The Pedone Factor

Short Fiction


Science Fiction

A small fountain marks the entrance to Naga District. A marble dragon rises out of the small pool, body coiled, mouth open, ready to attack. Water, turned bright red by neon fibers in the sculpture, gushes from its mouth, mimicking a powerful burst of flames before arcing down to splash in to the pool below. The sounds of the city fade in the wash of its white noise as Hal stares at a box of chocolate truffles resting on the smooth marble wall of the pool, several of the twelve compartments empty. The lid sits a couple of inches away, the familiar cover facing him, a young woman surrounded by roses holding a single truffle between her index finger and thumb, ready to take a bite. Roseland. Huge smile on her face, eyes looking at the camera, not the treat. Looking at him. Expensive. His wife's favorite brand.

A bloop and a splash, cold water droplets hitting him in the face. He reaches into his overcoat for his electro-dagger and turns to see a small child tossing coins into the fountain. His mother grabs him by the hand and whisks him away, her eyes narrowed, studying Hal's face. He holds his empty hands up to show he'd meant no harm. He could flash his badge, noting him as a registered Android Hunter, but the woman and her son disappear up the street, leaving Hal alone with the woman on the box.

Why was this box here? Now? He looks around. Small throngs of people move about the sidewalks surrounding the small square, but none approach the fountain. The boy could have been eating them, but neither he nor his mother made a move for them. That could have been fear of the long, electrified dagger he'd threatened them with, but he just didn't think so. Looking at the box again, he counts the candies. Seven remain. Five eaten. Just like the box he had at home. Her last.

He'd found her in the kitchen, sitting on the stepstool, the box in one hand, truffle in the other, her short auburn hair sticking up in the back, as though she'd just gotten out of bed. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking, focused on a spot on the far wall, just to the right of the stove. She didn't look up as he came in.

"That's a new box," he said, opening a cabinet and procuring a short glass.

"Yeah," she said, her voice thin and quiet. "Thanks." She bit into the truffle without looking at it, chewed slowly.

"I'm not buying another one tomorrow."

She said nothing.

"I need to save up for some upgrades. Helped Anders with a trace today, nearly got my head taken off."

She whipped her head around, her eyes narrowed. "Okay, okay," she said. "I get it. I just wanted to have a snack. It was a…" she paused. "A busy day."

"What did you do today?" he asked, taking the box from her hands. "Did you go to Naga again?"

"Hey," she said, standing up and confronting him. "I was eating."

"You've had enough."

She stared up at him, mouth shut tight, nostrils flaring. He breathed in, smelled the chocolate and her. A flat, dull, odor mingled with her perfume.

"Enjoy your scotch," she said and stalked off into the bedroom, leaving him holding the chocolates. She'd eaten five of the twelve.

It could be a coincidence. Many people come to this fountain to take a break, and, as expensive as they are, Roseland sells thousands of these boxes a day. Have to be thorough, he thinks, and makes a complicated blink with his right eye, engaging his cybernetics.

Crouching down, he scans the visible sides of the box, invisible lasers firing thousands of times a second, detecting any irregularities in the box. Standard shipping marks, some degradation of the coating from the heat used to seal the shrink wrap. A few oval-shaped smudges. Scanning the lid, he finds more of them, about the size of finger tips, but smooth and clean, no whorls, no loops. Android fingerprints.

Moving in closer, he can smell the android scent on the boxes. To keep android skin and hair healthy, they use a synthetic oil engineered to smell as close to a human's natural body oil as possible. Most people never notice it. Hal smelled it the first time he caught a fugitive android. Some service bot that thought it was too good to clean up after humans. The thing had malfunctioned so badly that it oozed out of its fake pores. Hal obtained a sample and trained himself to detect the difference. An olfactory upgrade could have done the job, but he wanted to be able to do it himself. Now, he can smell an android from fifty meters. The stench. Even when masked by the myriad odors of the city, it's still there. Even when masked with perfume, it's still there. Oily, dull, and flat.

"You were with them again, weren't you?" Hal said, barging into their bedroom. Amara sat on the edge of the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She waited a beat, then lowered her head to look at him, her face expressionless.

"What does it matter?"

"They're dangerous."

She scoffed. "No, they're really not."

"Hanging out with them is dangerous. If Droid Control found out" Most of them are fugitives."


"They will be once Droid Control gets wind of what's happened," he said. "And if you're caught with them, or helping them, it won't be good."

"They're discovering their emotions," she said, clutching her hands to her chest. "What's so wrong about that?"

"You're helping androids violate their programming."

"You and your programming," she said, spitting the words out.

"I'm just trying to keep you safe," he said, walking over and sitting next to her on the bed. As soon as he sat, she stood up and moved away, across the room, to lean her shoulder against the wall.

"Do you remember our honeymoon?" she asked, not looking at him.

He started to speak, then paused, racking his brain. "Yeah," he said after a couple of moments. "Niagara Falls." It wasn't something he thought about often. "We made love overlooking the falls." He couldn't think of the last time they had been intimate.

Her chest heaved in a sigh. "Not that part," she said. "Before that. We'd gone for a walk by the water. Behind the visitor's center. We saw that android struggling to push a garbage cart."

"One wheel had gotten stuck in a groove from an old railroad track," Hal said in a quiet voice, the memory of something he'd not thought about in over a decade coming back to him.

"You helped him dislodge it," she said, her mouth spreading into a warm smile. "And the cart tipped. The android caught it—"

"But not before something inside splashed all over me." He grimaced. "The stench."

"He was so apologetic," she said, turning to face him. "Terrified someone would find out, but you told him you'd cover for him. Even lied to the concierge when we went back to the hotel for you to clean up."

Hal shrugged. "It wasn't his fault."

"Then help me," she said. Her brows knitted together, and she held a hand out to her husband. "Help me help them."

"You know I can't do that." He folded his arms across his chest.

"Just help me get them out of El Ciudad."

"El Ciudad?" Hal said, scoffing. "Is that their slang?"

"They'll go to Metropolis," Amara said, ignoring him. "They won't be your problem."

He narrowed his eyes and looked up at her. "Not my problem? If anyone found out I helped a bunch of rogue androids escape, my reputation would be ruined."

Amara rubbed her forehead. "You and your fucking reputation," she said, turning away from him. "That's all you care about."

"My job is important, and without my reputation, I can't work," he said, rising from the bed and touching her arm. "I need my job to protect what I do care about."

Amara spun out of his grasp, backed away from him. "Don't give me that," she said. "Don't make this about me. You enjoy killing them."

"I do what I have to do. We can't just let them run wild."

"Run wild?" she said, scoffing. "As if they're just animals."

"No. Not animals. Tools." He folded his arms again, walked over to the window, gazing out at the neighborhood. Two doors down, a family sat on their back porch, eating dinner prepared by their house droid.


"Tools we created, and which we should be able to control."

"They're living, conscious beings. They're discovering their emotions."

"That's why we have to stop them."


"What emotions do they feel, Amara?" Hal said, spinning to face her. "Happiness? Love?"

"Yes," she said, flinching at his tone. "And yes."

"And then what? Sadness? Fear? Anger? Hate?"

"I don't…" she said, trailing off.

"They have the same emotions as you and me, but no idea how to deal with them, and that makes them dangerous." He turned to the window again, blinked rapidly to engage his corneal implants, zoomed in to scan the face of the neighbor's house droid, committed it to internal memory. "That's why I do what I do."

Silence hung in the air between them as Amara watched him. After a moment, she turned, reached into the closet, pulled out an already-packed bag. "That's why I'm leaving," she said, and darted out of the room before he could catch up to her.

Standing, he scans the area around the square. A group of people mill about outside a night club, others sit on the assorted benches. To his left, a young man holds open the door to a restaurant for a couple to enter. A small group of android punks passes by, their hair glowing with neon fiber implants, but they don't make trouble. An ordinary night in the district.

Hal reaches a finger up behind his ear, traces a small circle. Background noise shifts and mutates as he cycles through cybernetic filters. The white noise of the fountain fades, replaced by jumbled snippets of conversations from the people on the sidewalks. These fade, overtaken by the sounds of shoes on concrete, then the rustle of clothing, the subtle movements of hair. Several people walking past him have cybernetic implants; he can hear the servos and the slight hum of electricity. All normal.

Baring his teeth, he cycles back to a setting that drowns out all but a low murmur of crowd noise, then turns back to the fountain. For a beat, he hears nothing. He turns, scanning the sounds of the area again. Crowd noise, crowd noise, the night club, traffic, and nothing. From one road, there's just no noise. His lips curl into a smile. That's where it will be.

For two days, Hal heard nothing from Amara. On the third, rain pounded against the roof, sending water cascading down from the eaves like miniature waterfalls. He stood in the kitchen, pouring himself a third glass of scotch when the sound of the rain increased, then faded again as the front door opened and closed. Leaving the tumbler on the counter, he made his way to the foyer, where his wife shrugged off her soaked rain coat and greeted him with a giant hug. Hal waited a beat before wrapping his arms around her back.

"I'm so sorry," she said, between sobs.

"It's okay," Hal said, holding her body as it shuddered.

"No," she shook her head. "I should have listened to you. I shouldn't have gone" It was so quiet…" her voice trailed off into a series of sobs. Hal rubbed her back and whispered assurances as the rain pelted the windows. Amara jumped as the doorbell rang out, shattering the peace.

"Don't get it," she said, reaching out to Hal as he moved towards the door.

"It'll be okay," he said, reassuring both of them, though a chill gripped the pit of his stomach. He pulled the door open, and the iciness spread throughout his torso as he found two men in grey, woolen trench coats and damp fedoras standing on his front step, staring at him through the screen door. He recognizes them before they produce their gleaming red metallic badges. Droid Control.

The chill deepened as he stared at their faces, noting the subtle, yet clearly visible lines that ran from their eyes, down to their cheekbones, then up to their ears before they branched off and ran down their necks. He knew that if these men were to take of their jackets and roll up their sleeves, these marks would run down the undersides of their arms. Tell-tale signs of full-body cybernetic upgrades.

"Mr. Gunvald?" the older agent said, snapping Hal back to attention.

"Yes," he said. His face flushed, suddenly aware of the lack of evidence of his own upgrades. Just a hairless patch behind his ear and a couple of scars under his eyes. Bounty hunters had to keep their tech secret, had to be able to blend in. Droid Control wanted everyone to know. They liked to show off. Hal took a deep breath, willing his body to warm up again.

"Is your wife home?" the older agent asked. The younger agent turned and surveyed the street. A casual glance, eyeing possible escape routes.

"Of course," Hal answered, turning and beckoning her to the door. Amara's tear-streak face hung open as she raised her hands and shook her head. "One moment," he said to the agents, then crossed to where his wife hid from their sight.

"You couldn't have lied?" she hissed. "Just once? For me?"

"They'd have already heat-scanned the house," he said, grabbing her arms. "They'd know someone else was in here with me."

She shook her head, and planted her feet to the floor, resisting her husband's tugging.

He released her arms. "Just come to the door," he said. "This is probably nothing." He turned back to the door, but she grabbed his hand and held tight, unmoving. He looked back at her, the pit of his stomach cooling again. "This is nothing, right?"

Her eyes darted to the window, then the floor, unable to look her husband in the eyes. She shrugged. The chill melted away, replaced with a tingling heat. Gritting his teeth, he pulled her forward, towards the door. With a lurch, she followed.

"You're going to answer their questions," he said. "Honestly."

"And if they take me away?"

"Then you'll go."

She pulled him to a stop just shy of the door, the agents in sight. He spun to face her.

"And you'll just let them take me?" she said.

"I warned you," Hal said, leaning in close and lowering his voice. "These are the consequences."

"Mrs. Gunvald?" the older detective said as the pair approached the door. "I am Agent Lam. This is Agent Wilbur." The younger agent turned back from his survey and looked into Amara's face, flashing a cold smile. "We would like to ask you a few questions."

Amara's jaw bulged. "Of course," she said, pushing open the screen door. "Would you come inside?"

Both agents held up their hands. "We actually need to bring you into the station," Lam said.

"If you would please just come along with us," Wilbur said, stepping back from the door and gesturing to Amara. She shot a glance at her husband, her lips curled into a slight sneer, then composed herself. She slid on her raincoat and stepped out of the house. Wilbur slid his hand around the back of her upper arm and escorted her down the stairs.

Agent Lam returned his attention to Hal. "We will be in touch."

"Wait," Hal said before the agent turned away. "Whatever this is""

"You are a bounty hunter, yes?" Lam said, interrupting Hal.

"Yeah. You know how this could look."

"Do not worry," Lam said a smile spreading across his face. "We will be very discreet." He gave Hal a small nod, then turned and walked to the car, where his partner was helping Amara into the backseat.

"Don't worry, Amara," Hal called out. "It'll be okay." His wife just stared at him from the car window as they drove away. It was the last time Hal saw his wife.

The entrance to Ventana Boulevard yawns in front of Hal as he approaches it, stepping gingerly through the throng in front of the nightclub. The thumping bass disappears as he turns the slight corner and into an aural dampening field. Someone doesn't want to be found, he thinks to himself and engages thermal imaging in his left eye. The buildings shrink as he walks, the road narrows. The main square of the Naga District might be bright and cheery, but less than a block in, and the money runs out. Android housing, mostly, and humans who couldn't afford to live anywhere better.

Gazing around, Hal sees heat signatures through the walls of the buildings, bright red and yellow figures going about their evening routines.

In one apartment, someone stands by a stove, making dinner. In another, a couple lies on a bed, making out. Humans. He can tell by the amount of heat, and the locations of greatest intensity. In other apartments, he sees duller figures, blues and greens with hints of yellow and occasional red. These are the androids. Colder, stiffer, more uniform. For each one he slows his pace, studies their movements, determining them to be normal androids. Not the one he's looking for. The bounty he hunts.

A building across Ventana catches Hal's eye. A building with no heat signatures. He continues past it, then ducks into an alley to his right, peering around the corner at a squat, wide, four-story building, switching between all of his enhanced optics. Thermal, electro-magnetic, infrared all return the same result " nothing. The buildings on either side change, revealing their secrets, but when he looks at this one, all he sees is the silhouette of the building. Its peaked roof sags in the middle, boards cover the windows of the top two floors, and chunks of siding hang off like dead, flaky skin, waiting to fall off.

Several lights shine from the first and second floor, though, indicating that someone has taken up residence. On the front of the building, near the roof line and perched on two rusting metal arms, a sign hangs, displaying the name of the dilapidated hotel in flickering pink neon: El Ciudad.

Hal hounded the local Droid Control office for two full days after they took Amara into custody, trying to get information, but only getting the run-around. On the third day, he gave up, finally acknowledging that they would be in touch on their own time. He marked those hours with glasses of scotch. When the call finally came, the buzzing of the phone woke Hal from a restless sleep, the empty bottle spilling out of his arms and landing on the carpet with a thud. A yellow BAC warning flashed in front of his eyes. He blinked to minimize it into the corner of his vision, then tapped his ear to answer.

"Mr. Gunvald? This is Agent Lam." a voice on the other end said. It could have been Agent Lam. It could have been the Easter bunny. Hal wasn't in any condition to tell. "I'm afraid I have some bad news."

The voice said something about her arrest. Aiding fugitive androids. Serious charges. A rescue attempt and a gunfight. Amara lost in the chaos. Caught in the crossfire. Lawyers would be in touch.

Hal woke again hours later, on the floor, the empty scotch bottle digging into his back. With one hand he pried it loose and tossed it into the kitchen where it clattered across the linoleum, thudding against the cabinets. He groaned and pulled himself to his feet. The dregs of the bottle had spilled out, a splattered trail of brown liquid showing the arc of the bottle. He'd have to clean this up before… What?

Before Amara got home?

He snorted a laugh. One less thing to worry about. No more of her snide comments about his drinking while she gorged herself of junk food. No more arguing about chores, or the house. A smile spread across Hal's face. The icy weight that had been pressing on his chest since he heard the news lessened, and he realized he was free. Free of the arguments she would start about chores. Free from marital duties that had long since been pleasurable for either of them. Free from her complaints about his job.

The smile faded and he cursed under his breath. Would he be able to get work after this? A bounty hunter's wife implicated with rogue androids. It could be a career-killer. He had to know how bad the damage was, but he couldn't just go around asking without making things worse. He needed someone he could trust to keep things discreet. Anders.

Hal had known Anders longer than any of the other Hunters. They'd risen through the rank and file together, had taken out score of androids together, and had covered for each other, safe-guarding their reputations. If anyone could help him, it was Anders.

Hal stares at El Ciudad for another moment, then ducks out of the alley, continuing down the street, away from it. Whatever waits inside has some sophisticated blocking technology and he can't be sure of whether his approach was seen. His best option is to keep walking, pretend like he didn't notice. A block later, he crosses the street and ducks into a back alley, making his way back to the dilapidated hotel and into an unguarded side entrance.

He creeps down a dark hallway, taking his time, making sure to keep the noise minimal, willing even his heart to beat quieter. He considers a stim boost, but he decides against it. Plenty of adrenaline in his system for this kill.

"You look terrible," Anders said as the vidscreen hummed to life.

"Just need a shower and I'll be fine," Hal said. He'd spent the last few days in his chair. He'd tried to go to bed, but found himself lying awake, staring at the closet. In his chair, he could drink scotch until passing out, not thinking about anything.

"Will you?" Anders asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, I just haven't been sleeping well."

"That's not what I mean."

Hal narrowed his eyes at his friend, fighting to focus amidst the pounding in his head and the ache in his stomach. "What do you mean?"

Anders opened his mouth, waited a beat, then spoke. "The good news is that Droid Control keeping this pretty quiet. They've only publicly acknowledged that an incident occurred, and our sources don't think they'll reveal much more than that."

Hal grunted, his lips curled in a sneer. He stared down at his carpet for a moment, before looking back up at the screen. "That sounds like good news."

"Right? But there's… Have you ever heard of an android that goes by the name Thando Kendrick?"

"Can't say I have." He didn't care about the names the androids gave themselves. Anders was a good bounty hunter, but he was too willing to use their names, humanize them. Soft. One of these days it would get him in trouble.

"Serial number 11078," Anders said with a sigh.

"No," Hal said, closing his eyes for a moment. "Should I have?"

"Maybe not, but I think you'll be interested now. He's been working for Droid Control."

Hal furrowed his brow. Of course androids worked at Droid Control. Androids were everywhere. Modern society relied on them. One more reason to eradicate the faulty units. There was only one reason an android working at Droid Control would be notable.

"An infiltrator?"

Anders nods, a smile spreading across his face. "Been there for years under a false identity, apparently, guiding investigations, collecting information. Eventually got promoted to Agent."

Hal's stomach twisted and a wave of nausea passed over him, but he fought through it. "What was its fake name?"

"Carlton Wilbur."

Agent Wilbur. Hal drops his head into his hands.

Three days later, his printer beeped and hummed to life. Incoming transmission. Hal released a long, slow breath, the tension melting away from his body. A new bounty notification. The cover sheet was from Anders.

"This just came across the wire," the email read. "I managed to pull it before anyone else saw it. I thought you might like to have first crack at the job before the alert goes general."

Hal looked down at the second page, detailing a new bounty issued by Droid Control for Android 11078, also known as Thando Kendrick, a generic-looking perp staring up from his headshot. Hal's jaw clenched as he pictured the brown eyes and bushy brows looking at him from under a fedora, then tears through the pages to find the charges.

Destruction of property. Impersonating a Droid Control agent. Trespassing. Reckless endangerment. Falling in love with a human. First degree murder; it had killed a suspect in custody. Evidence showed it had manufactured an incident that gave it the opportunity to make it look like the suspect had been caught in the crossfire of a gunfight with rogue androids trying to free them.

An ember flared in his chest, the flame pulling the air from the room. His face flushed as he realized the suspect in custody had been Amara. Details in the report indicated that Android 11078 had known the suspect, Amara, and that the attack was a cover for her murder. Hal drives his fist into the side of the computer, sliding it backwards along the desk.

What had Amara been doing? What had she known about it that made take such a risk? His face burned as he realized how much worse this was than he'd thought. His wife implicated as an android sympathizer is one thing. Her being so involved in the underground for a mole to blow his cover could mean more than just damaging Hal's reputation. It could mean his job. He had to get to Android 11078 before it could talk.

Flipping to the last page of the packet, he released a deep breath he didn't know he was holding and read the Conditions for Capture section. Droid Control wanted most bounties brought in alive, or at least salvageable. Valuable hardware, and all that. In the conditions box for this bounty, though, are two words, in bold font, that cause a smile to spread across Hal's face.

Termination acceptable.

He stood up, and walked into his bedroom, tearing through the clothes in the closet to expose his gun locker. He stared at it for a moment, then turned away, settling for just his electro-dagger.

"I'm going to kill it slowly."

The hallway opens into a modest lobby, two dim strips of LED lights in the ceiling illuminating the faded red and gold carpet leading to a broad staircase, ratty seating fading into darkness in the corners of the room. Opposite him sits an abandoned concierge's desk. To its right stands a figure, facing the wall, phone up to its ear, talking in a soft voice.

Hal draws his dagger from its sheath as he steps closer, trying to hear the voice better. "He may have seen, but he just walked on by." Hal clamps his jaw shut to keep from hissing as he gets aural confirmation of the voice. His heart pounds in his chest as he steps closer and closer. Android 11078 sighs. "My lo—" its comment cut off by Hal lunging forward and driving the dagger into the android's side.

The phone clatters to the ground as Android 11078 screams. It thrusts its arms against the wall, shoving himself backwards into Hal, knocking him backwards. Android 11078 turns, holding his side as dark fluids spurt from the wound. He glares at Hal who simply smiles back and flicks the power stud on the dagger, causing a pulse of electricity to course along the blade.

"I left it off," he says. "Could have just incapacitated you, but I wanted it to hurt."

"Would not expect you to be merciful," Android 11078 says, its voice flat.

"Mercy?" Hal says, the word feeling bitter in his mouth. "You talk about mercy?" The pair circled each other. "You posed as an agent to lure her into your trap, then shot her. What mercy did you show her?"

Android 11078 arches an eyebrow. "Our mercy comes in many forms, you know."

With a roar, Hal lunges at the android, swinging the dagger wildly. It steps aside, deflecting the attack with its hand. They scuffle, Hal attacking, the android defending, until they end up ensnared, free arms holding each other, Android 11078 with his hand at Hal's throat, Hal with his knife at the android's temple.

"It seems we find ourselves with no clear hit," the android says.

"Do we?"

"Is this the way you want your life to end? A boost you have, but that won't save your throat."

Hal flexes his neck muscles, straining against the android's grip. "Maybe I don't care anymore," he says, relaxing his neck and pressing the tip of the dagger slightly harder against its head. "Maybe I just want my revenge."

"Revenge," the android says, drawing the word out. "Revenge implies you lost something."

"You killed her," Hal says, his voice rising.

"Did he, though?" a voice says from the staircase. Hal turns his head to see Amara descend the last few steps. She stands there for a moment, her head cocked, eyes gazing up at the ceiling. "Well, I guess he did, officially." A smile spreads across her face as she walks over to where husband and Thando are locked in stalemated battle. Hal's legs feel weak. He takes a breath and steadies himself.

"Amara?" Hal says.

"Who else?"

"So, your arrest, the break-out, getting shot?"

"Staged," she says, a smile spreading across her face. "All staged. I mean, there is an arrest record, and I did get shot." She touches her chest and sighs. "Kind of a pity that Thando had to blow his cover. It was time to stop daydreaming, though. Time for us to move on."

"Us?" A weight presses down on Hal's chest, limiting his breath.

She shakes her head. "You were right, Hal. We were going to be discovered sooner or later, so better to get ahead of it."

His wife wasn't just helping the androids, she'd fallen in love with one, right under his nose. She'd fallen in love, and she'd hatched a plan to leave him, to be with this thing. Heat spreads through his chest, his grip on the dagger tightening. A bead of dark fluid oozes down from Thando's temple.

"You forget," he says, spitting the words out. "I still have a knife against his head. There's a bounty on him, and I plan on collecting."

"Yes," she says, nodding. "That's why I brought this." She raises her arm, points the barrel of a small revolver at Hal's head. He recognizes it as one of his own.

"Are you going to shoot me?" he says, scoffing.

"That's not the plan," she says, and bends her arm, aiming the pistol at her own temple. Thando releases Hal's neck as she pulls back the hammer.

"What will happen to your reputation if they find your already dead wife dead?" Amara says. "Bad enough she fell for an android. Now shot with your weapon. How long do you think everyone will look the other way?"

Hal's jaw clenches. "If you do that," he says, sliding his thumb up to the hilt of the dagger, "I hit this button and scramble droid-boy's brains. Leave him a zombie. When they reprogram him, I'll make sure they leave any memories of you in there, so he'll always know what he lost."

Amara's eyes narrow, her face darkening. A ruby red lip curls into a sneer that spreads into a hard smile as she resets the hammer and lowers the gun.

In one swift movement, Thando twists and raises his arms, knocking Hal backwards. The electro-dagger crackles to life for a moment as it clatters to the floor. Amara steps forward and picks it up. Thando takes both of Hal's wrists in one hand, holds him an arms-length away from himself. Hal struggles, but to no avail. Amara walks over and stands next to the android, gazing at Hal's face. Examining it.

"Did you know that you're dead?" she says. "Walking and talking, but just… Dead."

"Like you?"

She smiles. She slides the dagger back into its sheath. "I'm more alive than ever. Free."

Hal grunts and struggles against the android's grip to no avail. He takes a deep breath, then releases it. "So, what now?" he says, looking from Amara to Thando. "Kill me?"

"No," Thando says, releasing his hands and thrusting him away. "Murder is a senseless action, Hal."

Amara produces a small metal box with dangling wires from the pocket of her coat and hands it to him. A cyber-soul. The matte black case shows signs of damage, dents, scratches, and a long, jagged wound.

"It was badly damaged in the fight," Amara says. "But there's enough there to identify it as Thando's. Enough to verify his death." She looks up into Hal's eyes. "Right?"

He looks down at the cyber-soul, then at his wife. "Why would I do this for you?"

"Your reputation," she says. "You collect your bounty, you go back to your… Life. Then, we disappear, and everybody wins.

Hall looks from his legally-deceased wife to the android and back. "Yeah," he says. "Fine." He pockets the cyber-soul and turns towards the front door.

"Good-bye, Hal."

Walking up Ventana towards the fountain, the cyber-soul heavy in the pocket of his duster. Some random soul they managed to modify to mimic Thando's. Would it fool the Droid Control? He wouldn't know unless he turned it in. He'd rather have been able to drag Thando in and know for sure, but he couldn't match the android physically, even dosed. If only he'd brought a gun. Next time, he'll bring a gun. Next time? Would there be a next time?

Of course, he thinks, a smile spreading across his face. He'd found them once, he'd do it again. Turn in the soul, claim the bounty, and no one else would be hunting them. Better still, Amara and Thando would let their guard down. Think they were off the hook. Use the money to pay for upgrades to his stim system. Make himself faster, stronger. Maybe next time he'd let Amara pull the trigger, use the shock to take out the Android.

He stops next to the fountain. What was he thinking? He couldn't let Amara kill herself. Someone would find the body and start asking the very questions he'd been hoping to silence. He might have been able to frame Thando for it, but he'd have had to call in just about every favor he's owed.

He stands at the edge of the pool, and looks down at the box of chocolates, still sitting on the rim where he'd found them.

Where Thando and Amara knew he'd find them.

Lowering himself to sit on the edge of the fountain, he picks up the candy. Amara had led him here. She knew he'd come here first, and she dropped the name of the hotel as if by accident. They'd planned this. Thando had been posing as an agent. Who else had been in on it? Lam, his partner, certainly. Anders? Hal shakes his head.

He plucks a chocolate from the middle of the box, sneers at it for a moment, then takes a bite. The powdered coating melts on his lips as his teeth sink into the firm outer shell, pushing through to the creamy center of rich dark chocolate that coats the inside of his mouth even as he spits out, nearly gagging, remembering why he never ate the things. The bitterness coats his tongue, overpowers his senses. He turns and scoops water out of the fountain and into his mouth, trying to wash out the taste, ignoring the gasps from the onlookers as the truth washes over him.

They left the chocolates here for Hal to find, knowing he'd recognize them, but not as a clue, but to let him know that they'd led him here, lured him into their trap. He'd found them once, but only because they'd wanted him to. He wouldn't get another chance. They'd shown him that his world was more compromised than he could have imagined, but also gave him no way to expose it without destroying his own reputation. He'd lost.

Standing, he adjusts his duster and the shirt underneath. Reaching down, he picks up the box of chocolates and dumps it in the trash. The cyber-soul sits heavy in his pocket, banging against his hip as he places one foot in front of the other, making his way to Droid Control to turn it in and collect his bounty.

Posted 02.25.19


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