmosphere.”
“Oh, I was wondering about the getup,” the lion continued, shaking his head. Hollins was wearing her old orbital diving suit, a skin tight space suit studded with hardlight projectors and it had cost her an arm and a leg to get it refitted for her new form. Of course, she had received a new suit from Vico Magnani, ten times more expensive than the one she had on, but that had been returned unopened. It was good practice to ignore any gifts from the mob.
“Why don’t you take a seat?” Hollins offered. “Mr...?”
“Oh call me Julias,” he said with a grin, dropping into the light chair next to her and making it bow. “And you are?”
“Thea Hollins,” she replied, smiling back. “So are you on holiday as well?”
“Oh no, I’ve got a job out in the jovian trojans.” He chuckled. “For some reason people seem to think I have a regal bearing so they’re sending me to manage a docking station. I think its the hair.” He gestured at his mane and Hollins rolled her eyes. “Anyway, orbital diving, now that’s a sport and a half, most people I know who enjoy that sort of thing have an avian RIDE though.”
“What’s the point buying something to fly for you?” Hollins pointed out.
“That’s not exactly how it works,” Julias sighed. “Fusing is a shared process, you are still in control and can do things that no human could ever manage.”
“I’ll be the judge of what I can manage,” Hollins said, darkly. “And I’ll tell you for free, as you should well know, that fusing doesn’t always go both ways.”
“Ah, well just say for my RIDE’s sake that one bad apple doesn’t spoil a barrel,” he replied, giving Hollins a pitying look that set her teeth on edge. “Well I must get back to my friend, she’ll be waiting for me.”
“Sure, have fun,” Hollins snapped back, Julias ambled off.
“Did I really mess you up that badly?” Bast enquired after he’d gone.
“No, most of my anti-RIDE sentiment was pre-existing,” Hollins explained.
“Heh.” Hollins shook her head. “You have access to my memories, haven’t you found a reason in there yet for me to keep secrets?”
Bast chuffed but left that one alone and stretched in Hollins’ lap. “Anyway, you didn’t tell me why you like mystery novels so much.”
“Oh that’s easy.” Hollins grinned. “In stories there’s always a simple answer and a satisfying conclusion.”
“And in real life?”
Hollins glanced around at the near empty waiting area. There were six other people in there, Julias talking to an avian fuser, a pair of fuser deer, obviously a couple, and a rabbit and jaguar fusers who were studiously ignoring everyone else. “In real life I have to wonder whether the fact I’m the only human in the room means something. Its obvious they all know each other and the leader of this little menagerie specifically tried to find out whether I was travelling with them.”
“You think there’s something up?” Bast enquired.
“Yes, but then with a little luck it won't be my problem. I am on vacation.”
The carriages that plied the Alohan space elevator were an odd design, built more like ferries than spaceships they were a double decked wedge that stuck out from the main truss of the cable. Hollins had been assured by the promotional material that a wedge shape did make sense, the elevator had six cables in a central truss and the angular shape allowed them to pass each other safely and provide as much surface areas for the great windows that provided ‘the most spectacular view on Zharus’.
Inside the car the small knot of fusers and Hollins split off into their own compartments. There were nine galleries, four on the bottom deck at the end of the wedge and five at the top, each with a good dozen seats. On the earthwards journey it would have been packed to the rafters by hope filled immigrants but on the way up the passengers rattled around like peas in a jar. Hollins retreated to the bar at the first opportunity.
“So that’s an impressive get up,” Philip the steward observed, pouring out a beer. “Though for the company’s state of mind I have to assure you that there’s no danger of the cabin losing pressure.”
“Heh, nah its just a personal rule,” Hollins replied, smiling. “Never go into vacuum without a backup plan. Besides, everyone else on this boat is wearing power armor.”
“We prefer to think of it as a second skin,” the jaguar fuser observed, settling into a stool next to her. “Hi, I’m Hari.”
“And here was I thinking it was hardlight,” Hollins smirked. “Oh sorry, you said Hari, not hairy.”
“Very funny inspecteur.”
Hollins cocked an eyebrow at him.
“I’m in private security,” he explained. “Its my job to know who might be a threat. That is an impressive side arm you had in your luggage by the way.”
“Kid,” Hollins began, taking a swig of her beer. “I work with an intelligence RIDE, she could tell you what colour underwear you’re wearing beneath that metal, and how many days its been since you last washed them. Don’t try and get cute.”
The jaguar bristled for a moment and then grinned. “Oh I like you inspecteur. Let me buy you a drink.”
“Already got one,” Hollins replied, taking another draught. “And maybe if you’re such an information miner you can get back to me when you figure out why I don’t want another.”
Hari glowered at her then stood and prowled back upstairs.
“Arsehole,” Hollins muttered and told Philip. “Never trust a man who names himself after a visionary, even a fictional one.”
“He was a little, self assured,” Philip agreed.
“Yeah, its something about cats I think,” Hollins said, shrugging. “They seem to have a smug sensation of superiority at all times.”
“Only because it’s true,” Bast muttered in her ear.
The rabbit fuser stepped up to the bar. “Hey, couldn’t help hearing about the Hari bitching session. Mind if I join in?”
“Knock yourself out,” Hollins said with a shrug, and the rabbit sat down. “He’s a generalised annoyance then?”
“We prefer necessary evil,” she explained, smiling. “I’m Fade by the way, Hari and I are apparently headed to the same outpost, fortunately I’m a medic so the only time I’m going to see him is if he manages to get his fat head shot off.”
“Well if you need a hand with that, do let me know.” Hollins took another swig. “The name is Thea by the way.”
“Hmm, now why do I get the feeling that’s a crossed name?” Fade continued, gesturing for a drink.
“Because you have at least one functional eye?” Hollins suggested.
“Recent too, but no RIDE...” Fade looked Hollins up and down. “I bet there’s a story there.”
“There is,” Bast murmured in Hollins’ ear. “I’m calling it Inspecteur Hollins and the Cat’s Paw.”
“Oh no, you are not going all Watson on me,” Hollins snapped, holding a finger up to her in the universal gesture of taking a call.
“Aww, but you’d make a great Shirley Homes.”
Hollins took her earbud out. “I don’t really want to be subjected to those kind of puns,” she explained at Fade’s bemused look.
“Who are you talking to anyway?” she enquired.
“Onboard VI,” Hollins lied smoothly.
“Oh okay.” Fade frowned, not seeming to believe her. “Usually you only see that kind of irritation with RIDEs and their partners.”
“And again with the RIDEs,” Hollins sighed.
“Hey its not like they’re rare.”
“Yeah, look at this ship.” Hollins shrugged. “I never realised RIDEs were so popular off world.”
“Well we make good space suits,” Fade pointed out. “With a few oxygen matrices and a space battery and we can last a couple of days in hard vacuum. We’re also stronger, have better senses and hell, cheaper to supply.”
“Its enough to make a guy feel inferior,” Hollins said, shaking her head and taking another swig.
“Hey, don’t be like that. If it bothers you so much just buy a RIDE, they’re not that expensive.”
Hollins rolled her eyes and picked up her beer. “I’ve got some reading to catch up on. Maybe talk to you later.”
Hollins leaned back and relaxed, watching Zharus slip away beneath her through the great floor to ceiling windows. The sky had already gone jet black but they were barely fifty kilometers above the ground.
“Okay, so I’ve been doing some digging,” Bast cut in, Hollins groaned and closed her reader. “What is it with you and the gun?”
Hollins froze. “Bast, what part of ‘I have secrets’ encouraged you to go rooting through my memories?”
“The word secret,” the cat replied. “Anyway, I keep picking it up. Its not the one you use now and I don’t recognise it from any Zharus catalogs. Is it an Earth gun?”
“It was my father’s,” Hollins explained, sighing. “He started teaching me how to use a gun when I was five. He always said ‘Son, if there are two things a man needs to know in this world its how to hold his liquor and how to hold his gun’.” Hollins rolled her eyes. “The drunken ass.”
“Should you really be talking about your father like that?” Bast protested.
“Why not, he was an alcoholic moron who was one the most corrupt cops the NYPD had ever seen.” Hollins shrugged. “I’m not going to defend the man just because I’m related to him.”
“I thought you were supposed to stick up for your family?” Bast muttered.
“It depends,” Hollins explained. “Some people never get along with their parents. Hell my mother and I hadn’t talked for almost a year when she died. Sure I was upset at the time but it was decades ago and I can look back with a little perspective now.”
“Relationships are complicated,” Bast exclaimed.
“They never get simpler I’ll give you that,” Hollins said with a grin. “But it’ll generally work out in the end. Besides, there’s billions of people on this rock, you can always walk away and find someone else to talk to if you can’t stand your current friends.”
“Easy for you to say,” the virtual cat chuckled, you have legs. “I’m ju-”
Bast froze mid word. “Hollins, you need to go to the main room. There’s something on the news you have to see.”
Hollins didn’t run, she almost did but the panicky undertone in Bast’s voice slowed her down. People needed to see the law calm at all times regardless of how bad the situation really was.
“You join us live on the streets of Uplift where the domes have failed,” the journalist yelled into the camera, the howling desert winds tossing her hair and making even the gyro-stabilised image rock. “I repeat, the domes have failed. Reports are sketchy but we are hearing from eye witnesses the damage is catastrophic. We urge anyone who is able to fuse immediately, everyone else please close all doors and windows and seal them. Do not attempt to leave your homes.”
“Holy shit,” Hollins swore, staring slack jawed at the screen plastered across the back wall of the bar.
“I know,” the male deer fuser muttered. “Hell, we have family in Uplift.”
“Bast, get on the net an-”
There was a scream. Hollins almost thought it was on the screen but an instant later the image flickered and died and the scream continued. With a bitten swear she sprinted up the spiral stairs, taking them three at a time and managed to reach the second deck just as the rest of the passengers were poking their heads out of their galleries. Fade was standing at the doorway of the far gallery, near hyperventilating and Hollins bulled her way past the other passengers in her way to get to her.
“ULG!” Hollins roared, flashing her badge. “What the hell is going on.”
“She’s...” Fade turned and stared at Hollins, shock written across her face. “She’s dead.”
Hollins pushed her out the way and stepped through into the gallery. There was very little blood, that was the first thing she noticed, then the odd metallic scent struck her. The body was sprawled across the front seats with a large hole in her head and a second in her chest. Not just a bullet entry wound but a fists sized voids that let Hollins look clean through the body. Hollins fought to keep her gall down and view the scene impassively.
“Okay, what the hell is going on?” Hari demanded, striding into the room and glaring at Hollins.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step outside,” Hollins growled.
“I will do no such thi-”
“Out!” Hollins roared, making the cat jump in surprise. “A woman has been murdered and I have no time for bullshit. Leave the crime scene before I put you under arrest.”
“I would like to see you try,” the cat snarled, his lips peeling back to reveal vicious fangs.
“Hari,” Julias muttered from the doorway. “Stand down. Let the inspecteur work.”
Hollins shook her head. Everything was happening at once, Uplift, the killing and now Hari. One thing at a time though, Hollins forced her attention back to the corpse.
It was the Jay fuser, the wings were a dead giveaway but Hollins had never asked her name. The corpse was utterly wrong though, no larger than Hollins herself there didn’t seem to be a single piece of metal on her and whatever passed for her blood seemed to be grey. For a moment she thought it must have been an alien but then remembered the chaos that that Zane bastard had been riling up from the integrates.
“Bast, can you get me some records on the integrated?” she asked, crouching down next to the corpse. The wound was in a weird place, right at the back of the head almost facing the door. That implied an execution style killing not an accidental one, however she had either been taken so unaware she’d never even moved or had known and trusted the shooter to get up close without reacting.
“Yeah, I was going to tell you,” Bast ummed and ahhed. “Com is out.”
“What?” Hollins demanded.
“Carriage relay is down hard,” she explained. “Went moments after the scream.”
Hollins groaned. “Urgh, now the cases are following me. Okay I can fix this.” She stood and addressed the worried crowd at the door, even Philips was there trying to see over the mass of fusers. “Right people. We have a situation on our hands and as you can probably tell its not pretty. If everyone could head to the bar area I’m going to go through the scene and with any luck we can find whoever did this soon.”
“You’re saying someone killed Soliani!” Fade exclaimed.
Hollins smiled, comfortingly. “Well, there’s always a chance it was a tragic accident.” Hollins glanced at the corpse which was missing a good chunk of its face and shuddered. “But till we can rule out murder we must presume the worse. Now please.”
“You heard the inspecteur,” Julias snapped, ushering people away from the door. “Let her work.”
“Good grief is this turning into a mess,” Hollins said, closing the door and slumping against the wall. “A bloody integrated dead.”
“I’m not picking up much about them on my local resources,” Bast interject. “What are they?”
“If we knew then we’d be a hell of alot better suited to actually stopping them.” Hollins shook her head. “We’ve been fielding reports of superhumans for years, phenomenal hackers, unbelievable hardlight abilities and then that Brubeck moron goes and opens the whole can of worms. Anyway, they’re apparently what you get when a RIDE and rider get a little too close, they’re supposed to be damn near unkillable.”
“Well someone certainly managed it,” Bast sighed. “High grade weaponry too given the sheer amount of damage single shots managed.”
“The question is why’d she not try and fight back,” Hollins mused. “At the very least she must have heard the door open.”
Bast cut in. “Here’s a question, does it take an integrated to kill and integrated?”
“I imagine it would help,” Hollins admitted with a shrug. “But then I’ve got a gun to kill fusers so you’d probably just need a good enough force multiplier.”
“So either we’ve got another integrated on board or a very big gun, we can look for either.”
“Fair point. Either way I’m going to have to ask a lot of questions.”
The passengers were all gathered in the bar, along with Philip who was standing behind the counter, cleaning a sparkling glass.
“Well,” Hollins began. “I’m going to just come out and say it, Ms Soliani was murdered.” There were looks of horror from the assembled fusers. “And it was done by high grade weaponry, who here is carrying such a gun.”
The fusers glanced at each other, little twitches as they communicated over their sidebands.
“Please include me in your discussion or I’m going to get suspicious,” Hollins snapped, making them all stare in surprise.
“That an damn near undetectable chanel,” Julias exclaimed. “How the hell did you detect it?”
“Oh for the love of-” Hollins started to say but then rolled her eyes instead. “You kept looking at the guy who was talking. You don’t need anything beyond good eyes to spot that. Now, I take it that means you have something to tell me.”
“We, all have reasonable grade weaponry,” Julias explained, his tail tucked between his legs. “Even Soliani should have had more than enough to fend off any attacker.”
“Okay, well that makes my job more complicated, who knew her best?”
The lion shrugged and raised his hand. “That’d probably be me.”
“If you could step into one of the galleries then, I’ve a few questions I have to ask. Oh and Phlip wasn’t it?” she asked the steward, as Julias headed for the door.
“I need to talk to you about getting the com back online.”
“It’s down?” he asked, blinking in surprise.
“Yep and if you can find out why that would really help me out.” Hollin followed Julias into her gallery.
“So,” she began, closing the door behind her. “Julias, tell me how you knew the Ms Soliani.”
Julias sighed, dropping into a chair and fiddling with the tuft of his tail. “We were friends. We met up a couple of years ago while I was doing mining work and she was running a small repair yard.”
Hollins leaned against the window in front of him and began to take notes in her book. “Were you close?” she enquired.
“Not in that way,” Julias explained, shrugging. “Our friendship has always been platonic. Was platonic.” He looked down at his paws. “Shit,” he swore, shaking his head. “I can’t really believe she’s dead.”
“It eases with time,” Hollins said, briskly. “Now were you aware she was integrated?”
“Yes, it was one of the reasons we wanted to get off world.”
Hollins cocked her head.
“Apparently the integrate community is becoming unstable,” he explained, hastily. “They were always isolationist but now they’re actively attacking humans and RIDEs.” He shook his head in disgust. “We’ve all seen the mess they left in Uplift.”
“For their sake, they’d better not try it again,” Hollins muttered. “Okay Julias, can you defuse for me?”
The lion froze and Hollins rolled her eyes. “So, you’re also integrated.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah, it was our own personal exodus,” he muttered, dropping the hardlight shell. In the flesh he was a little smaller, like a scaled down version of his fuser form and wore only a pair of shorts in an eye searing hawaiian pattern.
“Stop staring Thea,” Bast muttered in Hollins ear.
“Okay, did anyone have any reason to want to kill Soliani?”
“Not that I know of, we weren’t anyone special. Just a pair of friends who wanted a chance to get away from enclave politics.”
Hollins pursed her lips. There was something he wasn’t telling her. “So how do you know Hari?”
“I don’t, not really.”
“Yet you feel you can give him orders?” Hollins pressed.
“I’m going to be his CO,” Julias explained. “When we get where we’re going. I went to some lengths to ensure we were on the same ship, you never know when something horrible will happen and it's always useful to have someone who knows which end of a gun to hold.”
Hollins rolled her eyes. “Well that does rely on knowing who to shoot at. Okay, you’re free to go. Can you send Fade in here.”
“Sure thing inspecteur,” Julias said, smiling weakly and his fuser disguise coalesced around him. “If there’s anything else I can do to help don’t hesitate to ask.”
Hollins went over to her holdall but Julias paused at the door.
“Oh inspecteur,” he said. “If you don’t mind my asking, you weren’t on the original passenger list. How come you’re here?”
“Very bad luck apparently,” Hollins replied, rolling her eyes. “However this vacation was very last moment and I got this seat cheap from a friend of mine in orbital control who has access to the booking system. I’m not surprised that you missed me on the register.”
“Okay, just wondering.”
Hollins gave him a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, I have an alibi, besides I thought you needed to put some serious effort into killing an integrated.”
“You do, that’s what’s worrying me. Stay safe inspecteur.”
“Well, what do you think of him?” Bast interjected, as Hollins pulled her Storm handgun and holster from her bag.
“Well I don’t buy the CO story for a second but unless something else comes up to make me suspicious he’s welcome to the deception.” Hollins buckled on the belt and selected the anti-riot clip for her gun. “That said, I do think he’s serious about their reasons for making the journey, and the grief seems genuine enough, though to be fair the last time I said that I ended up with tits.”
“How many times are you going to make me apologise for that?” Bast demanded.
“At least once more.” Hollins tapped her foot in impatience. “Now where is that rabbit?”
Hollins stuck her head out of the door a moment later and saw no sign of either the rabbit or the lion. The deer fusers were still at their table, looking shell shocked and both nursing stiff drinks and Hari leant against the far wall, surveying the area with wary suspicious.
“Hey guys,” Hollins said, stepping up to the deer. “Have you seen Julias?”
“He went upstairs,” the female said, her voice distant.
“Did he say why?”
“Fade had gone to the bathroom he was just going to fetch her Ms...”
“Inspecteur Hollins,” Hollins snapped. “And you are?”
“I’m Greda,” she said, smiling weakly. “This is my husband Ferreira.” The stag nodded, not meeting Hollins’ eye.
“With names like that I bet ten mu that they’re integrated too,” Bast muttered.
“Okay, well I’d better see what’s keeping them.”
“Actually inspecteur, I think you should come up here!” Julias called down the stairs, panic in his voice.
Hollins raced up the spiral staircase. “What’s the matter?”
Julias had his ear pressed to the bathroom door, the AR sign ‘engaged’ was intersecting with his head but he didn’t seem to care. “I’ve knocked several times and I’m not getting an answer. She’s not responding to any comms either.”
Hollins could feel a familiar sinking feeling in her gut. “You’re the super hacker, open the door.”
The door hissed open and once again Hollins smelt metal.
“Shit,” she swore, drawing her gun and stepped into the bathroom. Julias paled but still followed her.
“Fade?” Hollins called, creeping forwards. “Can you hear me?”
She pushed open the partition to the rear section and went through, gun first.
“Fuck,” she muttered as she saw the dead rabbit integrated. She’d been sitting on the toilet, though the seat was down, and had been shot in the chest by a large caliber weapon. She looked surprised and her eyes stared blankly at Hollins who fought the urge to throw up.
“Just how many integrated were on this trip?” Hollins murmured, more to herself.
“We all were all integrated,” Julias replied, shaking his head in disbelief. “Half a dozen integrated. That should be enough to take on a small army. And someone’s killing us one by one.”
“Okay people, screw secrecy!” Julias roared, stepping back into the bar area. “Drop your disguises and go to full shielding.”
The integrated looked shock but within a moment they’d all shrunk down to a more human size and began to hum as their hardlight shielding came online. Greda and Ferreira looked more confused than anything else but Hari was glaring at Hollins with barely concealed contempt. A few moments later Philp stuck his head out of the engineering compartment.
“What’s going o-” he began to say, then saw the four integrated. “What the hell?” he demanded.
“What part of our plan involved telling the meat who we really were?” Hari demanded.
“Nothing in the plan involved that,” Julias shot back. “But two people are dead and we are so far off the plan we can’t even see it from here.”
“We’ve found another body,” Hollins told the very confused steward. “Fade is dead.”
“And everyone integrating?”
“Is a question for the ages,” she sighed.
“See, this wouldn’t have happened if you’d let me deal with the murder,” Hari snapped.
Julias growled, a proper leonine rumble that reverberated in the chest. “So you know who killed Soliani. Who killed Fade! Or are you just bullshitting because you can’t deal with the fact you have no idea what the hell is going on either.”
Hari snarled. “I don’t have to take that from you.”
“And I don’t have to take any lip from a guy who barely made it through bootcamp. So unless you’ve got something useful to say, shut up.”
“Oh, so you’ll take advice from the meat but not from your fellow integrated.”
“Stop calling people meat! That kind of attitude was half the reason we were trying to get away from the bloody enclaves in the first place.”
Hollins sidled over to Philip as the cats argued. “Yeah, I have very little idea what they’re talking about,” she admitted. “Any luck on getting communications working again?”
“Not even flicker,” he sighed. “The whole system crashed, I mean literally crashed. The entire mainframe is fragmented to all hell and the maintenance servos have shattered themselves. Fortunately that’s the only part of the system that went, we’re still climbing and life support is still working just fine.”
“That sounds like a particularly specific hack.”
He groaned. “Tell me about it. So what’s got the ‘singularists’ riled up?”
“There’s been another death,” Hollins explained.
“Yeah, oh indeed,” Hollins sighed. “Anyway, I should break this up before they start clawing at each other.”
She stepped forwards and pushed the two integrated cats apart. “Okay people, this is no time to be at each other’s throats. There is a killer on this carriage and there’s no point making their job any easier. If everyone just stays alert and most importantly stays together then we’ll all be fine.”
“Cue lights going out and another dead intie,” Bast muttered.
“But we have no idea who is even doing the killings,” Ferreira interjected.
“Well I can say for certain we aren’t overweight,” Philip said with a shrug. “Everything matches with the boarding checks. Unless they’ve got a very clever way of foxing our sensors the murderer is in this room.”
“And any integrate worthy of the name could hack your sensors in a heartbeat,” Hari snapped.
Philip crossed his arms and stared down the jaguar. “Look bud, I know you think you’re very clever, but if we were overweight we would be climbing slower. And can tell you from how many grouping bands we’ve been over that we’re bang on schedule.”
“What part of stay together did you hear as snip at each other?” Hollins sighed. “Look, I need some room to think. I’m going to my gallery.”
“Is that really wise?” Julias interjected. “Shouldn’t someone go with you?”
“Yeah, and if I had any idea who the killer was maybe I could trust one of you to watch my back,” Hollins replied, Julias looked hurt. “Sorry, I’m stressed out too. Look. There’s one door. And you call all see if from here. I’ll be fine.”
With that Hollins retreated from the bar and closed the hatch after her.
“Good god Bast, this is not going to be an easy one,” she moaned, slumping into one of the chairs. “Integrated up to the eyeballs. A killer no one’s even seen. I’ll bet any money you like that I’m on the wack list as well.”
“This might be a bad time to mention it, but I totally called the deer being integrated,” Bast sighed.
Hollins allowed herself a chuckle.
“But seriously, you’ll solve it, what’s your usual method for cases like this?”
“Oh, I go for the old standby technique,” Hollins admitted with a shrug. “Just remember that all criminals are stupid, lazy and ugly.”
“Um... what?” Bast began. “Hang on, does that include me?”
“Sure, you ticked stupid and lazy,” Hollins explained. “Okay, so your murder was technically quite clever but you spent too much time trying to outsmart me and not enough covering your tracks properly. Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to ask, was fusing with the investigating officer and tricking them into being your advocate part of your plan?”
Hollins shook her head. “Well it doesn’t matter now I guess. More seriously though pretty much every human, RIDE and with any luck, integrated, I’ve ever met makes mistakes, they either make them because they assume they’re smarter than everyone else and so don’t believe they’ll be caught. Or because they don’t do enough leg work to cover up their crimes, or because they end up blabbing about it in someway or other to stroke their egos.”
“Are all your methods so cynical?” Bast sighed.
“You may not have noticed this but I’m a pretty cynical guy.” Hollins shook her head. “Gal even. Anyway, we need to think about the case.”
Bast chuffed. “Well you’re the expert. Who’s the prime suspect?”
“Well, if I was going for most likely to start shooting from the belltower I’d go for Hari,” Hollins admitted, slumping a little in her chair and putting on her AR glasses. An animated mugshot of the jaguar rotated in midair, Bast batted at it from her perch on the arm rest. “Thing is, he’s a integrate supremacist so while I’m worried for Philip and I’s health he’s probably not our guy.”
“Next we have Julias,” she continued, adding his image to the mix. “Seems to be the ringleader if you pardon the pun.”
“Never mind. Had means for both murders but no discernible motive. Unless this is all some machiavellian scheme to get back at those who wronged him.” Hollins looked pointedly at the cat.
“Well he’s a better actor than me if that’s true. What about the deer?”
“Don’t know either of them,” Hollins admitted. “They strike me as not, forward enough to be murders. Mostly you see people either refuse to talk to the inspecteurs or be overly helpful if they’re covering something up. They just seemed, well, shell shocked.”
Bast leapt into Hollins’ lap. “We must be missing something. What about Philp?”
“Well he practically had innocent bystander written all over him, but that’s the best cover I’ve ever seen. Does raise the question as to how he would have murdered them though, integrated people are supposed to be superhumanly tough.”
“And smart, and strong, and I imagine they didn’t lose the military spec’ sensors the DE would have had,” Bast added.
“So if it is him we’re looking at a criminal mastermind, and despite my job I’ve yet to meet one.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“No plan for now,” Hollins sighed. “Stay together, keeping poking and hope the perp makes a mistake.”
The cat slumped. “That’s not really a plan, is it?
“Best one we’ve got.”
Hollins re entered the bar to find only the deer couple waiting for her.
“Where the hell is everyone?” she demanded.
“Julais and Hari had another fight,” Ferreira explained. His ears were pressed flat against his head and he glared at the staircase. “They went to cool down.”
“Had an idea about sending a message over the telemetry system, he’s in the maintenance space.”
Hollins groaned and wandered over to the bar. “Well so much for sticking together.” She vaulted the counter and pulled a bottle of beer from the chilled air under the counter. “Okay, so you guys are probably the best people to ask. Why are you making this trip?”
“We’re, on our way to a colony,” Ferreira explained, looking shifty.
Hollins shrugged. “Yeah, I heard that,” she said, popping the top off the bottle and taking a swing. “But its obvious Julias is trying to lead you somewhere, and six people who barely know each other don’t just up sticks and head out to space with each other for no reason. So what’s the story?”
“Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter now,” Ferreria explained, putting an arm around his wife. “We were going to start a new enclave. Away from all the politics and bickering, where we wouldn’t have to worry about interacting with meat, sorry, people, because there wouldn’t be any for millions of miles.” He shrugged. “Julias pitched it as a very moderate move. Avoid the issue of the integral war by not being there at all. He has a reasonable following out in the dry, we were the first wave to see if we could make such a venture work.”
“Not that it’s going to matter now,” Greda interjected. “Soliani and Fade were our mechanic and medic. We don’t have a hope of starting the enclave now.”
“Motive. Motive!” Bast yelled.
“Thank you Bast, I am an inspecteur,” Hollins muttered, then to the couple. “So how does Hari fit into this, he’s anything but moderate?”
Ferreria shrugged. “Well it does make sense in a perverse way. He finds humans disgusting and this is his chance to get as far away from them as possible.”
Hollins downed the rest of her beer. “Okay, well I should go find the cats, before something else finds them. Which galleries are they in?”
“Five and six.”
“Right,” she said, vaulting the bar again. “Well wish me luck.”
Hollins loosened the holster as she climbed the spiral stairs. No high powered weaponry took her head off as she poked it over the lip, so she took that as a good sign and went the rest of the way.
“Now that’s odd,” she muttered, as she spotted the door to the final gallery, where Soliani’s corpse had been discovered, was slightly ajar. “I closed that.”
“Hollins, this is a really bad idea,” Bast interjected. “Horror movie 101, don’t go through the suspiciously open door.”
Hollins rolled her eyes and pulled her pistol into a ready position as she crept down the short corridor. “Better?” she muttered.
“Well unless you packed a tank and didn’t tell me it’ll have to do.” Hollins pressed herself up against the doorframe and pushed the hatch open with a foot, straining to hear any sound above her own heavy breathing. “On three,” she muttered, “Three!”
Hollins leapt into the room, bringing her gun up into a firing position as her eyes swept the room. It was empty, save the body, and Hollins relaxed, letting the pistol drop to her side.
That was when it struck. A blow like a sledgehammer caught Hollins in the back and she went flying into the room headfirst, striking the window with a sickening crack. She collapsed bonelessly to the ground, moaning in pain, struggling to make sense of Bast’s frantic cries in her ear.
“Now that was just pathetic,” the heavily distorted voice said. Hollins rolled onto her back and stared blearily up at the dark shape above her. Even if her head hadn’t been spinning the shape was so heavily distorted that its size or gender was indeterminable and Hollins groaned as it danced back and forth. “And here was I thinking you’d be a challenge after all the trouble you’ve caused me.”
There was an whine as a gun began to charge and Hollins struggled to focus on the barrel pointed at her head. The noise was deafening to her concussed brain and she closed her eyes, waiting for the hammer to fall.
“Hmm, doesn’t really seem fair to be killing you in the same way I killed my brethren,” the shape mused, the whine cutting off suddenly and Hollins gasped in relief. “Yes, I think I’ve got a better way.”
There was a silent flash as the gun discharged and Hollins yelped in pain as the light seared through her eyes.
“Good bye inspecteur,” it intoned, as a horrible hissing sound reverberated through the gallery. Moments later the door slammed shut and Hollins at last started breathing again.
“Thea! Thea! Hollins can you hear me?” Bast yelled, frantically as Hollins levered herself to her feet.
“In a moment mom,” Hollins muttered blearily, pulling a syringe from her belt pouch. Gritting her teeth she jammed it into her arm and gasped in shock as the first aid nanites poured through her bloodstream.
“Fuck!” she swore, as her hand spasmed wildly and her headache redoubled. “Damn it I forgot how much that hurts.”
“Thea, answer me,” Bast snapped.
Hollins yawned, squeezing her eyes shut as the nanties relieved the swelling in her brain. Her ears popped and she at last figured out what the hissing noise was.
“Ah shit,” she swore, as she saw the deep crack in the window. “Bast, may have a little bit of a problem up here?”
“What the hell happened?”
Hollins rushed over to the door, but the electronic lock was blank and the emergency handle had been ripped clean away.
“Someone is currently trying to kill me,” Hollins explained. “I’m locked in gallery nine and the window has a slow leak in it.”
“Well put your helmet on!” Bast exclaimed. “You’re wearing a spacesuit.”
“Yeah, that’s still in my bag.”
Hollins shrugged, picking up her gun. “I don’t have the power pack on.” She glanced at her wrist computer, already air pressure was down to two thirds of standard and it was getting hard to breathe. “Okay, you have the emergency escape routes, can you find something.”
“Umm... Ah, right head over to the right side of the cabin. There should be a small console their to control the emergency shutters.”
Hollins hurried over to the panel, breathing heavily from just walking quickly. “No good,” she gasped. “This is down too.”
“Oh come on! Right, give me a minute.”
“I don’t really have a minute Bast,” Hollins panted, scanning the room for another exit. “Give me anything. A maintenance hatch. Hell, I’ll settle for a jeffries tube.”
“There isn’t anything. Those compartments are supposed to be emergency shelters in case of a breach. They’re supposed to seal tight.”
“Unless they’re already breached,” Hollins concluded, a suicidal idea occurring to her as the pressure reached fifty percent. “I’m right above the airlock aren’t I?”
“Well, yeah. But we’re what, a hundred kilometers up? It’s hard vacuum out there.”
“Best chance I’ve got,” Hollins muttered, she sat down in front of the crack and pulled the emergency strap tight across her lap.
As an orbital diver Hollins was well aware what happened to a human without atmosphere. It was far from the persistent idea in media of an instant freeze, or the eyes boiling out of their sockets, but it wasn’t pretty. The key thing was not to hold your breath, oxygenate your blood first and get help as quickly as possible. Humans had approximately twenty seconds of consciousness in vacuum but you’d last up to two minutes before serious damage began to set in.
Hollins took a few deep breaths as she pointed her gun at the crack and loaded a full brace of armor piercing slugs. “Wish me luck,” she murmured, and squeezed the trigger.
The gun roared and the widow exploded. The pressure difference alone was to jerk Hollins in her chair and every unattached piece of luggage was sucked out into the void, even Soliani’s corpse was jerked from its seat though there wasn’t enough air to throw it clear. Hollins exhaled, her pulse the only sound in the world as she unstrapped herself and stood. The moisture on her tongue boiling was in the low pressure as she braced herself against the window frame and she made the mistake of looking down. Zharus was inconceivably far away, Aloha a mere dot of light at the base of the cable. They were so high she could even see the curve of the super earth.
The height wouldn’t matter though, oxygen deprivation would kill her long before she struck the ground and Hollins swung herself down onto the gantry below. Spotts were dancing before her eyes as she scrambled for the emergency handle on the airlock and it felt unbelievably resistant for something that was supposed to save her life, but that was just oxygen deprivation striking her muscles.
It gave at last and the spring loaded door slammed open in silence. Hollins staggered inside, her body was straining to breathe, her chest spasming as she fruitlessly tried to inhale. She forced herself to yank on the second handle when it would have been so much easier just to lie down and the door swung sealed itself as her legs gave out from beneath her.
Hollins blacked out then.
“Come on Hollins,” Bast begged, her voice incredibly faint. “Don’t quit on me now. Wake up.”
“I’m up,” Hollins moaned, wrenching open her eyes which had been sealed up by blood. “Oh god, remind me never to do that again.”
“Oh thank you,” Bast gasped. “You have no idea how good it is to hear your voice.”
“I’m pretty glad to hear it too,” Hollins croaked. She was slightly amazed that she was hearing anything at all, the pressure should have burst her eardrums, but then remembered her bloodstream was buzzing with medical nanites. They may have had only a few minutes half life in the average human but damn they were brilliant if you took them at the right time.
Hollins dragged herself to her feet, bemused to see she’d managed to keep hold of her pistol and tapped a few keys on the interior door. It sprang open and Hollins staggered through, holding onto the wall for support.
“What the hell?” Julias exclaimed.
The bar was a bloodbath. Ferreira and Greda were both dead but they hadn’t gone down easily. Tables were smashed, the walls were scorched and the floor was covered in silvery integrated blood. Julias and Hari stood in the center of it all, Julias hurried over as he saw Hollins but she held up a hand to ward him off.
“What happened?” he demanded. Stopping short.
“Someone just tried to kill me,” Hollins explained, legs wobbling as she stood on her own two feet. “Badly. Either of you guys know anything about that?”
Both of them shared a look of disbelief. “No, we heard gunfire and ran down here,” Julias explained.
“Wonderful, either of you seen Philip?” Hollins growled. Their silence said it all. “Okay then. I need to get my bag. Find him.”
Hollins stepped into her gallery and dropped into the first chair she saw.
“Please don’t scare me like that again Thea,” Bast murmured. “I thought you were dead.”
“It takes a little more than that,” Hollins replied, shaking her head. “Do you remember where my first aid kit was?”
“Left side pocket of the pack.”
Hollins pulled herself over to her holdall and pulled the small pack of power cells out. From the pocket she pulled the bundle of syringes and jabbed herself with the adrenaline shot.
“Right,” she said, slipping the pack on and syncing it up to her suit. “You okay in there Bast?”
“Never better,” the small speaker in the pack announced. “All systems are green. What’s the plan?”
Hollins rolled her eyes, slipping on her helmet. “Wear a spacesuit this time. And a little hardlight between me and the bullets wouldn’t go amiss.” She pulled a reload clip out of bag and slotted in a full brace of high-explosive rounds. She’d never had need to use them off the range before but when going up against an integrated Hollins wanted every advantage she could get.
“You’re really just going to shoot at him?”
“Well, I know he’s vain enough to try some elaborate way to kill me,” Hollins explained. “Lets just hope he’s as stupid as he is ugly.”
She stood and headed towards the door. Julias and Hari were waiting in the bar, Julias shook his head as Hollins met his eyes. “Sorry inspecteur. He’s dead.”
Hollins sighed. “Well, that at least makes things simple. The murderer is one of us, and I know who.”
“What?” Hari demanded. “How can you possibly know?”
“Because its you, you arrogant bastard,” Hollins snapped, hefting her pistol. “You’re the only one bigoted enough to think someone deserves a slower death.”
Julias looked at Hari imploringly.
“She’s lying,” Hari told him. “She’s trying to drive us apart. She’s the murderer.”
Julias sighed, and turned towards Hollins, a foldout gun blooming from his shoulder pointed squarely at Hollins’ chest. “I’m sorry inspecteur.” Hari’s hand came up behind Julias, a large plasma gun popping out of his forearm. “I trust him.”
Hollins gun came up and seven shots screamed across the room. Hari fired too early and the plasma blast smashed into Julias’ back, wreathing him in a shower of superheated gas, just as the seven shots smashed into Hari. The cats roared in pain, but Hari had had his shield up and the bullets seemed to have just made him angrier.
Hollins fired her lifters, hurling herself towards the ceiling and a brace of plasma fire tore through the air where she’d been standing. Hari stepped forwards but was hit from behind as Julias let rip with his light gun, and caught between an inspecteur on the ceiling and an enraged integrated Hari fired up his lifters and launched himself towards the airlock.
Hollins landed heavily as both sides of the lock popped open and Hari dived through. “Julias, you okay?” she yelled over the roar of decompression.
“I’ll live,” the lion gasped, clutching his back.
Hollins ran and hurled herself out of the lock after Hari, firing her lifters to keep her close to the cable.
“Hollins, why the hell are we are we chasing after an enraged integrated?” Bast demanded.
“Because there’s nothing more stubborn than an inspecteur in hot pursuit,” Hollins snapped back. “Any help would be appreciated.”
“Oh this is precious,” Hari cut in over the com. “The inspecteur valiantly trying to get revenge for the poor people she failed to save.” He chuckled. “Too bad she didn’t realise I can shut down every last system on that suit whenever I feel like it.”
“Boomer three eighty!” Hollins roared.
There was a crack and a small chunk of metal went spiraling away into the void.
“What the hell was that?” Bast demanded.
“I booby trapped the com array when I put you in there,” Hollins explained. “I didn’t really expect it as an anti-integrated measure but whatever.”
“Why did you booby trap my housing?” Bast exclaimed.
“Well you are an ex-con,” Hollins pointed out.
Bast growled. “Lets just focus on Hari. I’ve rigged a rangefinder for you.”
Hollins looked down, Hari was a small yellow dot a couple of kilometers below but the distance was dropping. “Why the hell are we catching up?” she asked. “There’s no drag this high, he should be getting away.”
“Umm, I think I can see his lifters lit,” Bast admitted. “Any idea what we’re going to do when we get closer?”
Hollins shrugged, an impressive trick while skydiving. “I was going to go with shooting him some more.”
“You’ve got a thirty meter range on that thing,” Bast protested.
“Okay, so I’m going to have to get close.”
They passed the one kilometer per second mark a less than a minute later and at last they began to encounter traffic on the elevator. Hari bobbed and weaved around the cars which flashed past at blinding speed and Hollins fought to stay on his tail. Even as the range closed it was clear Hollins was outclassed, the integrated had more lifters, better hardlight and significantly more power.
“Okay, got an idea,” Bast interjected. “I think I can sync up the inductive charger to the elevator, that shou- Look out!”
The elevator car swung on its axis, and Hollins fired her lifters in desperation, the hammerblow of the carriage passing less than an inch away. An ore carrier pod decelerated suddenly, causing Hollins to roll out of the way, but it was hiding a falling passenger car and Bast hurled as much power as she could into the hardlights. Hollins bounced, just, and went spinning away, fighting to regain control as every cell in her body screamed at her.
“As I was saying,” Bast growled, as they passed through a quiet zone. “I’ve hooked your pack into the elevator’s transmission cable, you should have plenty of juice as long as you stay close to the wires.”
Hollins rolled her eyes, at the speed they were going hitting one of those wires would cut through her like a cheese wire through foam. She rolled as another carriage took a swing at her and then suddenly Hari was right in front of her.
The plasma bolts screamed through the thin air and Hollins dropped flat on her stomach, flipping the aerofoil to maximum drag and firing the lifters in full reverse. She felt the radiant heat as the blasts streaked through the air far too close for comfort and loosed a brace of shots in Hari’s direction as he fell away from her. One connected and something sparked before they were ripped away from each other.
“Okay,” Bast interjected, as Hollins struggled to catch her breath. The air was getting thicker and the pressure of reentry, even at a slow speed was getting intolerable. “So I’ve thrown one of those HUD thingies.”
Hollins’ view was filled by a lurid green HUD with an airspeed gauge and velocity vector. “Thanks Bast.”
“Just, please don’t die.”
“I’ll try,” Hollins said with a grin, slotting a new power cell into her pistol. “Right, now for round two.”
“Just remember, he’s stupid and ugly. We can beat this dick.”
Hollins powered up her lifters and accelerated after the jaguar, staying well away from the carriages. The distance was closing again and for once Hollins felt a surge of confidence, while Hari might have had the edge in space power meant a lot less in atmosphere where it all came down to how you used it. The grin was wiped off her face mere moments later as an explosion of contrails blossomed from the integrate.
“Oh come on!” Bast exclaimed. “Mini Missiles inbound. Fifteen at a guess.”
Hollins longed for a proper ex-military DE as the missiles streaked towards her. They could have only have been point tens, they occasionally dealt with gangers who picked them up along with the RIDEs, they were nasty but not lethal to anyone in a RIDE, or even a good sized skimmer. What they’d do to a woman in a pressure suit however didn’t bear thinking about.
“I see them!” The deceleration tugged at Hollins as she reconfigured for maximum drag. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Would this be one like shooting out the window?” Bast groaned, as the missiles bobbed and wove through the thin air.
“No, this is much more dangerous.”
Hollins gritted her teeth and, with less than a second to spare hurled herself into a spin, lifters whining in protest as she fought to keep control of the tailspin. She heard the roar as the dozen or so missiles raced past and an explosion shook her from head to toe.
“No impact,” Bast snapped, a little redundantly. “They were far enough away that the hardlight caught them.”
Hollins stole a look over her shoulder, the missiles were swinging around after her and she angled back towards the cable.
“Any chance of some ECM?” she said. The lifters were getting hot against her back, they’d been designed for quick bursts and an emergency landing. Not a dogfight.
“Are you kidding! We don’t even have coms. Get me a DE if you want anything beyond moral support.”
The carriages were closer together so deep into the atmosphere and Hollins watched them twitch in preparation to smack her out of the air. Hari had disappeared from view but he was stupid, lazy and ugly, Hollins had a good guess as to where he’d gotten.
Hollins rolled, cutting within a meter of the cables the missiles clawing hungrily at her wake, a carriage rolled into her path and she had to surrender precious inches to stay out of the way. She spied an ore pod, a squat cylinder plummeting along the downwards track, and angled towards it.
“Cutting it a little fine,” Bast interjected.
“That’s the idea!”
The pod swung to intercept her and Hollins rolled late and killed every system on her suit. Her breath was snatched away by the hammerblow of the wind and she fought to keep control of her fall, and maintain her grip on her pistol and bring it to the ready. There was a rattle of booms mere meters behind her as she passed within a whisker of the skewing pod and most of the missiles failed to make the turn.
Suddenly Hari was in front of her with a charged plasma gun pointed right at her and, to even her own surprise, Hollins fired first. At the short range over half of the seven high explosive rounds hit, knocking his hardlight shield offline. Hollins streaked past the enraged integrated, hot on her heels were a few valiant missiles, confused by the fact that their target had just depowered.
On larger, military grade missiles that wouldn’t have foxed them for a moment, but they were small, dumb and running on vapours, and could pick up another set of lifters close enough to where they’d last seen their target. As a unit they decided that was good enough and, with a final burst of power slammed into the foundering jaguar.
Hollins had to fight the urge cheer as she heard the impacts above and brought her suit back online. She glanced upwards and it was just in time as she had to dodge a wild stream of plasma fire.
“Okay, so now we’ve made him mad,” Bast sighed. “What next?”
“I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really thought past jumping out of the airlock.”
“Can I request a new parole officer?”
Hollins ignored that one. Hari was closing fast, not as fast as she’d expected but then he was leaking droplets of silvery blood, tough as integrated apparently were taking a brace of Mini Missiles to the chest had to hurt.
Another battery of fire streaked past, most accurate than ever. The ground was close, not very but they had just a few minutes before they ran out of sky and Hollins didn’t fancy her chances on foot. She slipped a new cell into her pistol and muttered.
“Okay Bast, hold on, I’m going to have to do something dangerous.”
“Do something dangerous!” Bast exclaimed, panic tingeing her voice. “Now you’re saying it's dangerous? I wanna’ get off! Where’s my ejector seat?”
Hollins rolled her eyes and cut an angle back towards the cables. One final time the cars began their deadly motion but Hollins hurled herself into the maelstrom, the plasma blasts were mere inches away and she was fairly sure the lifters were melting though her suit but somehow she made it through and found herself streaking towards the cables.
There was a fairly large gap between the six lines, meters of separation at least, though while traveling at fifty meters per second that left much to be desired. Hollins rolled, firing between her legs at Hari, one of the shots connected and he let loose with a withering burst of fire as Hollins slipped inside the bundle of cables. Her vision greyed as she cut a sudden turn, ninety degrees in less space than you’d park a skimmer as her hardlight flared as a cable slashed across her side.
“Projector overload,” Bast roared, moments later the world was rent but an explosion of noise and a loose cable scythed through the air.
Hari had tried to follow her but misjudged it and hit a cable, cleaving straight through it. Hollins was sure that they were going to blame her for that one.
Somehow he was still moving, and Hollins was at last out of tricks. The hardlight shell had failed all down her left side and she struggled to regain the airfoil effect, but it was too late. Within moments the jaguar integrate had caught up and hurled himself at her.
For a moment it was all thrashing limbs and futile struggles, Hollins felt her power pack ripped away, along with Bast, and it went spinning away into the void. Hari wrapped his arms around her, well arm and a half, one had been severed at the forearm, most likely by the cable. Hollins tried to pull free of the bearhug but it was like fighting an industrial vice.
Hari grinned pressing his face against her helmet. “The ground’s coming up fast inspecteur,” he snarled. “And I don’t have the lifters left to stop either one of us.”
Hollins watched in horror as the altitude on her HUD continued to plummet. Her gun was still in her hand but uncharged and even so without the power pack she had no lifters even if she did manage to get free. High technology wasn’t about to save her.
“You’ll die too,” she pointed out, still trying to worm her way out of his grasp.
“Oh no, I’m the superior species remember. I can survive this drop. What do you reckon your chances are?”
Hollins rolled her eyes. “Better than yours kitty.” The altitude warning went critical.
Deep inside Hollins’ suit a micro ground sensing radar array sent a priority message to the main computer. The computer considered the information for a moment and judged that the occupant was far too close to the ground for safety. A unused, but scrupulously checked, subsystem activated and, with a crack of fast burn lifters the emergency parachute hurled itself into the sky.
Hari didn’t have time to react, even at integral speeds by the time he’d registered the ‘chute it had fully inflated and Hollins was yanked from his grasp. The strength of hercules couldn’t have kept a grip on her, let alone one, one armed integrate.
Hollins grunted in pain as the parachute slowed her from crippling speeds to merely dangerous in seconds and watched with no small satisfaction as the jaguar dropped away. Moments later he hit the ground, hard and Hollins angled the ‘chute to bring her in for a gentle landing on the slopes of Touchdown mountain.
There was a whirring noise as the parachute refurled itself and resumed its unending vigil against the ground. Hollins slotted a new power cell into her pistol and walked over to the small crater where Hari had landed. Much to her surprise he was alive, and still moving.
“You... you...” he gasped, limbs twitching as he tried and failed to rise.
“Save it,” Hollins snapped. “You are under arrest for five counts of murder. You don’t ha-”
Hari laughed. It was a weak and sickly thing, more a cough than anything else, but it took Hollins by surprise. “Don’t make me laugh meat. You wouldn’t hold me for more than a day.”
Hollins glowered at him. He was right, there wasn’t a prison on Zharus that could restrain a man with his hacking skills, or his ability to cloak himself, and the ability to kill with such impunity.
She sighed. “You’re right,” she concluded. “We can’t hold you. She raised her gun and put a round into his head, which exploded like a ripe melon.
The next three were, surely, just for the sake of security.
Hollins sat on a rocky outcropping, watching the sky fall. The break to the cable had been very low and the carriages all had emergency lifters, most had managed to transfer themselves to another cable but a few near the bottom were having to make emergency landings on the slopes of the mountain. One of the falling shapes caught her eye and she waved to get it’s attention.
Her pack, with parachute deployed settled to the ground a few meters away. Hollins groaned as she got to her feet, every muscle in her body felt like it had been through a wringer and she was sure she was going to have bruises all down her side from the close encounter from the cable. Ignoring her war wounds for a moment she grabbed the pack and clicked it back into place.
“Well Bast, I did say I was going to take you orbital diving,” she began, sitting back down. With any luck a rescue skimmer would spot them soon enough.
“You did. Now let us never, ever, do that again,” Bast whined. The virtual cat appeared in Hollins’ lap fur fluffed up like it had just licked a live wire.
“Oh come on, that was fun.” Hollins grinned at the look of sheer horror the cat gave her.
“Thea, I’m capable of thinking at blistering speeds compared to the average human, which is why my RI core is filled with four hours of worth of screaming.” She sighed. “Did he...”
“He’s dead,” Hollins told her.
“Good.” Bast curled up in her lap. “I’m going to go virtual for a while. I’ve got some stuff to work through.”
“Me too,” Hollins sighed and stretched. “You can come out now by the way,” she told the empty air.
“Okay, now that’s just freaky,” Julias admitted, appearing and sitting down next to her. “How did you do that?”
“I didn’t, but I figured that if no one was around to hear me then it wouldn’t matter. How’s the back?”
“Thoroughly stabbed,” he sighed. “Serves me right for calling myself Julias I guess. Hell, now this is a mess.”
“It couldn’t get much worse.”
Julias chuckled. “Well, you saved my life so at least that’s something.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t save the rest.” Hollins pulled her knees up under her chin.
“Don’t beat yourself up, they were my people and my responsibility, if anyone failed them then it was me.” The lion let out a growling sigh. “I should have seen it coming.”
“Why did he even do it?” Hollins asked. Julias just shook his head.
“I guess we’ll never know. I’ve got a reasonable theory.”
He sighed again. “It feels weird explaining this to a human, but I guess you’ve earned it. There’s going to be a war. Very soon if Fritz has his way.”
Hollins cocked an eyebrow at him. “I didn’t know this planet did proper wars.”
“Oh yeah, you’re Earth born.” Julias shrugged. “Well we don’t really but something is going to give in the Integrate community, and soon. There’s a lot of very loud voices calling for the rest of the planet to recognise that superiority bullshit they keep pouring down the newbies’ throats. Its been okay till now, but with Brubeck telling the world about us they have to start dealing with humans. I don’t think they can. Not peacefully at least.”
“Do you reckon the Uplift domes failing was an attack?” Hollins asked him.
He chuckled sardonically. “I don’t doubt it for a second. Computer based, complete disregard for human life and insufferable arrogance, exactly bastards like Hari’s MO.”
“Why’d you even bring slime like that with you?”
“I, hoped I could save him.” Julias toyed with his tail tip, it seemed to be a nervous tick. “I thought, if I can break their hold over this one, maybe I could save them all.” He closed his eyes, tears staining the fur around them. “In the end I couldn’t save any of them.”
Hollins put an arm around his shoulder. “Try again.”
“Try again,” she repeated. “So one murderous bastard wanted to stop you, trust me, that doesn’t mean what you were doing was wrong.”
“You don’t understand. Hari was just the tip of the iceberg. There were hundreds just like him and dozens of rabid bastards egging them on.”
“Even more reason to get the hell outta Dodge,” Hollins continued. “You just need to run smarter next time, maybe ask the authorities for help for once.”
Julias chuffed. “Well I’ll give you the run smarter bit at least. Thanks Inspecteur. I’ve messaged the emergency services for you. And I owe you a favour. Ask me anything, any time.”
The lion fired up his lifters and launched himself into the air and Hollins watched him till he winked out of existence.
She looked back over her shoulder at Hari’s corpse. Another ‘killed while resisting arrest’ to add to her conscience. She just wished she could summon up the will to feel guilty about it.
Inspecteur Hollins and The Multimillion Vault
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