It’s one of those mindscrew days outside, where you look out your window and it’s clear and sunny and looks wonderful, and then you run out there in your boxer shorts, singing something from The Sound of Music, and it turns out it’s 29 degrees and you freeze solid within seconds. Goddamn nature.
Stuck inside, I’m going through my archives. As a writer, I long ago came to understand that 95% of what I write is total crap, 3% is mediocre and might be salvageable in some manner, and the remaining 2% is, if not genius, at least sellable. Still, going through archives is sobering. There’s some bad stuff in here. I’ve posted parts of failed novels before, and it’s fun. Kind of freeing. You release yourself from the notion that you might, someday, actually make a go of this thing!
One of the novels I’ve been leafing through is The King Worm, the never-published Avery Cates novel I wrote then regretted. It’s not that it’s a bad book on its own; it’s not. It’s good, I think. But ultimately it wasn’t the right direction for the series or the character, and I have my editor at Orbit (the fearsome Devi Pillai) to thank for making me see that.
So, let’s post two chapters: This is a moment in an alternate-universe Avery that never actually happened, but I enjoyed writing tremendously.
THE KING WORM
Chapters 15 & 16
XV. So, so much worse.
I opened my eyes, didn’t like what I saw, and closed them again. This didn’t improve my situation much, so I opened them again.
I was in a Safe Room, I could see that. Shielded and soundproofed, it was invisible from most of your run-of-the-mill sensors and scanners. The SSF could probably find it if it was looking specifically for this room, and I had no doubt Kieth had something laying around his lab that would sniff it out in a second, but for most of the population it didn’t exist, it was just a blank wall in a corridor of some rotted building. I was strapped by the wrists onto a rusted, creaking gurney that wobbled alarmingly when I tried to move—I thought it pretty likely I could tip the thing over with a minor struggle, though I wasn’t immediately certain that tipping it over would gain me anything but a new set of bruises on top of the old. My head ached and my ribs were sore again, but none of this was the disturbing part. The disturbing part was all the surgical equipment in the room, and the Monk chassis.
The Monk was nude and lay on another gurney, this one cobbled together from different gurneys, a Frankenstein gurney of sorts. It’s molded body was in pretty good shape, but its face was charred and blackened, unbroken but ominous.
I did the math in my head and my heart started to pound. This was no way for Avery Cates to go out.
I tested my straps. They weren’t secured very well—there was at least a quarter inch of give on both my hands, more than enough to work with if I had time. I began working at it, stretching my hands and pulling with all my might, but with controlled direction.
They’d taken my backup gun, of course, but I could feel the blade I kept in one boot so i wasn’t completely defenseless. A blade wasn’t much use against Monks, of course, unless they had exposed wiring, which a lot of them did. Even so, that would require a lot of up-close work, and I wasn’t fond of up-close work. Some Gunners specialized in that sort of thing, the theory being it was quiet and you had a lot more control over the immediate situation than you did firing at someone from across the room. But fuck that—if you were close to your mark, they were close to you, and in my business you had to go after a lot of people who were pretty hard-assed themselves. I preferred to be across the room.
“Don’t bother, Meat.”
I paused for a moment in surprise, and then kept trying the straps. Fucker was behind me, watching.
“You know what it’s like to be shot dead, and you’re lying there and somehow you can still hear a little and see a little and even though you’re dead, no heart pumping, you’ve still got a little juice in your brain, you’re still processing?”
I thought back to London, thought about the endless trip through the bowels of The Electric Church with Brother West. “Yes,” I said.
“Bullshit!” The gurney was sent sailing across the room with a powerful shove, and I crashed into the far wall, tipped dizzyingly, and then crashed back down level. I could see the Monk now, his cracked face and missing panel. He stood with his legs spread, his hands in fists, but his face was blank and impassive. “Fuck you, yes. What the fuck do you know about it? But you will, Cates. You will, right now, right here. For a long time I thought I’d kill you, but you’re a hard man to touch these days. Important. Holed up in Pick’s with that old man, a hard man to touch. And I started to think that killing you wasn’t fair, was it? Killing you didn’t fit the crime. I’m not dead, after all. I’m still here. So you should get to still be here too. Except monked. You should be a monk, see what it’s like to be left in a gutter with a bullet in your fucking belly to be carted off and have your brain sawed out of your head and stuffed into this. And then you spend a month screaming, walking around and talking but it ain’t you walking or you talking, and you never fucking sleep, and then bam! All of a sudden you can walk and you can talk, and the fucking cops are shooting at you and nothing makes any fucking sense except to move to move and keeping moving and tearing shit up and all these fucking stupid shitheads that snap in your hands like twigs—”
Suddenly, he stopped, hands clenched, and stood there, silent for a second or two, immobile. Then his hands relaxed.
“All right. Let’s get started.”
The Monk came towards me. I kept working the straps, slowly increasing the amount of give I had to work with. If he didn’t care to stop me, I saw no reason to stop myself. If I got one hand free, the possibilities tripled instantly—the first and most tempting being the Monk’s exposed wiring. Fuck electrocution, I’d take my chances with a handful of it. Panic was licking the edges of my mind—I was restrained with a crazy cyborg intent on relieving me of my brain. I concentrated on breathing. I could do nothing until I freed my hands, and to free my hands I needed to move methodically. It was difficult. My arms kept trying to twitch and flex, as if a mad struggle with every ounce of strength would somehow free me.
“Don’t worry, Cates,” the Monk said, looming over me. I kept working my hands. “The process is largely automated. It had to be—no one in the fucking Electric Church knew anything about the tech. That was all Squalor. Below Squalor, it was just poor shits like me, sucked into the maw. So don’t fret over the fact that I don’t know shit about shit, okay? The computers do it all for me. All I gotta do is saw you open.”
It stayed there for a moment, hovering over me, plastic face expressionless. Then he disappeared behind me and the gurney began moving over the broken cement floor. The inanimate Monk chassis slowly moved towards me, floating on air. I stared at it and kept my mind on my breathing: In and out, in and out, while working my hands. My left thumb was close to slipping through the strap. I needed another five minutes.
“People,” I managed to say slowly, peeling off a bit of my fraying concentration, “will come for me.”
“Yes,” the Monk said into my ear, suddenly and shockingly near. “Of course. Avery Cates is a very important criminal. A world-classer. Has had to hide in Pick’s for years now because System Pigs would murder him on the street on sight. An army of shitheads are on the prowl right now, searching for the hero, who leaves people to die in alleys. But where will they look? No, Cates, no one is coming for you. No more delays now: I am a busy man. There, take a look at your new body! State of the art as of five years ago. It’s seen some wear-and-tear, as you can see, but at least it’s virgin—not that Avery Cates would object to a little more death on his hands. But no worries, Cates, this one is fresh from the local warehouse, so to speak. Never had a brain implanted in it. Come, Cates: Let me show you an endless trail of sunsets! You’re going to live forever.”
The Monk reappeared, moving from behind me, just as I freed my thumb completely. With my own sweat lubricating the way, I quickly worked my hand through the loop, the pain of popped knuckles and scraped skin helping to focus me. The Monk turned away from me and grabbed a large two-handed saw from the crash table. There was no time to free my right hand—as my host turned back to me I spun my legs around and leaped up, pulling the gurney behind me, and just threw my combined weight at it, hand reaching for that exposed panel in the flaring hope I might manage to rip out something important in the scuffle. The gurney came down with me, and we crashed into the floor, my chin smacking into the stone. I bit into my own tongue and my mouth filled instantly with warm, salty blood.
My right hand was effectively chained down, my arm twisted behind me by the weight of the gurney. I swallowed blood and ignored my own pain, pushing my left hand into the interior of the monk and taking hold of a fistful of wires. Panting, spraying aerosoled blood everywhere with each breath, I pulled as hard as I could.
The Monk didn’t stay disoriented for long, however, and after a few seconds it pushed me off, flipping me over so I landed awkwardly on the goddamn gurney, my arm twisted back, sudden, white-hot pain boiling up my arm and stabbing into my heart—strangely numbing as it spread. I stared at my left hand, where a clump of frayed black wiring was clutched. It was as if my whole body had gone independent and stopped reporting to my brain. I couldn’t feel anything.
The monk started to pull itself up, but crashed back onto the floor. After a moment, it started to laugh, a bubbling noise that crawled under my skin and pinched my nerves, bringing them slowly back to life so my whole arm, crushed and doubtless broken in several places, began to throb.
“Cates, Cates,” it gurgled, its voice warped into a pudding-like consistency. “You fucking bastard, I can’t walk. But that’s okay.”
It flipped itself over onto its belly and began pulling itself towards me with one arm, the other still clutching the saw. I couldn’t feel my right hand any more, so there was little hope of freeing it, or doing much with the arm except passing out from pain if I did. I watched, panting, for a moment, as the monk pulled itself laboriously across the three feet or so that separated us. Pulling my legs in, I tried to get my feet under me and stand up, but my arm pinned me back, pain searing me until I let a choked, swallowed scream exhale out of me. At the last minute, I managed to redirect myself and kick the Monk in the face, cracking it a little more.
The Monk ignored me. There was commotion behind me, and I could tell someone else had entered the room. A moment later cold, plastic hands were on my shoulders, on my free arm, jostling me firmly and sending waves of rusty pain into my head, as if a cable ran directly from the inside of my brain to my crushed arm. I forced myself to be still, calm. I wasn’t going anywhere, and struggle would just sap whatever energy I had left. I sat, feeling blood and spit pour slowly down my chin, dripping onto my lap.
My host pulled himself up to a sitting position in front of me and brandished the saw, pressing the button twice just to rev the blade for me.
“Don’t worry, Avery,” it said. “it’s nowhere near as bad as you probably think.” It mashed the button again and the saw came to sustained, whining life as he moved it towards me. “It’s so, so much worse.”
The Monk moved with sudden, digital speed, and the blade leaped towards my forehead. A second of horrible, impossible vibration, and
XVI. about the best reaction I could imagine
I was dead.
I woke up differently from ever before. Waking up wasn’t even the right term for it—I felt like I’d been there for a long time, just under the surface, and all of a sudden something connected by accident, some circuit was completed, and there I was, completely awake and aware. I was numb, and blind, and the only sound I could hear was an annoying, maddening hiss.
It was nice, at least, to feel nothing. A surge of relief made me giddy for a moment. I was still here. I’d been waiting for the hammer to come down on me for ten years now, aware of having lived past my usefulness, but here I was, still around in some sense.
There was a weird, non-audible click in my head.
“—sworn I could still sense him.”
The voice belonged to Captain Emmens, soft and fleshy just like him. There were other sounds in the room—boots scraping on dust, breathing, a mechanized ticking sound, the rustle of clothes. Everything was clear and crisp, and I could tell somehow that there were five people in the room. By the sound of their clothes they were cops, System pigs in their expensive suits, thread counts through the roof.
There was another click inside me, and I could smell the fucking world, all at once.
Someone was smoking a cheap System cigarette. Someone had a flask of rum on them. Someone was wearing new boots, the leather creaking as they shifted their weight. There were two women and three men; everyone reeked of gunpowder. There was a decomposing body in the room, and a lot of blood.
“That’s definitely Avery Cates,” a woman said—it was Krajian, and the stiff, careful tone of her voice was a surprise. There was something raw and barely controlled in it, almost like emotion.
“Shut the fuck up,” Emmens said softly, distracted, as if the act of paying attention to her forced him to divert his mental processes from more important things. “Just stay quiet.”
The creak of boots again. Another click, and my eyes turned on. Just like that—one moment, nothing, then click and I could see. I was staring up at the ceiling of the Safe Room, pitted old plaster, junction boxes dangling from two spots like guts. A fine spray of relatively fresh blood coated the ceiling directly above me, little red droplets. As I stared at them, my vision suddenly telescoped until I was examining a single droplet, slowly distending downward, stretching and deforming as gravity eagerly sucked at it. I tried to blink, and my vision telescoped back down again.
I was a Monk.
A smothering feeling of panic enveloped me. I wanted to leap up and run, just run, just move, but nothing reacted. I remained still and trapped, the smell of my own fucking blood all around me.
“You’re certain this Monk is inactive?” Emmens asked.
“Yes, sir.” A male voice. Calm and confident, unfamiliar. “I swept twice to be sure.”
Pacing, then, the steady crushing of stone dust, the scrape of rubber soles turning. “Well, Krajian, is Avery Cates dead?”
I heard her breath catch, softly, subtly. Hesitation, then, beats of silence. Finally: “Yes, sir.”
“Well, that’s good then, isn’t it? I’m sensing a certain. . .disappointment in you.”
Her recovery was quick. “Just annoyed he wasn’t taken out by one of us. Motherfucker’s responsible for a lot of dead cops.”
A drop of my blood broke away from the ceiling, rushing down towards gravity’s embrace.
“All right then,” Emmens said. “It’s strange, but. . .I could swear I can still feel that bastard. I’m leaving this for you to handle—there’s a disturbance downtown that requires attention, all the shitheads in the world suddenly in a lather. I’ve got to hustle below twenty-third to take command. I’ll let Director Marin know the asset’s been eliminated. Get the body processed. Marin’s going to want confirmation.”
I heard her nod, her hair moving through the air. Four pairs of feet moved, exiting the room. I could hear them moving through the empty corridors beyond, speechless and grim, moving quickly.
“Fucking hell,” I heard Krajian mutter.
Another click and my whole body shivered: I could move. Immediately, I heard the hammer of her gun snick back. “Stay still!” she ordered.
I tried to speak, but nothing happened. I was aware, in a clinical way, that my face was moving in response to commands, a series of grotesque faces. I couldn’t feel it, but I knew every movement my plastic face made. I wanted to just hold my hands out to show I was unarmed, and as I thought it, picturing my arms, my arms moved, suddenly, leaping out from my body.
“Fuck,” Krajian hissed. “I said don’t fucking move!”
I thought I’d like to see what she was doing, and my head turned. She stood with legs spread, gun trained on me. I thought, dimly, that it would be nice to have a goddamn gun, and to my sudden stunned amazement guns appeared, sliding from my sleeves into my hands, grips molded to fit exactly. I knew, immediately, that the left had thirteen shells in the clip and the right the full twenty-four.
Krajian was done talking. She pumped four shots at me but I was rolling, my new chassis responding to subconscious instructions. I saw myself turning the roll into a run, and my legs twisted beneath me and I was up, balanced by a hundred little motors, in motion. I concentrated on hugging my arms to me; I didn’t want to shoot her; she’d sounded genuinely pissed that I was dead, and pissed was about the best reaction I could imagine from a System Pig. She was a potential ally, and I wasn’t in a position to throw away potential allies. But I couldn’t speak, and as I raced along the wall of the room, slugs thudding into the ancient plaster one second behind me, I found I couldn’t figure out how to let go of my guns, either. While I kept trying to scream through a wire-packed throat and a plastic mouth, my new chassis leaped and ducked on its own, my dusty robes fluttering behind me.
As I approached the empty, cobbled-together gurney the Monk had been strapped to, I leaped into the air, twisted around, and somehow landed a solid kick to the wheeled contraption as I rattled into the floor, my vision stabilized automatically.
The gurney sailed across the room like a shot and slammed into Krajian just as she whirled to fire at me, her shot going wild. I was up, effortlessly rising—no strained muscles, no breathlessness—and moving towards her again, leaping into the air and landing, one foot perfectly aimed at her gun hand, slamming it into the floor and sending the piece scuttling away. I stopped, dead-still, with both guns pointed at her nose.
It was exhilarating I’d just performed fucking circus tricks with pinpoint accuracy and unflagging energy, and now sat on top of a System Pig—calm, controlled. For a moment, we stared at each other. There wasn’t any fear in Krajian’s eyes—just irritation, as if she wasn’t worried, as if she was convinced that this was a minor setback, soon to be rectified.
Another click, and my jaw loosened.
“Don’t shoot,” I said, somehow forcing a grin onto my face that faded the moment I stopped thinking about it. My voice was the same neutral Monk voice they all had, and I felt unreal. “I’m Avery Cates.”
She nodded, her eyes latched onto the two guns. “I can’t shoot you. I’ve lost my gun.”
I put the smile back on my face. I couldn’t see myself, and based on Krajian’s flickering expression, my smile wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. “I’m going to back off you, now, and—”
My mouth stayed open, my eyes stayed focused on Krajian—I could see my guns shaking. An icepick made of acid had appeared, unsuspected, in my brain, and icy tendrils of agony spiked out of it in irregular spasms, flashes of burnt nerves, a mocking shadow of my old heartbeat. The spikes wedged their way into my chest, down my back, into my arms. They stabbed down into my legs and lit them on fire, a million tiny bugs nibbling at me, eating their way from the inside out.
I rolled off her and stood up, graceful as before. I walked around the room with steady, powerful strides, the slight hum of hydraulics accompanying each step. The pain reached my fingers, every surface of my body, and then faded. . .just slightly. It remained, throbbing and inescapable.
And the voices. . .suddenly, transmissions in my head, somehow transmuted into auditory hallucinations. It was as if every Monk in the fucking world was chattering away, and beamed directly into my head.
The guns slipped from my hands and disappeared. I could feel the compartments opening up to receive them, a layer of feeling somewhere below the pain that sizzled like radiation inside me. I put my hands on my head and stalked the room, squeezing my alloyed skull as hard as I could. A groan bubbled out of me. When Krajian rolled and retrieved her gun, coming up with the muzzle aimed unerringly at me, I didn’t give a shit. Every electronic nerve crackled with acid, acid burning into my thoughts and making it impossible for them to survive long enough and coalesce.
“Stop,” she ordered, her voice firm and uncompromising. You could kick a System Pig’s ass and they didn’t cry about it, they just came back at you. “Don’t move. I have a head shot and I’ll take it.”
I couldn’t stop. The thought of standing still while this ate through me sent a jolt of panic skittering underneath the pain, and I moved even faster, bobbing and weaving.
“Cates!” Krajian shouted. “If you are Avery Cates, for god’s sake, stop moving!”
I lunged for her. She hesitated, and pulled the trigger as I jerked her arms up, and the shot sailed past my ear, my circuits redlining for a moment from the noise. I pushed my burnt, artificial face into hers. She stared back at me without reaction, unafraid.
I pulled her arm back towards me until her gun rested against my temple. The pain, burning behind everything, made forming any coherent thoughts difficult, but I concentrated and forced a smile onto my face.
“You saved my life, once, Krasa,” I said, my voice terrible, calm and smooth. “I take back what I said before: For god’s sake, shoot me.”
The pain swept up and swallowed me, and I slid to the floor, laughing.