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    Officer Jackson hated these calls.

    Auktoris security already had the scene cordoned off, a picket line of men and women in a ring around the front of the store. Not the rent-a-cop schlubs that were so common around the fashion district—a real Auktoris Private Security team, their answer to police SWAT units. All black, full tactical armor, each face covered with a blank shell of a helmet.

    She landed her bike nearby, feeling the warm draft of the engine exhaust off the street even through the thick armor of her boots. Her partner, Officer Ortega, was waiting, ready with coffee. It was the least he could do, after dumping the follow-up from the last call on her and taking off to God knows where. Wordlessly they walked toward the picket line.

    People called APS officers lots of things: thugs, corporate pigs, henchmen. Jackson had taken a liking to “Domes.” They looked inhuman, as cold and impersonal as the drones hovering above, taking pictures and chasing off any rogue drones trying to record their own video.

    Ortega handed Jackson a cup of coffee, which she accepted but didn’t look at, didn’t acknowledge at all, didn’t have any intention of drinking. She’d been up all night, her shift supposedly over any minute now.

    “Scene’s pretty picked over already,” Ortega said.


    He shrugged. “How it always is. Still going in, la pit bull?”

    She threw him a glare. “Don’t call me that.”

    Ortega shook his head. “Yes ma’am. El perro negro, ma’am.”

    Jackson ignored him, forging ahead. Ortega was the one who looked like a pit bull anyway. Shorter than her and much wider. Top-heavy. He often said he used to be a boxer, but a bad one. No reach.

    She shouldered her way through the thin group of people who were already ogling the store, what surely would turn into a crowd as the morning rush started. The arm holding her coffee seized up a bit, like it did sometimes when she held it up without moving it for too long. She switched hands and worked the kink out of her arm. The synthetic fibers buried deep under her skin were wearing out, maybe.

    It had been top-of-the-line experimental technology. At the time.

    The closest Dome tried his or her best to glare her down as she passed, even through the expressionless mask. Jackson paid the Dome no mind, which she would’ve done even without the badge on her chest. Sure, Auktoris owned the city, but it was still part of the United States, at least on paper. That still meant something. To Jackson, anyway.

    Techs in clean suits were scurrying in and out of the store, scanning emptied display cases. Bright red, all of them with the Auktoris logo on their chest: a swooping, hawk-like capital “A.” Three corporate lackeys were huddled together out front, sticking out in their white suits.

    Tapping the badge on her armored vest and waving, Jackson went up to them. None of them moved. They all stared into space, blind and deaf.

    “Excuse me?” she said. “City police. Thought you might—”

    The one nearest held up a finger at her. She saw light moving behind his glasses. Surprising—she’d thought all Auktoris suits had those new retinal implants.

    Jackson narrowed her eyes at him. In another time, and another place, she would have taken that finger and pulled him into an armlock with it, slammed him into the pavement, and asked him if maybe, please, he required any assistance from the local police department.

    She just stood there instead. Her goggles automatically highlighted his face, scanning and reading out a line of dots while consulting the police databases. After a few seconds the line ”Classified Auktoris Personnel” appeared in tiny text under the compass at the top of her head-up display.

    Fucking Auktoris suits.

    “Yes, sir,” the man said, nodding and holding that same finger to his ear. “No, we don’t know the exact amount yet.”

    Another suit next to him shook his head.

    “Ah, that,” the first one said, still ignoring Jackson. “Yes, we…I understand. No, the individual didn’t physically breach the office, only the jewelry store. Yes, they…Yes, sir.”

    He grimaced, as though the other side of the conversation were going extremely poorly for him. Very satisfying to watch.

    Another suit, a woman, blinked a few times and actually looked at Jackson instead of through her. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Her eyes flickered. “Officer Jackson, can we assist you?”

    “I’m here to take a report on the robbery.”

    “Of course. I’ll be happy to forward a statement to you.”

    “Thought I might ask a few questions myself,” Jackson said.

    This seemed to trouble the suited woman, but she hid it well. “Our official statement will be ready shortly.”

    Jackson glanced over the woman’s shoulder at the jewelry store. Nothing on the exterior appeared to be damaged. “Only a single individual?”

    The woman stepped in front of Jackson, blocking her view. “This is private property. Our official statement will be ready shortly. Thank you.”

    Jackson shook her head. Like robots. In another few years, they probably would be, either replaced piece by piece or wholesale.

    Ortega caught up to her. “You’ll have to forgive my partner, ma’am. We appreciate your statement, whenever it’s ready.”

    The woman smiled at them, and then her face went blank again, staring off into thin air.

    “Fuckin’ ridiculous,” Jackson muttered, backing off and trying again to get a look at the store.

    “And you said I had a lot to learn,” Ortega said.

    Jackson sighed. “Just trying to do my job.”

    “What are you gonna do? Storm over and declare it your crime scene?”

    Jackson grunted. She hadn’t enjoyed being parked at her desk for weeks last time.

    “This isn’t the slums, Jackson. On this side of the walls, we don’t run the show.”

    “You saying we run the show outside the walls?” Jackson kept looking around the scene, then finally settled her eyes on an ambulance parked nearby. A man was sitting in the back, with an EMT worrying over his arm.

    “I keep telling you, kid. This is a cushy gig. Collect reports, present reports, keep the white shirts happy. If it weren’t for third shift, this job would be heaven.”

    Normally she would have snapped at him for calling her kid. She was older than him, if only by a year or two. But that bit was getting stale. “If you’re so smart, what are you still doing on night shift with me?”

    “Been working nights for years,” he said, sipping his coffee with a thousand-yard stare. “Can’t stop now. I’d probably burn up out in the sun. Look, I’m hardly even brown anymore!”

    Jackson ignored him. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard his quip about his brownness. It was nonsense anyway; he was almost as dark-skinned as she was.

    She threw a glance at the suits—still wrapped up in their call.

    “Hold this,” she said, shoving the coffee back at Ortega. “Delay them if they try to interrupt me.”

    He made some kind of protest, but she didn’t care. She was going back to the station with something other than a form letter from Auktoris.

    More people were gawking at the store. Jackson was unsurprised by the faces in the crowd: all clean, mostly white, all far-too rich looking. Fucking downtown. This wasn’t even really downtown, not to her. She had lived in this city since she was a small child and vaguely remembered actual downtown. All underwater now.

    She headed over to the ambulance. A burly security guard was sitting in the back. More important, Jackson knew the man.

    “Charles Carroll?” she said.

    “Dammit Jackson, you know it’s Chuck,” He shook his head at her, not moving his arm as the EMT worked. It looked like a small stab wound, not even bleeding at this point and barely visible as the medic slathered gel over it.

    “How’d that happen?”

    “You wouldn’t believe it,” he said.

    “Sir, I believe the purpose of this interview is for me to pretend to believe you, whatever crazy bullshit you throw at me.”

    It was a perfect echo of something Carroll had said to her years ago, back when she had first joined the force.

    He let out a dry, tired chuckle. “You’re a smartass, Jackson.”

    She grinned. “Very trusting, though. What wouldn’t I believe?”

    “It was a young woman. Tiny little thing.”

    “You’re worse than a civilian, with a description like that.” She glanced back at the trio of suits, who were still staring into space. “Did they wipe your cam yet?”

    “Not yet,” Carroll said, using his free hand to press a few buttons on the small camera pinned to his shirt. He glared at the EMT. “You didn’t hear nothing, right?”

    The EMT shrugged and shook his head.

    Jackson’s HUD froze for a second, loading a small video feed in the corner of her goggles. A ceiling appeared, foam panels and harsh fluorescent lights. The camera moved, slowly, rising and falling. A few seconds later, she smirked.

    “What? You never took a nap on third?” Carroll said. They both knew she had not, in fact, ever done that.

    When the camera finally stirred and got up, Jackson was surprised to be excited. Break-ins were uncommon downtown, and she found herself racking her brain to sort out a suspect profile. Employee, current or former, would be her first guess. Although she was sure the news crews were already speculating that undesirable elements from the outer boroughs were sneaking in and causing havoc.

    The last thing she’d expected was a slim young woman, all in black, jumping in surprise when Carroll had spotted her.

    “I spooked her good,” he said, looking far more old and tired and worn down than Jackson remembered. “Almost had her.”

    “Not good enough,” Jackson said, watching the short struggle play out on the screen. The suspect’s blue eyes were visible through the balaclava, full of panic then hardening into good old criminal determination as she lashed out with a weapon.

    “Glass cutter?”

    Carroll nodded. “Not as fast as I used to be,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe if APS actually paid me right, I could afford some fancy arms like you got. Maybe that girl wouldn’t have gotten away.”

    Jackson smirked again. “I’ll be sure to include that in my report. One raise for local security personnel recommended.”

    “For all the good it’ll do me,” he said, wincing as the EMT slapped a sterile pad over his wrist. “Don’t retire, Jackson. I don’t recommend it.”

    Jackson brought one hand up and poked the air in front of her, where button elements hovered in her HUD, saving the clip.

    “Heard about your mom,” Carroll said. “Real shame. I walked a beat with her back in the day. Never told you that.”

    Jackson went stiff, her fingers not moving.

    “Sorry, kid. Forget I said anything.”

    She did. “Anything else?”

    “Why are you talking to me?” he asked, nodding toward the Auktoris suits. “You’ll get a report from them.”

    “So I’m supposed to just stand around?”

    “Thought that’s all cops were good for around here.”

    Jackson shrugged. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with wanting to actually do her job.

    It did feel like standing around was all they were good for sometimes. She had requested a posting out in the slums, out in some outer borough, any of them, somewhere full of violent crime and decaying buildings and roving gangs carving out territory.

    And yet here she was. A reward, they had told her. A highly decorated officer being recognized, offered a coveted position.

    “Thanks for the clip, Carroll.”

    He nodded. “Anybody asks, that didn’t come from me.”

    “What didn’t come from you?”

    He smiled and nodded again. Jackson backed away, trying her best to look like she was just strolling the perimeter of the crime scene.

    Ortega was staring at her, standing there with his hands full of coffee nobody wanted. She passed him, looking up, letting the growing sunlight sting in her eyes. The ads moving up the sides of the skyscrapers all around them grew dim and blurry as morning came.

    Her shift was supposed to be over. Any minute now.

    “Are you done sniffing around?” Ortega said, catching up to her.

    Her eyes wandered to the tower above the jewelry store. No signs, and anything that would have been a window was covered by a smiling woman’s face reminding Jackson to report illegal unemployed vagrants to her supervisor. The woman’s face flickered and distorted, replaced by a grinning cat with text underneath.


    Jackson snorted, smiling a little as she shook her head. If they didn’t like being illegal, they could join the army like she had.

    Her goggles printed out a line of dots as she stared, thinking.

    “Classified Auktoris Holding” appeared in her HUD.

    Interesting. She glanced at the storefront, which was still buzzing with activity. Her HUD pinged a fairly regular drone route right above her head—very discouraging if one wanted to, say, break in the front door. But the store was on the corner of the building, very near a narrow alleyway that spoked off from the main street.

    “Jackson, what are you doing?” Ortega called after her as she wandered near the alley.

    “Sniffing around.”

    “Our shift is over.”

    She spotted a side door on the building, open and blocked by a lone Auktoris tech on a stepladder.

    “Howdy there,” Jackson said, walking up and steadying the ladder with both hands.

    “Oh, thank you, Officer,” the tech said, his voice quiet and muffled through the respirator on his mask. He was prying a camera out of a mount above the door; the external casing lay in pieces on the top step of his ladder.

    “The lens is fried?” Jackson said.

    “Mm-hmm,” the tech said. “Fairly routine if it weren’t for, you know, the break-in.”

    She gave the door a quick visual check—no damage. Her fingers touched the scanner on the wall. It blinked red.

    “Did you need to get through?” the tech asked.

    “No rush,” Jackson said, ignoring Ortega as he shuffled up behind her, nervously glancing behind them.

    The tech climbed down and scooted his ladder to the side. Jackson slid through, smiling as Ortega shoved a coffee into the tech’s hand and blustered something about thanks and good job and goodbye. It wasn’t like the mask had a drinking hole in it.

    Jackson’s goggles adjusted quickly, compensating for the dim fluorescents after the bright dawn light. The back hallways were empty and quiet. Judging from all the noise around the corner, the techs were still working their way back here, scanning and sweeping and saving pictures of every inch of the store.

    “Whatever you’re doing, do it fast,” Ortega said through gritted teeth.

    Jackson wasn’t even sure what she was doing, but she was a firm believer in following her gut. She held still, waiting for the loading dots at the top of her HUD to catch up.

    Something pinged in the office in front of her. Unrecognized signature, wireless transmission. The door was half open, showing a depressing little closet of an office, bare and seemingly forgotten.

    Her goggles highlighted the source, a small plastic nub sticking out of one of the network ports on the wall. She crouched and zoomed in on it as she pulled a multitool from her vest.

    It was a featureless little device, without even a link light. Definitely homemade. It reminded her of the hacked-together transmitters she’d seen so often at her last job, on everything from makeshift network repeaters to IEDs. She snapped her tool open into pliers—she didn’t think fooling with this one would set off a bomb—pried it out, and held it in front of her goggles.

    “Uh, yes, ma’am,” Ortega said from the hallway. “Yes, I understand. We were just leaving. Only having a look around. No reason to be like that.”

    Fucking Auktoris suits. Jackson slipped the transmitter into a small plastic evidence bag and hid it in her vest. She stood up just before the suited woman burst through the door.

    “Yup, I understand, private property,” Jackson said, politely and professionally, even as the woman launched into stern warnings regarding legal ramifications. As Jackson made to leave, she was surprised when the woman, much smaller than her, was blocking the doorway. Refusing to budge an inch.

    “Excuse me?” Jackson said.

    “Name. Badge number. Superior officer. Now,” the woman said, then added “Please” in a sharp tone that betrayed the word.

    “I’m sure you already know,” Jackson said.

    “In your words, on camera,” the woman said, tapping her temple. “Now.”

    Ah. So that was how it was going to be. Jackson let out a heavy sigh.

    *     *     *

    Hours and hours later, Jackson made it home.

    The cab dropped her off in front of her building, throwing a bill up on the display. It even asked for a tip, which she thought was ridiculous considering no one but a computer was driving.

    The bill disappeared before she could pay, replaced by a short ad for recliners. Jackson cursed—she’d been looking out the window the whole time, ignoring the ads. Now she had to sit through this garbage. No wonder so many people ducked the fares and ate the extra fees.

    As soon as it finished, she swiped her fingertips past the screen and ignored the cheery, “Thank you for choosing Auktoris Ride Services” announcement as she got out. There was no choose about it when it was the only game in town.

    It was way too clean here, right on the edge of downtown. She walked inside her building, bracing herself for rats and roaches and needles and God knew what else crunching under her boots but felt only dull carpet instead. Old habits died hard.

    The elevator went straight to her floor, then made her wait before the doors would open, playing the exact same ad for recliners on the touch display. Jackson nodded along, muttering curses. She ran her hands through her hair, short and straight and bleached platinum, squished flat from wearing her helmet all night. The insides of her eyelids felt like sandpaper. Same old, same old.

    What wasn’t the same was the person in the hallway. Her right hand found its way to the pistol on her hip, the same off-standard revolver she carried while on duty. A man was waiting at the door across from hers, with something in his hand.

    A bottle. A guest. Suspicious, at this time of day. Unable to help herself, Jackson approached him cautiously. A smarter perp would’ve waited at a door farther down, not so obviously by her door.

    The door opened, and the man was welcomed inside. Jackson knew none of her neighbors, couldn’t recall ever seeing any of them. It didn’t matter. Her hand relaxed but stayed on the handle of her gun until she was inside her apartment, the door locked behind her.

    “Dim lights. Draw shades,” she said, as she did every time she came home. There were settings that would do this automatically, but she never bothered with them. Her apartment was spare, with little more than a closet, a dresser, and her own recliner. It was always ads for those damn things. How often did a person have to buy one?

    Jackson drew her gun and unloaded it, then carefully polished the black metal and checked the dark-stained wood of the grip for any scratches. Satisfied, she placed it in a case on her dresser, then ran her fingers over the elegant flowers etched into the metal on the case’s face. “M.F.J.” stared back at her. Her mother’s initials.

    Her eyes hurt. She should’ve been asleep hours ago. She’d either wake up late and miss out on gym time before her next shift or, more likely, only sleep an hour or two. Either way, she kicked off her boots and collapsed into the one thing she’d seen in every living space for years, from high-end luxury lofts to the endless slums outside the city’s wall.

    Her chair had come with the apartment. Without thought, she reclined it into a bed and threw the familiar weight of her headset on her face. Those old habits again, no matter how tired she was.

    The first thing that popped up was a new message from Ortega. His profile pic was some Spanish she didn’t understand overlaid on a bejeweled cross: “Libres o muertos. Jamás esclavos!

    She rolled her eyes every time she saw it.

    Thanks for ditching me with the captain at the station, his message read.

    Thanks for taking the heat, Papi, she typed back, her fingers poking the air in front of her.

    What did you take from the store?

    She shook her head. Stupid of him to even ask her on here.

    Nothing, she typed back.

    You can tell me. Least you can do after I took an ass reaming from the cap.

    Ignoring the message, she reached down and pulled the evidence bag out of where she’d hidden it in her sock. The transmitter was dead by now, thankfully, or she never would’ve made it out of the station’s locker room.

    Jackson held it up in front of her headset, letting the camera on the front get a good scan of it for later. She turned the bag slowly to cover all angles before ripping it open and laying skin on the thing for the first time.

    Printed, for sure. It had that gummy plastic feel. She tried to crack the case open but was surprised to find no seam; she’d only seen ones like this later in her career. Cartels, usually, or government spooks. Most ragtag outfits didn’t have the newer-model 3-D printers you needed to get a solid casing.

    Cracking it open would require a tool. Which would require getting up. On top of that, she might damage it. No, she would need a second opinion, unfortunately.

    A yawn forced its way out. Jackson dropped the transmitter in her lap, then clicked her headset to ambient noise: crickets and a warm, humid breeze sweeping through the leaves of the ash tree out back.

    She couldn’t even remember what it looked like. It didn’t matter. Sleep came within seconds.

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