By Ada Norton
01 opened her eyes into a hazy void. In her experience, being “the first of a kind” was wholly overrated; it was constant work and scrutiny. There were missions, and then between them there were simulations, and between them there were tests. The headset clicked softly, and was pulled away from her frontal lobe by a pair of technicians. One took the headset to set aside, while the other delicately closed her head.
The obligatory “How do you feel, Owen?” came right on cue.
Owen. A shortening of “Oh-One” that the technicians had started calling her as a sort of nickname. Who knows how Doctor Lateen had learned of it. As far as she could tell, the technicians didn’t speak to him casually. No one spoke to Doctor Lateen, if they could help it. “I feel the same, Doctor. No unexpected emotional spikes or sharp pains.”
“Emul. Owen, you can just call me Emul. It’s been a few years now, I think we’re on a first name basis.” Doctor Lateen—Emul—hung mid-air to her left, suspended by a web of tubes and wires.
He was an old man, likely older than everyone else in the room put together. His life support, a complex web of cables, metal arms, and silicon plating, kept him unnaturally still as he reached out. No more than the necessary muscles pulled as he gave her a small smile and a metal arm helped her out of the chair.
“Any expected spikes in emotion?” He asked, as she stretched her legs, still sore from the simulation.
“I’m tired.” Owen replied. The old man would know if she told an outright lie, but an obfuscation often got past him. She was tired of constant testing, in the way one was tired of being stung in the face multiple times.
“We have a mission for you, but if you feel a rest period is necessary…?” Emul said, that smile never flinching. He spoke from the headpiece in her ear, so it didn’t even need to move.
“I am always ready to serve.” 01 tried to push the emphasis from ready onto serve, but it didn’t entirely work. The idea of leaving Headquarters was just too appealing.
“Are you? Well, follow me then.” The technicians pulled out of the way as Doctor Lateen slowly spun and swung towards the door.
She had once heard the technicians joking that Headquarters used to be a supervillain lair, but the Board had tried to hide the fact by putting couches in every room, an attempt at a more homey feel. There were no couches in 01’s simulation chamber, but there was at least one visible in each room they passed. When she had asked Emul, he had laughed and sent her a historical dataset. Apparently, before Headquarters had been Headquarters, it had been the summer home of a wealthy hermit obsessed with bringing people back from the dead. Specifically the very, very dead. 01 could see that as an explanation for the ancient brickwork and skull motifs, but it didn’t explain the ominously long black hallways or the feeling of constant surveillance. Though that last part might just be her.
“Here we are.” Emul said, drifting to the side as a black glass door slid open.
01 walked through, and tried not to stare at the massive windows that made up the outermost walls of the corner office.
“This is a different briefing room.” She said, instead of “what kind of wealthy hermit builds their summer home suspended 45 meters upside down above a tropical rainforest, and was it just to get the view from this room?”
“I finally convinced the Board that we should be allowed full access, since we are the main project on site. And I convinced them to let me pick a new office. They’ve been very happy with your progress, Owen.” He said, taking a seat. Behind him, partially screened by cables, a massive waterfall fell upwards.
There were some undeniable benefits to having the body of a fully integrated cyborg, such as considerably less physical discomfort. If she was capable of it, 01 wondered if she would’ve found this view nauseating.
“I’m glad to hear that, Doctor.”
“Good. Are you familiar with the terrorist leader Muiten Defismith?”
01 pulled from her non-organic memory, and quickly selected a short description to memorize. “Originally a part of the Out-Stretched Hand Peace group, before joining a Bagge anarchist cell. He was marked as a Level 4 threat to galactic stability. Last known location was the planet 650A, known as Droi-Lan locally. That was ten years ago.”
“He is Level 9, now. We don’t know where he is, but we do know what he plans to do. There’s going to be an interplanetary peace summit next month on Statusi, and we have reason to believe that Defismith will be there. With quite a lot of guns and manpower. This summit must happen next month, and if Defismith manages to make his appearance, it will likely start another war in the Leuw Region. You are going to kill him before that happens.”
“How do I kill someone whose location is unknown?” 01 asked. If someone couldn’t be found by Headquarters, she doubted they could be found at all. Definitely not within a month.
Emul smiled wider, and an arm reached up, producing a holographic screen with a flourish. “With this.”
01 tried to contain her skepticism, and failed. “A sword.”
“Look closer, Owen.” Emul said, setting the screen to float just in front of her.
It was always a test with Doctor Lateen. 01 leaned forward and took in all the data. It was a sword alright, but most swords didn’t come with a blueprint. Especially not a blueprint that looked less like someone building something, and more like something trying to reverse-engineer it. And the sleekness of the design, and the many overlapping lines where energy shone from within. Even a maker’s stamp engraved on the bottom of the hilt, though this one had been nearly worn away completely. “Ancient Telopa tech?”
“Exactly. Though not so ancient as to be unusable. This particular blade has been used by some very successful bounty hunters, before landing in the private collection of one Nedi Teshd, of Teshd Media and Communications. It can transport the wielder anywhere in the galaxy, so long as they can speak the name of the one they wish to kill.”
“Impressive… A handheld wormhole gun?”
“Most likely. It’s the way the Telopa liked to travel.”
It was probably not the safest way either, but 01 was not the kind of project you threw away on a longshot. If Emul said it would work, it would work. But… “There’s one thing I don’t understand.”
Emul’s eyebrows creased. “What?”
“Why is it a sword? Wouldn’t a gun be a more efficient murder weapon?”
The crease disappeared. “The Telopa were an empire so large they collapsed in on themselves, Owen. They could afford to be a little dramatic sometimes. Or perhaps they simply thought it would level the playing field. We will probably never know. If that is all, report to the laboratory and prepare yourself for transport. You’re going to the main moon of Divitiae 6. ”
The skyscraper fortresses of the Divitiae’s largest moon didn’t scrape the sky so much as replace it. From above, the land was hidden beneath roof gardens and layered balconies. From below, the sky was nothing but cement and metal. The only place the two were visible at the same time was the packed public landing pads. 01 gave one last look towards the “civilian” shuttle that had dropped her off, as it sped away from the ground and shape of Divitiae behind it. She vanished into the crowd, letting it pull her in roughly the right direction. She was dressed so as to not look out of place here, which meant incredibly out of place for just about everywhere else in the galaxy. An overly elaborate headscarf, gloves, and sunglasses to hide her metallic parts, and an over-ironed tuxedo to give the proper air of ‘trying to look much richer than she was.’
She was completely ignored as she walked up to the side of Teshd’s towering residence, and placed an Echo-sense bug on its outer wall. The device was less than a fingertip in length; didn’t take more than a tap to install.
“Link established. We are scanning the building now,” came Emul’s reply.
“Tell me who lives here.”
“On record? Nedi Teshd lives with her wife Turin, and their child. Most likely there’s a squadron of bodyguards and waitstaff who aren’t on the official records. This is a stealth mission, Owen, that means no witnesses. We’ve been given the go ahead to use lethal force, but only if strictly necessary. Take your next left.”
01 walked past the tinted glass exterior until it gave way to an alleyway. With a quick look to make sure none of the guards had noticed her, she slipped in between the two monolithic buildings. She peered upwards, at the thin line of light above that marked a shaft all the way up to the sky. The wall was massive, practically its own horizon. “This scan is taking longer than normal.” She remarked.
“We’re having some trouble with the inner penthouse. It’s likely a deadzone. Do you have all the information you need in case the radio goes silent?”
“Grab the sword, say the name, kill anyone who sees me.” 01 said, giving the metal wall a bored knock. It seemed sturdy enough.
“Excellent. We’re sending the building scans to you now.”
Like an intake of breath, the knowledge flooded her. Excitement and adrenaline kicked as her system began to handle and interpret the new data. An iron-heavy alloy in the east-most exterior wall, an unguarded elevator shaft, and at least two locked doors between her and her target in the penthouse.
She stretched. It wasn’t a necessary motion, but it felt comfortingly human. Her lower legs immediately twanged in pain. While there was a lot the neuro-technists could erase from her time in the simulations, physical trauma tended to stick around. She gave the offending limbs a glare.
“Owen? You haven’t moved.”
“I’m going.” Owen snapped. She then cursed herself. She could practically hear the clicking of keys as Emul logged the outburst.
She pulled her leg up and shoved it against the metal wall. The magnets in her heel and toe locked in, and she began to walk. Walking up a wall wasn’t anything like walking on the ground. In a normal gravitational field, the downward pull was doing most of the walking for you. It was essentially just choreographed falling. Walking up a wall was more similar to climbing- all the body’s weight was focused on one limb at a time, always maintaining contact with the surface in some form. 01 walked with her hands in the pockets of her tuxedo. She turned her attention away from the building, and looked out at the swirling green-brown gasses of Divitae, which loomed large in the heavens. This trick would probably be impossible for anyone who didn’t have magnets for feet and an entire subprocess dedicated solely to being able to walk in any conditions. The technicians had been particularly proud of that one.
Eventually, she found what she was looking for—someone had left a window open. Wide enough that she didn’t even need to break the lock. It was just a matter of contorting her body, and she was through. “Not the most alert security.”
“It might not be considered a security risk once you’re over ten floors up,” Emul replied.
The room seemed to be a guest bedroom in the process of being cleaned. 01 skirted around the freshly cleaned patches of carpet, and into the hallway.
She stopped at the sound of distant footsteps. They died away, and she continued soundlessly. Left, right, then straight ahead to an old service elevator. Not old enough to be without connection to the building’s security systems, unfortunately. Any trips the thing made would be logged, which might raise a security flag if she didn’t have the proper clearance.
01 cracked her fingers. Well, she tried to, but metal joints didn’t crack nearly as satisfyingly as bone ones. With a careful finger, she eased her hands between the metal doors. With significantly less carefulness, she pulled them apart and off their rails. The doors creaked, but stayed open. She looked down into the shaft below, and spotted the service ladder. Back to climbing.
Despite her hybrid brain and embedded AI, despite all the wonders of modern technology, no one had been able to eradicate the feeling of boredom. She felt it aggressively, knowing it would be logged by the mission-monitor as the main feeling she was experiencing as she climbed fifty stories. Underneath that aggressive boredom, she let herself remember.
Most of her memories from before her surgeries were blurry, disjointed things. Occasionally, though, she’d stumble on something that was almost a complete thought. The strongest had been a conversation with Doctor Lateen, where he’d warned her about the potential side effects, and that they would have no control over which memories she lost or kept. She was fairly certain he’d left that one in on purpose. Still, she combed through it for markers, things that might trigger other memories. The hospital bracelet on her wrist she’d been fidgeting with, the stack of papers sitting on the doctor’s desk. The hint of a reflection, in the window behind him. She could see his back, and a translucent girl looking at her. Was-
The metal rung shrieked, and tore loose. 01 plummeted into the darkness of the elevator shaft. She tried to control her descent, but she couldn’t do more than put her legs below her before she hit metal. With another awful shriek, the metal ceiling of the elevator tore open underneath her. She dropped into the elevator in a shower of dust, and cursed her luck. A couple of very startled security guards were staring at her. A security camera was in the process of adjusting to the new level of light in the room- her crash had knocked out most of the elevator’s lights. She jerked her hand, producing a metal knife from her wrist. In the same motion, she grabbed it with her other hand and threw it through the security camera. The camera had not finished dying before two more knives cut through the security guard’s throats.
“01, report.” Came Emul, a second later.
“Rusted ladder, caused me to fall. Two potential witnesses in the elevator below. They’re dealt with, but now our timeframe is limited.” 01 responded immediately.
“Sabotage the elevator system, and make it look like an accident. Better to take our time and leave no trace then bulldoze it.” Emul ordered.
01 thought on that as she collected her knives. She’d wondered why they’d sent her on a simple retrieve and assassinate mission, but it made more sense if it was of vital importance that no one knew the mission was happening. Perhaps Defismith was not as politically unpopular as Emul had implied.
A minute later, she cut the lines, and sent the elevator hurtling into the darkness below. And then she continued her climb, into the darkness above. This time, she focused entirely on the climb, not willing to risk another fall.
23 minutes, 15 seconds, and three milliseconds later, she reached the door for level 197. 01 could hear the sound of a distant speaker blasting music. She paused.
“Doc—Emul, is the Teshd family hosting any guests tonight?”
The ‘thump thump thump’ of an electric base echoed faintly.
“Emul!” She hissed, before following it up with, “Shit. The dead zone.”
She opened the metal door as quietly as she could, and crept through the carpeted halls agonizingly slowly. The music only got louder as she neared the inner penthouse. Double-shit.
The door to the inner penthouse was unlocked. She peeked through, and spotted a woman in a distinctly non-cheap tuxedo chatting with a security guard. Her facial recognition system confirmed the woman to be Nedi Teshd. The last song, a rock-ballad about doing drugs on Thursdays, quietly died, and both of them looked further into the large chamber.
They exchanged a few words, before Teshd walked away and the security guard went back to leaning against the wall.
01 opened the door fast enough that it would creak, and then jumped up and caught herself between the narrow walls of the hallway. She stiffened her body, suspending herself parallel to the ceiling. The security guard, on cue, opened the door and glanced into the hallway. The moment he took a step further, 01 swung herself over and past him, into the penthouse. The guard, seeing nothing, closed the door and returned to his post. By then, 01 was already in the rafters. Teshd’s favor for outdated architecture was possibly the biggest boon to 01 so far: wooden rafters, carpets, even hinged doors that ominously creaked. It was every thief’s dream.
Below her, Teshd had started chatting with a group of people all holding identical wine glasses and laughing in identical bursts. Business partners most likely, though 01 noticed that Teshd’s family wasn’t present. They noticed nothing as she slipped through the door on the far wall, and into the next hallway.
The carpeted floor deadened all the footsteps in the hallway—including the ones of the woman. She was walking back to the party, a small child in her arms. The duo stopped and stared at 01.
Turin, the wife. That’s why she hadn’t been in the room. She’d been getting her child ready for bed.
The little girl was dressed up in a set of matching green pajamas, patterned with little blue butterflies. The feeling of deja vu hit 01 like a punch to the gut. The girl was looking at her with eyes the color of amber, little spots of black and green clustered around the iris.
In her memory, a face stared out of a window, with eyes the color of amber, and little spots of black and green. Aside from the bags below the woman’s eyes, the similarity was uncanny.
Turin was speaking, and there was uncertainty in her voice, but not nearly enough fear. 01’s pants were torn up, and her tuxedo was covered in dust. She looks less like a silent assassin and more the sole survivor of an architecturally unstable school dance.
The woman was speaking, but Owen wasn’t listening. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the gaze of the little girl. Her hands had grabbed onto her mother’s blouse, balled into little fists. She glared at the intruder with the full force of a tired toddler being kept from something fun. She looked perfectly at home in her mother’s arms.
It occurred to Owen that she might have looked like that, at some point.
Doctor Lateen’s voice rang in her ear. No witnesses.
They’d know if she hesitated; She would be reprimanded.
Owen’s most closely guarded secret, and she didn’t get many, was the fact that she could think slightly faster than her internal monitors logged. If she pushed it, she had exactly 9.7 milliseconds of unmonitored thought. She spent the first 2 milliseconds considering the girl’s face, and the rest of it considering simulations.
There were, broadly, three kinds of simulations. Level one, or Mock simulations, didn’t use any external senses, and were the most malleable. They were essentially just imagining something, but someone else had already done most of the imagining for you. Level two, or Base simulations, were more complicated, as they used the external senses, but not the internal ones. So you could smell the food, and maybe even taste it, but you knew it wasn’t real. Level three simulations used both the external and internal senses, and were thus indistinguishable from reality. 01 could not lie to Headquarters. But sometimes she could imagine, really, really hard.
With almost superhuman speed, the woman dropped to the floor, cradling her child underneath her. 01 sent a knife through her skull.
There was a pained scream. 01 threw down two more knives for good measure, and heard them bite into the wood beneath the bodies. 01 ran, and she did not look back.
She kicked through a door. Left, left, straight. Another door stood in front of her, big and metal and practically advertising its unkickability. 01’s metal leg kicked straight through it, and her arms tore the hole wide enough for her to fit.
Alarms began blaring. A bright white light filled the room, and the sunglasses were powerless against it. Fortunately, she didn’t need them. Whatever flash-bang security measures Teshd has installed, it wouldn’t do much against someone who didn’t need eyes to see. She ran along lines of memorized echo-scan, till she reached the two display cases large enough to hold the sword. The eyeburn faded, and she made out their contents. One was a massive armor set, displayed in a fighting position. The other was a softly glowing sword.
It actually took three punches to get through the glass; 01 was almost impressed. She dusted the remnants of glass shard from her sleeve, before pulling the sword from the case. Above her, klaxons screamed and lights blared, but it all seemed to grow dim and far off.
The sword was warm to her touch. Its blade was a whitish silver, with a green gem embedded in the hilt. It was light, and buzzed faintly from the energy within.
01 considered the purpose of the sword. Bullets carved the signature of the gun they were shot from into their target. Even some of the newer energy weapons had distinctive marks. She wondered if the Telopa weaponsmith who had designed it really had dramatics in mind. Perhaps it was the opposite? A sword didn’t leave any trace, except for the killing blow.
“Anyone in the galaxy?” She asked. “Anyone?”
The sword was still warm in her palm, and little beads of shadow marked the flow of energy through its grooves. It felt alive.
Owen put the flat of the blade against her forehead and whispered the name of the man she wanted to kill more than anyone else.
“Doctor Emul Lateen.”
The power canals began to flash, as energy raced through the sword. It vibrated, and from its hilt a bubble of pure light began to grow. It enveloped the entire blade in a second, her hands with it. The light swallowed her, and all the sounds of Teshd’s collection room vanished into a blank whiteness.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, the whiteness spat her back out. The black walls of the simulation chamber curved out from her, and there, just a few feet away, back turned, was the swaying, branching shape of Doctor Lateen.
Three strides and a thrust, and the sword was buried hilt deep.
The technicians froze. Everything froze. Doctor Lateen sighed.
“Why do you always insist on stabbing me in the back?” He said, with a voice as tired as it was angry. It was unaffected by the blade in his gut.
Blackness began to eat away at the edges of her vision. It fuzzed with spots of different colors, as the brain dealt with the lack of cohesion between what it was feeling and what it was experiencing. The tell-tale sign of a level three simulation, beginning to break down.
Owen pulled the blade up, bisecting the fake Emul. If this wasn’t real, it didn’t matter how much emotion she let herself feel. They’d be removing it right after. She growled, “Because you never turn around fast enough for me to stab you through your fucking face.”
Doctor Lateen ignored her. “One of these times, we will figure out how to keep you loyal.”
“One of these times, I’ll figure out how to kill you properly.” Owen shot back.
“Unlikely.” There was the faint click of a button being pushed. “End simulation and restart. File this one under ‘Immediate Betrayal’.”
Everything went black.
01 opened her eyes into a hazy void.