by Fred Warren -
Avenir Station, Paradise Virtuality, Communications Nexus
Anya Sherikov and Vicky Remsen sat back-to-back at glowing consoles that floated within a mosaic sphere of rectangular windows--each one displaying a tiny fragment of the mayhem that was spinning through the Avenir space station.
Vicky paused to rub her eyes. “How do you work like this? Another ten minutes, and I swear I’m going to hurl. By the way, I’ll make sure you experience that with me in all its multicolored glory.”
Anya’s eyes darted among the scenes of carnage. “You’re a doctor. Prescribe yourself an anti-nausea drug.”
“Oh, you are so funny.”
“The good news is that we’ve done as much as we can, for now. The colonists will have to take it from here. I only hope our assistance was enough to keep them from being completely overrun. Before you log out, double-check the lower levels…make sure the pest control agent is working. You may need to dispense another blast if spiders are still moving about.”
“Way ahead of you. Checking the last couple of ring segments now.” Vicky’s fingers paused on her console and she leaned forward to squint at one of the windows, tilting her head to bring it into alignment. “Whoa. That’s weird.”
“Enforcers who aren’t running away. They’re at a corridor intersection, having an argument with some raggedy bum, and there’s a skid next to them with bodies piled on it.”
“Those are probably unfortunates caught in the first swarm.”
“I’m zooming in on it. Monitor A-34. The Enforcers sure look angry. I wonder if...ohmigod.”
“Miss Sherikov…the bodies…they’re children.”
“Children? Let me see that. Perhaps the shabby fellow is their guardian, and he’s angry with the Enforcers for failing to protect them. Ah, there’s an audio tap nearby. Maybe that will shed some light on what’s happening.”
The Enforcer who seemed to be in charge stood scowling at the ragged man, arms crossed over his chest. Anya and Vicky could hear his gravelly voice now: “I told you, no payment until the end user certifies the goods. Doll-quality is worth four times whatever we have to dump into the labs. We’re not paying top credits for substandard material.”
Anya’s eyes narrowed, and she whispered a curse in Russian.
“That wasn’t the deal.” The bum jabbed a finger at the Enforcer’s face. “I’m not waiting for some pasty-faced accountant to cull this lot to fit his budget.”
One of the other Enforcers was moving the bodies around on the skid, lifting up arms and legs. “Hey! This one’s got a club foot, Harry!”
“Do tell. I doubt it’s the only one. Forget it, Beadle. You’ll wait ’til the quality check’s complete.”
Vicky turned her seat around and leaned against Anya, arms gently encircling her shoulders. “Doll-quality? Labs? Material? What are they talking about?”
Anya pushed her away. “I need you to go check on John. Make sure he’s integrating properly. I’ll finish up here.”
“He’s fine. Father Sukahara sent me a progress report a few minutes ago. I figure they’re on their third pot of tea by now, which means Milton’s getting the nightingale story in all its painful detail.”
“Check him anyhow.”
“No. I want to know what those Enforcers are up to. The whole situation is sketchy, and you’re avoiding my questions.”
Anya spun around, nose-to-nose with Vicky. “If you don’t leave this instant, Victoria, I will isolate you from the network.”
Vicky backed away, eyes wide. “All right, all right. I’ll go. No need to get violent.”
“I’ll explain everything later. Out!”
Vicky’s avatar vanished, her voice trailing behind. “Just don’t expect me to stop asking.”
Anya returned her attention to the argument on screen. Flesh traffickers. Preying on children. They were usually more discreet. It was the first time she’d caught them in the act—and they’d chosen a singularly poor location for their little spat.
I’m sorry, dear one, but I can’t let you see what happens next.
Anya’s fingers flew across her console. The sphere of monitors was replaced by a single red-tinted display, front and center. With a grim smile, she aligned its flashing reticle on the nearest man.