William ‘Leb’ Lebowski bent down on one knee, a baboon proposing for marriage. Felt the seam in his back starting to ache but ignored it. Watched his gloved fingers slide easily over the oily liquid splashed across the grill floor. Sniffed them. Wrinkled his nose. Then waved them over the analyser set into his belt. A second later it beeped and the readout danced across the inner surface of his specs: 10% prob. oil slick nanos, 90% prob. Chromium residue. He grinned without humour, his face a bitter mask. Fucking Chromium.
Science won but look what’s left behind, Leb contumed as, with creaking knees, he lumbered to his feet.
He extended a hand; flicked a finger. An instant later, his pistol blurred up from its holster and smacked dead into the palm of his hand with a loud chunk.
Me, nightmare monsters, and the barrel of a goddamned gun.
Twitching a finger muscle, the Re-enforcer snapped jerkily back into its holster. The mechanism was sticking.
Leb tested it a few times, oiled it up: The pistol smacked smoothly back into his hand. He grunted with satisfaction.
Looking down at the extension of himself, his Mach 10 Re-enforcer was a solid weight: reliable, constant, unmalleable. Across the years life had changed, but his old pistol had stayed the same. Leb peered through the auto-tracking module with an eye half-closed and thoughts receding into the distance.
It’s been a long road to here.
He felt for his badge, found it still stitched tight to the lining of his jacket. Cool to the touch, its presence did little to reassure him. A small flask of Old Jack’s Finest he kept hidden in a partition behind it would, though. Leb took a swig, hands trembling; loved the sharp burn of it, down, down, all the way down.
He sighed, checked his pistol one more time and stepped down into the sub-basement. The trail of oily liquid lead a winding path through a maze of twisted-metal corridors. He could hear the distant whirr of machines, the sound occasionally punctuated by his own metallic footsteps.
There was no back-up in the automated refinery, no one else around but the archaic factory robots. He’d stopped briefly to watch them cutting, welding and assembling weapons down on the main assembly floor. They’ d not looked up as he’d hurried upstairs. Leb was glad. He preferred to work alone, his body the only liability, his only weakness.
He moved through the ashen structure, all coolness and stealth. The pain kept him on edge, sharp enough to cut.
Core my old bones – just try it, you twisted bastard. I’ll leave you with shooting pains to remember me by.
As he trudged, he considered how life had lead him up to this point.
* * * * *
As technology had advanced, the universe had shrunk like a plum left in the heat. Now, most places were within short reach. It felt claustrophobic, like the walls of society were shifting ever closer, as every day you spent time in practically 15 different places at once. Or so it seemed to Leb. He mostly spent his time in bars. Sometimes, off-duty.
‘Everywhere’ was a quick trip, whether via teleportation or warp drives. It’d all began in the early days of space travel, with a transportation method known as glooping: spray a large section of molecules – including people – across a vast distance, cross your fingers, pray and get them to terraform wherever they land. Sometimes they’d land inside a sun. Consequently, glooping was now banned, but not before chaotic civilization had jumped far into the inky black – a spreading oil slick of lights that shone over a once-dark ocean.
Teleporters made policing easy, constant – the Law was ‘everywhere’.
Previously, you’d only find cannibalisation out in The Zone, where warp gates were as yet unestablished, past the known boundaries where the cabin crews would tread. Spending months together enclosed on ships eventually lead to crew-wide psychological meltdown, and studies had shown cannibalism was not the worst of what happened when humanity turned on itself. Still, they kept sending the fools.
And now the Puzzle Piece Project.
Mouthing the words, his face twisting, Leb hoiked and spat out a gob of phlegm. He leapt carefully over an iron girder, flowed down a stairwell.
Designed to help the disabled or the severely damaged, the Puzzle Piece process incorporated dead flesh into living bodies to make a human being whole again. Although macabre, the process was revolutionising the mortuary business. The Corpse Peripherals Law of 2115 had slowed the growth of the body parts black market but had not stopped it. Now Puzzler’s were sold everywhere.
Leb had heard and seen it all before – had said as much; no one at the precinct had listened. Nobody ever listened.
He sped through a doorway, expecting an ambush. He was greeted by silence. Cautious, Leb hurried down the corridor.
Bastards that they were, it was the newer versions – the ‘Incorporators’ – that had lead to him being sent ten million light-years from home.
Typical scenario: You’d be in a park, a smiling stranger would sit down next to you, and the next thing you knew you’d be looking out through the wrong eyes, with a numbing pain gnawing out your guts. Soon, you’d be corpse-meat.
Well he’d had enough. He’d apply for reconstitution soon enough, an official process that was out of his hands once begun. He knew he would have no trouble getting put down.
Plenty of people’d wait, in long queues for a period of months, just for a turn to get the boot in, return the favour, and take a Hunter-Gatherer down a peg.
He gave the memories a wan smile. Hunter-Gatherer – the motto being: “Hunt the bastards down and then gather up the pieces when you were done”.
Leb edged down a creaking stairwell. It was like ultramodern art, twisted with age. Like himself.
Years of scars and the one accident had left him hurting. The bits of his original body, with its nagging aches and pains, had gradually slowed him down, tired him out. He’d have swallowed a bullet today if his family weren’t Devotees of the Void. He didn’t believe in it himself, had held off fate because he was all they had, but that hadn’t stopped him from applying for the “Leave a letter behind for your loved ones” assignments.
Like hunting down a dirty cannibal on a filthy little mining planet like this. And, everywhere, the ash and soot. Grey soot, grey soot and steel seemed to be the only things between him and the death-dealing vacuum of space. It was enough to depress a man, if Leb hadn’t already been on the outer.
Leb’s fingers twitched.
A closed door lay ahead.
He moved forward, listened while leaning against it. A vague sound rang out in the distance.
Well … here he was.
* * * * *
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Leb could hear the noise distinctly now, tracked it to its source. As he loped, rivulets of sweat beaded his brow, and ran down into his beard. The Furnace. The bastard had found his power source and was preparing a jump.
Leb, cautious and old, approached the last corner: light and heat, twisting, merging, spilling towards him. Lifting his specs, he shook the sweat out of his eyes, wiped his trigger hand on his trench-coat and relaxed. Heart beat. Eyelids closed.
In one fluid movement, he spun around the corner and dropped into a crouch, his right hand outstretched, bracing himself for noise. The scene confronting him blurred, then resolved into a large, flickering room. In its middle, a pit of flames shot upward at the red hot ceiling. A figure in blue sat in the middle of the dirty room, facing away from him.
Leb blinked his eyes furiously. His fingers twitched with thwarted ambition.
The woman slowly rose to her feet, the edge of her sundress brushing the dirty floor. She turned to him and smiled that familiar smile.
He removed his specs and blinked again. Salt slowly leaked from his heat-blasted eyes.
‘Julia,’ he said, her name a curse to damn him.
‘I’ve missed you, Leb.’
She casually sashayed towards him, barefoot. He found her movements were hypnotic, like a bridesmaid pause-walking down the aisle.
His heart lay stricken. .
‘I exist just to kiss you; you’ve always known that. Remember how I felt. Remember how it feels.’
His guts lay in a twisting vice.
The bride-to-be of his ever-present regrets smiled wide, too wide and continued forward.
‘Stay … stay right there, Julia. That fricken’ bastard took you in, didn’t he?” Leb’s shaky voice held a cold certainty, the words burning up in the air between them. ‘He incorporated you.’
Julia smiled a winsome little number and walked on, only stopping when she’d crossed half the distance between them.
Calculating, Leb flicked his fingers and up shot his Re-enforcer. Grip was firm. Raised and pointed.
‘I said, stop, bastard – or, soon you’ll be deader than the fetid body parts holding you together!’
Julia pauses, her face pouting, eyes amused.
Leb thumbs a small switch on the side of his gun. It reads ‘M.B.H’.
She opens her arms wide, as if to hold him.
He eases the trigger down, bracing himself.
Slowly, her forehead begins to bulge outwards.
Her reflection warps in the mirror of his eyes.
A small ball of blackness slams into Julia’s forehead, shattering her doll-like features. Bits of flesh and blood exploded outwards in a puckered splatter of sound. He can hear bone splinter.
The small figure rocks back on its heels, arms desperately clutching at the remnants of its twisted features.
Then there was a sound, like tearing paper. The remains of Julia’s head slowly buckled inward, brain matter compressing and folding.
M.B.H. Mini Black Hole, or a‘Collapser’ round. It folds enough space-time to hurt, but not enough to destroy worlds.
She screamed, her voice one of many, all in agony.
Like a pea pod splitting, Julia’s body burst open, and from the wreckage jumped a goddamn freak of living tissue. It twisted, muscles flowing and tendons snapping with gruesome intensity.
With a whiplash of flesh, it spat the mini-void out behind itself, into the pit of flames.
Now, turning to him, it reformed six-armed and muscular like some carnivorous spider. Its features flowed. A giant head made from many. Eyes center, fanged mouths outward, a blasphemy smiling at him with hurtful intention.
‘Love. Me. Leb,’ it said, its misshapen head chewing out the words.
He felt his stomach lurch.
Son. Of. A. Fucking. Bitch.
Behind it, the pit of flames dimmed and grew dark, as the fire sucked into the rift between worlds.
Leb’s mouth broke into a ragged line of teeth, all semblance of a smile.
‘You just fucked up, lady. Go on – power up with no heat to convert.’
The freak waved one bony digit back-and-forth. It opened its hand and a small object was pushed up through the meaty flesh of its palm. A glooper. Glowing bright green, for ‘fuck you, copper’.
Leb flicked the switch on his pistol. Peered down the auto-tracker. Unleashed some fury.
The freak moved; impossibly fast for its size, limbs darting and flesh cavities flowing, the withering barrage never hitting. Not once.
A loud crunch and Leb’s world spun sideways. He was on a floor hot enough to burn, slowly counting rivets in a ceiling. His side ached like lost love.
Dazed, he rolled, rolled again, knew what was coming.
A whump of flesh dented the floor next to him, a narrow miss. A fist of bone as large as his head flowed back to its maker, screeching knuckle grooves across the floor.
Gotta stall. Gotta dance.
He scrambled unsteadily to his feet, his pistol up. The freak shuffled back and forth, waving its bone fist in the air like a shiny, new morning-star.
‘Juda Michael Malanis. In the Name of the Right Arm of the Law, you are hereby charged with body theft, murder and illegal usage of an Incorporator. The sentence is death, to be carried out immediately by an authorised Hunter-gatherer. Me. You got anything further to say?’ Leb finished, gasping for air, hand on knee.
A wave of bone twisted his way. He ducked sideways.
Gotta be in the head or the heart. More flesh between a bullet and the heart, though.
Leb raised both hands up above his head, body slumping. His gun flicked back to its holster.
And for my next trick –
‘Okay, okay – I’m tired. I can see you got me beat, and in more ways than one. How about I just leave, you go your freakish way, I go mine?’
It’s other hand flowed to a sharpened point, arm slowly rearing back, held high.
– nothin’ up my sleeve –
‘Okay, okay, I get your point. So you don’t like hands? Well, how about a foot!’
Leb lifted his leg, aimed and palm-smacked his hip. It clanked.
His leg shot forwards, extending across the expanse, thudding into and through the freak’s head. It was like a spring-loaded anything going off. It left a mark.
Leb heard the distinct, glorious sound of technology zzt-zzt-zzting and then shutting down.
The freak screamed again, louder this time. It had every right to – it was stuck in nightmarish form, a large hole in its head and no sympathy for light years. It slumped, a fleshbag with no back bone.
Leb reeled in his leg, shook it off.
He raised his gun.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and almost meant it.
The freak mewed pitifully and then, whirling around, threw its shitty form straight into the blackhole. Leb tracked it as the black slowly collapsed, watched the hole shrink down to nothing.
He hadn’t even got off a round.
The room was cooling now, the heat leaving his sweat-soaked body to its own devices. His thumping heart eased, body and mind dialated.
He checked his tracker – and, surprises of surrpises, there were life signs – the freak hadn’t ended things. It’d glooped at the last second, only a marginally less suicidal plan.
The freak had survived, but it wouldn’t last long on a distant planet, far from technology and civilization. Looking so corpse-pretty. Oozing chromium.
But was it his job to make sure anymore?
Leb gripped his Re-enforcer, a solid weight in his palm. He considered it: tired; alone; nearly out of bullets.
He smiled, this time a real smile: it was like a bright light that flashes against a solar eclipse. Then he remembered the blood on the floor – and the light went out.
Leb looked back down.
And into the barrel of a goddamned gun.