Hunting Warbirds

by Ken McGrath

“Gimme the special,” Cassandra Elsewhere didn’t bother looking, just slid into a high stool at one of the teppanyaki counters and swiped her wrist over the pay-point.

The Temple District food market in Haleton City was always crammed with people marinating in the vibrant smells of spice and smoke. Whether eating and drinking, wheeling and dealing, skiving and cheating, it really was the perfect place to hide in plain sight.

From across the square Elsewhere could hear the thud of WarBird footsteps. Each one a dead beat that seemed to suck up the noise and chatter as the policing unit strode, mechanical and heavy, through the crowd. She tried to ignore it and instead focused on the cook, a white guy in his thirties with a thick moustache, an input port above each ear and a bald patch that was only just about being contained by the thinnest circle of hair.

He produced a small, skinned something from the fridge, the head and tail already gone. Whatever manner of creature it was, or had once been, was now anyone’s guess. Elsewhere, her eyes hidden behind silver-blue shades, curled her raspberry-coloured lips in disgust. The cook spread the meat wide and speared it with two skewers, then balanced it on a rack over the hot plate. With a flick of his knife across the taut belly he sliced it open. The tightly packed, pink-white innards uncoiled, and disgorged out onto the heat with a pop ‘n’ sizzle.

Subtly, without turning her head, Elsewhere tagged the WarBird. They were ex-military kit, retconned into use for urban law enforcement through removal of some of the more lethal weaponry, so weren’t hard to spot in a crowd. It was currently over near a pastry stall, scanning everyone as it made its rounds of the packed marketplace.

Mentally Elsewhere tongued the suicide-switch Andy Sideways had reluctantly plugged into her brainware last week when he was ripping all identifiers and tags from her body. If this whole thing went arseways and the WarBird identified her as Cassandra Elsewhere of the Black Mark Gang she wasn’t going to let herself go the way of Johnny Crucifix. No-one was taking her in like that. Fuck it, she’d rather give herself brain death.

That was only if things went wrong, which she was not expecting them to, because if Andy Sideways said he’d stripped you, you were fucking stripped.

Still, you never could be too sure, but since her face had never been matched that was why she was dangling out here like a worm on a hook.

Behind the cook animated images scrolled and danced across the fridge door, alternating between news headlines and ads for Tiger Beer.

Then it flashed up, “Killer Gangster Johnny Crucifix To Undergo Radical Memory Retrieval Procedure.”

Elsewhere bristled but managed to keep her emotions in check. Johnny C had been picked up a few months back, when they were working a kidnap job. Rumour had it he’d volunteered to undergo this crazy new surgery, where his brain would be tapped into and every single memory made available for the cops to see. Everything. Word was they’d be able to flick through what was in his mind like watching television.

No wonder everyone that the Black Mark Gang had ever dealt with was on edge. Elsewhere didn’t believe he’d cut a deal like that for witness protection, but it only mattered what other people believed. The situation needed fixing and he was one of theirs so that’s where the responsibility lay.

According to their tame prison guard, a rat whose face was going to be all over those memories too, Johnny Crucifix was being moved from Clovermount Prison to the government facility in Blackpyre, for the extraction tomorrow. Hence the urgency.

She kept her eyes on the cook’s hand, watching as he ladled oil over the meat and moved it around the hot plate with a metal spatula, keeping his head down too, obviously well versed in trying to not catch the WarBird’s attention. He added some onions, flipped them, mixing it all together.

Elsewhere felt the hairs on her arms stand up. The machine had stopped behind her. She imagined she could physically feel the wave of the cameras as they tracked over her skin, for them to pick up her signatures and I.D. her.

She pursed her lips, and forced herself to look straight ahead, the WarBird’s movements mirrored in the fridge door. Instinctively Cassandra Elsewhere’s right hand went to her side. Leaving the firearm at the hotel had been the right choice. If it had been there, she wouldn’t have been able to restrain herself. Instead she coiled her fingers into fists.

The cook put a pitta bread on the griddle to toast.

“Halt, you are under arrest,” the WarBird’s voice rang out, bass heavy and booming.

Elsewhere tensed further, then the machine reached out grabbed a hold of the guy two seats further down the bench from her.

“Hector Delaware. You have three outstanding warrants.”

Elsewhere exhaled. The test was a pass, Andy Sideways had rendered her blind to the WarBird.

Ignoring the fact that one of his customer’s was being hauled away the cook cut the sandwich in half, wrapped the two ends in tissue and left them in front of Elsewhere. She noticed for the first time that the food smelled quite good. She took a bite for show. Damn, it was actually really tasty.

Cassandra Elsewhere smiled and licked meat juice from her lips. She leaned back into the worn seat and, settling in, let herself get comfortable.

“Gimme a Pepsi too,” she said around a mouthful as she unfolded a reusable cup from her pocket and placed it on the countertop.

Across town and hours later, Ricky Pitfall waited outside the Lighthouse Bar, a Heineken in front of him and watched as Tuesday night started to come alive. Smith’s Hall Square was the main studenty, cheapo, hang out, tourist section in Haleton City’s towncentre. The cobbles on the Square, were slick and greasy from the rain earlier in the day. He’d already seen two people almost lose their footing and hoped for a few more before he was called into action.

The occasional WarBird patrolling here was more to prevent minor crimes; pick-pockets and drunken fist-fights mostly. A show of strength as opposed to anything else. He’d spotted a few dopes who tried to get selfies, treating the ex-military police units like tourist attractions. They were quickly discouraged.

Students and tourists, achingly hip youngsters and oldsters who thought they were perpetual youths paraded through the Square. Tweed and plaid were in, mixed with faux-retro-cyberpunk neon and day-glo, the ones who were recognizable as guys wore ball-clenchingly-tight denim, gender-fluid-ambiguity still big on the scene. Girls in skirts so short that they merely swished over what they were meant to be covering. Clear plastic squares cut into clothes were positioned to highlight sparkling glimmer-tattoos.

Ricky watched it all. With his shoulder length hair and a beard to match he didn’t look out of place. He’d had neither when he’d last left Haleton City. He’d also been missing his right arm from the elbow down then too, but Andy Sideways had done a great job fixing him up with some replacements. It meant he had to leave the leather gloves on though, as there hadn’t been a chance to cover it with Skin-You-In yet.

Early turned into late and a WarBird went by.

Ricky stood and shrugged on his leather jacket, spikes and chains jangled. From a safe distance he followed the WarBird, the route already committed to memory. His foot bumped against the first raised nipple of tactile paving when he reached the corner where Smith’s Hall Square split off onto Brewery Lane, a corner that incidentally wasn’t watched by any CCTV or Drones. Well, not anymore. Ricky whipped out the net that Andy Sideways had created and unspooled it.

The net was a tight weave, every grind-point contained a tiny EMP. Ricky ran up and threw it casually. As soon as it touched the WarBird the electro-magnetic pulses all went off.

The machine immediately went rigid, then froze. It hunched over and seemed to get smaller.

The lights came on in a nearby parked van, the backdoors opened and Cassandra Elsewhere jumped out. The van reversed and the two of them manoeuvred the WarBird, toppling it into the back of the vehicle then clambered in alongside. The four-wheeler sagged under the weight of the ex-military, police-tech.

Andy Sideways’ reflection grinned at them from the rear-view mirror, all gold-teeth and manic eyes.

“Can’t wait to have a shot of that toy,” he beamed and gunned the engine as the doors closed. “Don’t worry about trackers. Got this whole thing fitted out like a Faraday cage. Guess we can consider the age of perpetual disruption, disrupted.”

By the time they reached the safehouse anything and everything that resembled a transmitter had been ripped from the WarBird. Andy Sideways used a winch to remove it from the van and splayed it out on a prepared workbench. Two of his specially designed, mouse sized cutters were crawling along the perimeter of it, carefully slicing through the hard outer casing. Finally it slid off and thudded onto the ground.

“Nice one,” Andy Sideways rubbed his hands. “Time to have some fun.”

Wires cascaded from the new hole and he brushed them aside, revealing at the core of the WarBird a human body.

“Poor bastard,” Ricky Pitfall grimaced. “I hate that shit.”

“What? It’s just a battery man,” Andy Sideways started to unplug the torso. “Expired when the EMP went boom.”

“Yeah, it’s just shite. Here sign up, serve your country, get blown apart and we’ll strap you into an exo-suit so you can parade around town hassling drunks. There’s no dignity to it. When I go, I’m staying dead. Seriously, no coming back,” Ricky Pitfall paused and looked at the other two, who were grinning at each other. “What? It’s my philosophy dude.”

“Yeah, whatever. Coming from the man with the mechanical arm and so many ports and sockets, in his head,” Cassandra Elsewhere tapped her temple. “Don’t worry, when your time comes, I’ll unplug your brainstem myself, just to be sure you don’t come back to haunt us.”

“Gee thanks Cass, you’re a pet,” Ricky Pitfall winked.

“Good, God, look at this tech,” Andy Sideways gasped. He removed his wooly hat, releasing what looked like dreadlocks but were actually cables and connectors he’d had grafted directly into his skull, rubbed his forehead with it and threw it on the workbench. “Pity we don’t have more time to play. I feel like I should buy this thing a drink before I crawl into bed with it. Fuck, I’d even stay around to spoon afterwards. Just glad I got the HellDrive sorted beforehand. This is going to take all night.”

“You better be done in time Ricky, cause we only get one run at this,” Elsewhere called up a countdown timer on her optic view. It had far too few numbers in it for her liking.

Andy Sideways sighed and shook his head. Ricky Pitfall patted him on the back.

“Remember, nothing is insurmountable. These things are sent to try us,” he pulled an e-cigarette from his pocket, puffed on it and said to Elsewhere, “that toad of a guard’s info better be right.”

“Reilly’s intel will be sound,” she replied. “If they’re gonna get all the memories out of Johnny C’s head it’s bent coppers like Reilly who’re gonna get it in the neck worst of all. It’s anyone that’s every had an interaction with him, every fucking thing he’s ever seen.”

“Right down to how many times a day he used to whack off,” Andy Sideways chirped up, his high-pitched nasal laugh echoed from inside the torn open belly of the WarBird.

Cassandra Elsewhere grinned, ice cold. Ricky Pitfall exhaled a cloud of vapour.

“Okay let’s get this done,” Elsewhere cracked her knuckles. “What do you need from us right now?”

Andy Sideways nudged at some welding goggles that were on the table beside him.

“Pitfall, put those on and hold this panel in place. You’re going to be my attendee while I put some life back into this ‘Bird.”

There was a muffled groan from the floor nearby.

“Sounds like our friend here is waking up,” Ricky Pitfall said. He pulled a blanket aside to reveal a bound and gagged, wide-eyed teen.

“Be sure to keep that new battery breathing for me, Elsewhere,” Andy Sideways said. “I don’t need it conscious, but it does have to be alive. Otherwise you’re going to have to go out there and fetch me another.”

Cassandra looked down at the pretty boy, who was long of limb and teary of eye. Blood had dried on the right-hand side of his face where Ricky’d ripped the electronics from his skull.

“I doubt he’ll fit in there as is,” Cassandra observed, deadpan. The kid’s eyes somehow managed to widen even further.

“Then remove the excess appendages,” Andy Sideways shrugged as he ducked back inside the shell of the WarBird. “It is just a battery after all. And we really don’t need it to power this thing for too long.”

The Black Mark Gang set to work.

Haleton City was a hybrid. Old, creaking buildings of stone stood alongside fresh, creations forged from glass and concrete, chrome and steel. Lights cast distorted reflections on shallow puddles. The modern and the classic clashed, crashed, melted and folded intimately into each other, 300-year old brick-work melding into last month’s moulded concrete, like mouths meeting.

A glorious mismatch where the spectacular met the mundane, where the rundown crumbled and the hyper-sleek reached skyward.

At 4 a.m. on a Wednesday morning it was all traffic lights, empty streets and almost deserted pavements. The few lone pedestrians with their heads down, buried in hoodies and hats, worried or joyous faces lit fake white by phone-screens as they tried to hide impending hangovers and subtle walks of shame.

Quiet everywhere, except for two young men walking, coming back from a party, or possibly heading to another one, old rock music blaring, tinny and obnoxious through telephone speakers. They looked up at the sound of the sirens, as the gates of the prison swung open and the first of the motor-bikes rolled out, sleek and sharp, like a trained animal scouting, sniffing for prey.

Then, in convoy, the police escort left Clovermount Prison for Blackpyre.

The police vans wove through these streets at speeds, guided by sleek bikes, that were all sinew and lean muscle, whose sirens split the pre-dawn air wide open. The too-early-for-commuters streets remained unclogged.

They took the route that led them where possible through the least residential areas of Haleton City, so threaded unhindered through Shimmers Hill, Lacksown and on towards Witherhall Place. Suddenly, on an open stretch near the Boyle’s Food Processing Plant on Owltree Avenue a WarBird stepped out into the road. It was spray-painted neon pink and green, with Black Mark Gang symbols scrawled all over it. Mostly though it was equipped with a lot more weaponry than it had had on board when it was initially hi-jacked, only hours beforehand.

The motorbike guards were dispatched with a short burst of machine-gun fire, then it turned to the oncoming van, which had sped up, flooring it to reach ramming speed. The WarBird unleashed a flurry of rockets that ploughed into the speeding vehicle, ripped, rendered and tore it apart. Shreds and tatters lay littering the ground, like the afterbirth of a bloody, fiery piñata.

The WarBird lifted its arms and pumped round after round into the remaining vehicles, launching rockets and causing masses of destruction.

A drone hung in the air above the situation, relaying footage back to Andy Sideways, who was remote controlling the WarBird from a nearby hotel room. Wired in deep, drifting in online space he manoeuvred the WarBird, a massive smile plastered across his face, until the cops unleashed a flurry of missiles of their own and blew his new toy to smithereens.

He pulled off his immersion-goggles, ripping foam from his ears in clumps, then leaned over the side of the hammock and vomited a thin, stringy yellow mess onto the floor.

“Damn, that was a rush.”

Dying, even when it happened digitally, was never fun but it certainly got the blood pumping.

A full ten minutes after the convoy left Clovermount Prison, another van, this one with the No Crease Laundry logo emblazoned on its side, slipped through the service gate and headed in the opposite direction to the convoy. It drove sedately for a few minutes through built-up streets, eventually turning onto Glass Lane.

At the exact second the WarBird stepped out onto the road in front of the decoy prison truck on Owltree Avenue, on Glass Lane two cars, parked on either side of the road, exploded simultaneously. They were slightly staggered away from each other, so the No Crease Laundry van got caught in the centre of the blast, rocking it off course.

The van veered, lost control and crashed, pinballing off parked cars until it ground to a halt, smoke billowing from the ruined engine.

The backdoors blew wide open and a WarBird stepped out, weapons twitching.

From out of somewhere a rake of gunfire cut across the WarBird, pinging off the chest and faceplate. The WarBird responded in kind, unleashing a flurry of shots in the direction of its attacker. As it did it stepped forwards, being sure, at all times to keep the exposed back of the van covered by its body.

To the right, a gun on balloon tyres came barreling down the street at speed, spitting bullets. From the left, Cassandra Elsewhere, her face obscured by a pixilated mask, emerged from behind a parked vehicle, and shot a clutch of grenades at the WarBird. She ducked back under cover as they exploded, sending shrapnel and concrete shards flying. The WarBird made short work of the remote-controlled gun, then turned its attention to where Elsewhere was hidden.

Suddenly the machine’s face-plate erupted outwards, as a spinning metal point reached through, like a pyramid rising. The WarBird stumbled once, regained its footing, then collapsed forward. Ricky Pitfall, his face also hidden behind a pixilated mask rode it to the ground. His mechanical right arm, replaced with a massive whirling drill, was buried elbow deep in the back of the WarBird’s head.

The machine spluttered, a mess of oil and wires, then lay still.

Ricky Pitfall jumped off it, then went around to the front of the van and pumped two rounds into each of the guards there, while Cassandra Elsewhere stepped into the van.

When she emerged, she was dragging the prone figure of Johnny Crucifix behind her.  

“You came back for me?” Johnny Crucifix’s eyes were glazed over. He smiled. Lips loose and a little dopey. Cassandra Elsewhere could count the holes in his cheeks where his piercings and implants had been removed. He looked incomplete. Drugged up, but not in a fun way. “I wasn’t gonna do it, you know that right? They was forcin’ me. Going to pillage my brain.”

Johnny’s legs were like ropes, coiling off in all directions and offering no support.

“Come on, keep moving,” Cassandra hissed.

She piled him into the back of a nearby van. Andy jumped in upfront and they pulled away. Cassandra screwed off the top of her right index finger, exposing a drive. She tilted Johnny’s head sideways, to expose the ports that ran in a semi-circle above his left ear.

“It’s time to break up the band buddy,” Cassandra jammed the drive into his head. Her vision overlaid a faint blue progress bar.

Outside sirens roared like bulls. Cassandra pulled him in close to her, lips against his ears.

The download flashed complete.

“You’ll live Johnny,” she whispered, her voice like ice in his brain. “For what you were about to do to us you’ll live and you’ll burn.”

She flicked on the programme and Johnny gurgled, the eyes flicked back in his head. The HellDrive took hold, flowing through his brain, burning everything and expunging all his memories in a red hell of flames and pain. Johnny Crucifix screamed as his subconscious was dipped in acid. Every second dragged on forever, the mental equivalent of red-hot needles under fingernails.

“Suffer well, buddy,” Ricky growled from the driver’s seat, his head and face now freshly shaved.

Elsewhere stood over Johnny Crucifix’s shivering body. His eyes were wide open but what he was looking at didn’t exist in the real world.

“Enjoy Hell, traitor,” Cassandra Elsewhere spat, then opened the backdoors and shoved Johnny Crucifix out onto the road. The Black Mark Gang were split up.

Ken McGrath lives with his wife in an upside house in Dublin, Ireland. His fiction has appeared in Cirsova Magazine, Liquid Imagination Magazine, K Zine, Tales From The Moonlit Path, Daily Science Fiction, and various anthologies. You can find him online here if you want.


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