Raj stopped in the alley and leaned against a wall. He let out several heavy, wheezing hacks and gulped air into his lungs. The fire in his chest burned and every breath afterwards stung a thousand pinpricks in his throat: a present from the sooty duct they had used to enter the last building. Their mimic clothes had kept them clean. Raj wished he could say the same for his lungs.
Four hours had passed since Raj’s implant blared noodtoestand. The blind bang. Like everyone else, he had turned to his fact agents and saw holomasked terrorists drag a portly, balding man out of his mover and execute him. No sign of Grace. And in searching for her in the newsfeeds, he hit upon what others in the grid community had already noticed. There had been a three minute delay in the only fact agent at the scene. It was a replay, not a live feed. The fact agent had been hacked.
The blind bang was over in less than an hour, but Grace didn’t contact him. The only message he’d gotten was brief, but terrifying: Grace’s ptenda had been removed and switched off.
Raj had narrowed down the search at home, based on the ptenda’s last position, but the remaining buildings had opaque datasets. He had no choice but to search in person. Raj had spoofed Grace’s blurp credentials while searching, but he heard no messages meant for the protector. Stranger still, no blurps from any ITB operatives. Shouldn’t they have been communicating with her? Or looking for her?
He glanced again at the telemetry. Grace last transmitted three hours ago, in this area. But without a constant stream of data, he could only guess she was still here. Five buildings searched; three left to go.
“Maybe the building on the right.” Tim whispered. “The one on the left has too many windows.”
Raj glared at the shadows and put a warning finger to his lips. They were searching well away from crowds, but he wished Tim wouldn’t speak in public, no matter how quietly.
Raj’s grafty told him the building on the right was the property of ITB, and was being leased to Holist Group, a medical technology company. Certainly a possibility. ITB had several semi-autonomous and dummy corporations to separate its less savory activities from the public eye. Tim had an old list, and among them were names associated with genetics and biochemistry. Med-tech wasn’t far off.
The floor plan showed two street level entrances. One was just around the corner, and Raj noted only a single scanner port with minimal surveillance. As he peered through the windows, he saw why: the building was abandoned. The entranceway had a few items of outdated office furniture strewn haphazardly against a wall. Raj checked his data: Holist was still renting, and had been for years. Compstate categorized it as a research facility. Hmmm.
At least he wouldn’t have to enter through a ventilation duct this time. Raj used his grafty to activate the mechflesh of his left hand. It could duplicate the surface of any hand Raj had ever shaken. He hadn’t sold the patent yet. It was too useful to him during the liquid computer negotiation. Eventually he suspected it would make him a tidy sum from compstate.
He ran a search through his hand’s memory. The list was long: he’d pawed over a hundred hands in the last month alone. A search for likely ITB employees turned up a list of fifty-two. Raj clarified: ABANDONED. Twenty-two options. He looked at Tim. Even if this wasn’t an important building, a false attempt at entry might give them away.
The PodPooch flashed a repairman working on a machine and a janitor mopping a hallway before his face reset. Raj nodded in understanding. MAINTENANCE. Three possibilities remained. Raj recognized one of the men as a regular at a bar across from his lab. He had a beer with him last week. The guy had complained about being overworked because he serviced too many buildings.
“Here goes,” he said to Tim, as his hand tingled into a new configuration. He started to place his left hand on the scanner, then stared in dismay. It was an ancient model: right hands only. Raj clenched his left hand in a silent scream of frustration.
The scanner pad went dark, and Raj felt a tug at his coat, drawing him back.
“Hit her, Raj. Now!” Tim shouted.
Raj acted on pure instinct. His natural bicep flexed. His left hand, still balled in a fist and hard as steel, flew. He hit the jaw of a woman exiting the building.
Tim ran around Raj and blocked the door open before the woman, unconscious or worse, crumpled to the floor. Raj leaned over her, terrified he had hurt her, guilty he had acted without thinking.
“Matilda Cassel,” Raj said, recognizing her face.
“I know. I saw her ptenda send. She would have recognized you,” Tim whispered, slipping in past Raj.
“We should drag her in,” Raj said, putting his hands under her shoulders.
“Come on, then.”
The door clicked shut behind them. Raj laid Cassel on one of the shabby couches. A bruise was already purpling her cheek. He shook his head, regretful. She worked in medical acquisitions for ITB. He’d liked her, back when he thought he could work with the company.
“Raj!” Tim hissed.
Away from the foyer, there were no lights. At first, Raj couldn’t see. He blinked his upgraded lids and the IR sweep ghosted on his retinas.
“All clear,” he whispered.
They moved down the dark hallway. The building was painstakingly spare and clean. Most of the doors opened to empty rooms. A few were locked and echoed hollowly when he tried them. Large power conduits hung overhead with no insulation or cosmetic disguise. Raj heard the hum of machinery somewhere ahead and perhaps above. The hum grew louder as they walked.
One of the closed doors was clearly marked as a stairwell entrance. The power conduits flowed above the stairwell door and disappeared in the wall.
“Let’s go up,” Raj said.
The stairwell was lit in a soft blue light. Tim started up the stairs. Raj paused, noting the power conduit: it appeared on the stairwell wall and ran up to the third floor. Raj rested his mechflesh hand on the conduit and sensed eight hundred volts at four hundred hertz, an unusual potential for an abandoned building.
Would it be as easy as following a string? Raj went up to the third floor, cautiously opened the door, and glanced beyond.
A wall of glass shimmered in the bright light, visible through the first door in the hallway. Glimpses of chairs and equipment, all recent tech and design. A few more steps, and Raj was standing in the doorway.
“Mango,” he whispered to Tim in reserved triumph.
It was an observation room, with rows of empty plastic seats facing a large glass wall. Beyond the glass was an operating room and laboratory, well-stocked with equipment and dominated by a closed medical pod. The pod was active.
Tim sniffed. “No perimeter alarms, Raj,” he said. “We can enter.”
“Just me, Tim. Stay here in case you need to LEMP somebody. You fire in the lab and you’re liable to kill whoever is in the pod.”
Tim sat on his haunches as Raj turned to open the door. The hum was loud, now. Raj walked over and looked at the displays.
He pegged it as a surgical modification unit: crude, but functional. Judging by the machines surrounding the pod, somebody had been modified and now recovered post-op.
Or was someone in the middle of a process requiring no attendants? He looked at the screens surrounding the pod. According to them, the operation had only recently begun. It was scheduled to run for another seven hours. Life support showed the patient perfectly fine and entirely unconscious.
Raj felt a twinge of professional anger. Vitals might be monitored from elsewhere, but an attending surgeon and technicians should be present. Standard procedure dictated several attending technicians to pull the plug if anything went wrong.
Raj peered inside the pod as robotic surgeons proceeded with their modifications. He desperately hoped he wouldn’t recognize the patient within.
Instead, he saw a pale, familiar face.
“Grace,” he exhaled.