“Are you sure we should be doing this?” The driver’s sharp green eyes met Victoria’s in the rearview mirror and she looked away, twisting her gloved hands in her lap. She was being driven through Paris in a shiny black Mercedes. The parked cars, buildings and skeletal linden trees were bright and crisp beneath the winter sun.
“I think so.”
At the wheel, K8 shrugged. She was nineteen years old, with cropped copper hair and a smart white suit.
Victoria frowned, and brushed a speck of dust from the knee of her black trousers.
“Should it be you that does it? Maybe somebody else—”
“She won’t listen to anybody else.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“I really do.”
They passed across the Pont Neuf. Sunlight glittered off the waters of the Seine. The towers of Notre Dame stood resolute against the sky, their solidity a direct counterpoint to the ephemeral advertising holograms that stepped and swaggered above the city’s boulevards and streets.
“Look,” Victoria said apologetically, “I didn’t mean to be snappy. I really appreciate you coming along. I know things haven’t been easy for you recently.”
K8 kept her attention focused on the road ahead.
“We are fine.”
“It must have been tough for you.” During the final battle over London, the poor kid had been assimilated into the Gestalt hive mind. For a time, she’d been part of a group consciousness, lost in a sea of other people’s thoughts.
“It was, but we’re okay now. Really.” There were no other members of the Gestalt on this parallel version of the Earth. For the first time since the battle, the girl was alone in her head.
“You’re still referring to yourself in the plural.”
“We can’t help it.”
The car negotiated the Place de la Bastille, and plunged into the narrow streets beyond. Their target lived in a two-room apartment on the third floor of a red brick house on the corner of la Rue Pétion. When they reached the address, Victoria instructed K8 to park the Mercedes at the opposite end of the avenue and wait. Then she got out and walked back towards the house.
With her hands in the pockets of her long army coat, she sniffed the cold air. This morning, Paris smelled of damp leaves and fresh coffee. Far away and long ago, on another timeline entirely, this had been her neighbourhood, her street. Even the graffiti tags scrawled between the shop-fronts seemed just as she remembered them from when she lived here as a journalist for Le Monde, in the days before she met Paul.
Victoria squeezed her fists and pushed them deeper into her pockets. Paul was her ex-husband. In the three years since his death, he’d existed as a computer simulation. She’d managed to keep him alive, despite the fact that personality ‘back-ups’ were inherently unstable and prone to dissolution. Originally developed for battlefield use, back-ups had become a means by which the civilian deceased—at least those who could afford the implants—could say their goodbyes after death and tie up their affairs. The recordings weren’t intended or expected to endure more than six months but, with her help, Paul had already far exceeded that limit.
But nothing lasts forever.
During the past weeks, Paul’s virtual personality had become increasingly erratic and forgetful, and she knew he couldn’t hold out much longer. In order to preserve whatever run-time he might have left, she’d found a way to pause his simulation, leaving him frozen in time until her return. She didn’t want to lose him. In many ways, he was the love of her life; and yet she knew her attempts to hold on to him were only delaying the inevitable. Sooner or later, she’d have to let him go. Three years after his death, she’d finally have to say goodbye.
Scuffing the soles of her boots against the pavement, she wondered if the woman inhabiting the apartment above had anyone significant in her life. This woman still lived and worked as a reporter in Paris, was registered as single on her social media profile, and had somehow managed to avoid the helicopter crash that had left Victoria with a skull full of prosthetic gelware processors.
Victoria reached up and adjusted the fur cap covering her bald scalp.
This would have been my life, she thought, if I’d never met Paul, never gone to the Falklands…
She felt a surge of irrational hatred for the woman who shared her face, the stranger who had once been her but whose life had diverged at an unspecified point. Where had that divergence come? Who knew? A missed promotion, perhaps, or maybe something as banal as simply turning right when her other self had turned left… Now, they were completely different people. One of them was a newspaper correspondent living in a hip quarter of Paris, the other a battle-hardened skyliner captain in league with an army of dimension-hopping monkeys.
At the front door, she hesitated. How could she explain any of this?
For the past two years, she’d been travelling with Ack-Ack Macaque, jumping from one world to the next. Together, they’d sought out and freed as many of his simian counterparts as they could find, unhooking them from whichever video games or weapons guidance systems they’d been wired into, and telling them they were no longer alone, no longer unique—welcoming them into the troupe. But in all that time, on all those worlds, she’d never once sought out an alternate version of herself. The thought simply hadn’t occurred to her.
Here and now, though, things were different. K8 had tracked the most likely location of Ack-Ack Macaque’s counterpart on this world to an organisation known as the Malsight Institute. It was a privately funded research facility on the outskirts of Paris, surrounded by security fences and razor wire. While trying to hack its systems from outside, K8 had discovered a file containing a list of people the institute saw as ‘threats’ to their continued operation. Victoria’s counterpart had been the third person named on that list. Apparently, she’d been asking questions, probing around online, and generally making a nuisance of herself. The first two people on the list were already dead, their deaths part of an ongoing police investigation. One had been a former employee of the institute, the other an investigative journalist for an online news site. Both had been found stabbed and mutilated, their bodies charred almost beyond all recognition. Hence, the reason for this visit. If the deaths were connected to the Institute, Victoria felt duty-bound to warn her other self before the woman wound up as a headline on the evening news, her hacked and blackened corpse grinning from the smoking remains of a burned-out car.
From the pocket of her coat, she drew her house key. She’d kept the small sliver of brass and nickel with her for years, letting it rattle around in the bottom of one suitcase after another like a half-forgotten talisman. She’d never expected to need it again, but neither had she ever managed to quite bring herself to throw it away.
She slid the key into the lock and opened the door. Inside, the hallway was exactly as she remembered: black and white diamond-shaped floor tiles; a side table piled with uncollected mail, free newspapers and takeaway menus; and a black-railed staircase leading to the floors above. She closed the front door behind her and made her way up, her thick-soled boots making dull clumps on the uncarpeted steps.
The feel of the smooth bannister, the creak of the stairs, even the slightly musty smell of the walls brought back memories of a time that had been, in retrospect, happier and simpler.
In particular, she remembered an upstairs neighbour, a woman in her mid-forties with a taste for young men. Often, Victoria had found she had to turn up her TV to hide the bumps and giggles from above. One time, a lump of plaster fell off the ceiling and smashed her glass coffee table. Then, in the morning, there would usually be a young man standing in the communal stairwell. Some were lost, some shell shocked or euphoric. Some were reassessing their lives and relationships in the light of the previous night’s events. Victoria would take them in and make them coffee, call them cabs or get them cigarettes, that sort of thing.
She liked their company. In those days, she liked being useful. And sometimes, one of the boys would stay with her for a few days. They used her to wind down, to ground themselves. Sometimes, they just needed to talk. And when they left, as they inevitably did, it made her sad. She would rinse out their empty coffee mugs, clean the ashtrays, and fetch herself a glass of wine from the fridge. Then she would settle herself on the sofa again, rest her feet on the coffee table frame, and turn the TV volume way up.
Somebody screamed. The sound cut through her memories. It came from above. Reaching into her coat pocket, Victoria pulled the retractable fighting stick from her coat and shook it out to its full two-metre length. Was she already too late? Taking the stairs two at a time, she reached the third floor to find the door of the apartment—her apartment—locked, and fresh blood spreading from beneath it, soaking into the bristles of the welcome mat.
She’d been around the monkey long enough to know she’d only hurt herself if she tried shoulder-charging the door. Instead, she delivered a sharp kick with the heel of her heavy boot, aiming for the edge of door opposite the handle. The lock would be strong, but only a handful of screws held the hinges in place. She heard wood crack, but the door remained closed. Leaning backwards for balance, she kicked again. This time, the frame splintered, the hinges came away from the wall, and the door crashed inwards and to the side.
Victoria pushed through, stepping over the puddle of blood, and found herself on the threshold of a familiar-looking room. A body lay on the floor by the couch. It had shoulder-length blonde hair. A tall, thin man loomed over it, a long black knife in his almost skeletal hand. His shoes had left red prints on the parquet floor, and there was a long smear where he’d dragged the body. As she burst in, he looked up at her. His face was set in a rictus grin, and she swallowed back a surge of revulsion.
His expression didn’t change, and she knew it couldn’t. His skin had been stretched taut over an artificial frame.
“Who are you?”
Victoria swallowed. She felt as if she was talking to a ghost. “The last time we met, I dropped you out of a skyliner’s cargo hatch, four hundred feet above Windsor.”
He tipped his head on one side. His eyes were reptilian slits.
“What are you on about?” He stepped over the corpse and brandished the knife. “Who are you?”
Victoria moved her staff into a defensive position.
She couldn’t bring herself to look directly at the body. As a reporter, she’d seen her share of violent crime scenes, and knew what to expect. Instead, she looked inside her own head, concentrating on the mental commands that transferred her consciousness from the battered remains of her natural cortex to the clean, bright clarity of her gelware implants.
Berg’s posture tightened. He glanced from her to the body, and back again.
“Something like that.”
The first time she’d fought him—or at least the version of him from her own parallel—he’d been superhumanly fast and tough, and he’d almost killed her. She’d been left for dead with a hole punched through the back of her skull. She tightened her grip on the metal staff. This time would be different. This time, she knew all about him, knew his methods and limitations, while he remained blissfully unaware of her capabilities.
Visualising her internal menu, she overclocked her neural processors. As the speed of her thinking increased, her perception of time stretched and slowed. The traffic noise from outside deepened, winding down like a faulty tape. In slow motion, she saw Berg’s muscles tense. His legs pushed up and he surged towards her, black coat flapping around behind him, knife held forward, aimed at her face. His speed was astonishing. A normal human would have been pinned through the eye before they could move. As it was, Victoria only just managed to spin aside. As momentum carried him past, she completed her twirl and brought the end of her staff cracking into the back of his head. The blow caught him off balance and sent him flailing forwards with an indignant cry, through the remains of the front door and out, into the hallway.
He ended up on his hands and knees. Victoria stepped up behind him, but before she could bring her staff down, Berg’s spindly arm slashed backwards, and his knife caught her across the shins, slicing through denim and skin. The pain registered as a sharp red alarm somewhere at the back of her mind, way down in the animal part of her brain, and she tried to ignore it. It was a distraction, the gelware told her, nothing more. Her heart thumped in her chest, each beat like the pounding of some great engine. He’d hurt her before; she wouldn’t allow him to hurt her again. She stabbed down with her staff, pinning his wrist to the hardwood floor, and leant her weight on it. She ground until she felt the bones of his hand snap and crack, and saw the knife fall from his fingers.
Berg’s head turned to look at her. Although the grin remained stretched across his face, his eyes were wide and fearful.
“Who are you?”
“I told you.” Victoria could feel blood running down her shins, soaking into the tops of her socks. She glanced back at the dead woman in the apartment, and saw blonde hair mixed with wine-coloured blood, and an out-thrown hand with torn and bruised knuckles. The poor woman hadn’t stood a chance. She’d been butchered, and all Victoria could do now was avenge her.
“I’m Victoria Valois.” She stepped forward and raised her weapon high over her head. She wanted to bring it down hard, driving the butt end into the space between his eyes. She wanted to feel his metal skull cave beneath her blow, feel his brains squish and perish. He had killed at least three people, probably more, and would kill her too if he got the chance.
He deserved to die.
Taking off from a private airstrip on the outskirts of Paris, Victoria and K8 flew across the English Channel in a borrowed seaplane, with Cassius Berg handcuffed and gagged in the hold. They were heading for a sea fort that stood a few miles off the coast of Portsmouth. When the old structure came into sight, they splashed the plane into the waters of the Solent, carving a feather of white across the shimmering blue surface, and taxied to the rotting jetty that served as the fort’s one and only link with the outside world.
The seaplane was an ancient Grumman Goose: a small and ungainly contraption with which Victoria had somehow fallen grudgingly in love. The little aircraft had two chunky propeller engines mounted on an overhead wing, and the main fuselage dangled between them like a fat-bottomed boat bolted to the underside of a boomerang.
When she stepped from the plane’s hatch, Victoria found a monkey waiting for her, fishing from the end of the jetty. It wore a flowery sunhat and a string vest, and had a large silver pistol tucked into the waistband of its cut-off denim shorts. Overhead, the sun burned white and clean.
The monkey watched her from behind its mirrored shades. She couldn’t remember its name. A portable transistor radio, resting on the planks beside the bait bucket, played scratchy Europop.
Behind the monkey, at the far end of the jetty, the fort rose as an implacable, curving wall of stone. Victoria swallowed back her irritation. The breeze blowing in from the sea held the all-too-familiar fragrances of brine, fresh fish, and childhood holidays. Considering it was November, the day felt exceptionally mild.
“Where’s your boss?”
“Does he know you’re coming?”
“Don’t be stupid.” She slipped off her flying jacket, pulled a red bandana from her trouser pocket, and wiped her forehead. Keeping hold of its rod with one hand, the monkey produced a rolled-up cigarette from behind its ear. The paper was damp and starting to unravel. It pushed the rollup between its yellowing teeth, and lit up using a match struck against the jetty’s crumbling planks.
“I don’t think he’ll want to see you.”
Smoke curled around it, blue in the sunlight. Victoria sighed, and raised her eyes to the armoured Zeppelin tethered to the fort’s radio mast.
“Is he up there?”
“Yeah, but he ain’t taking no visitors.”
“We’ll see about that.”
She went back to the Goose and pulled Berg out onto the jetty’s planks. He blinked against the sunlight. Victoria slipped a loop of rope around his neck, and jerked on it like a dog chain. Leaving K8 to secure the plane, she led her prisoner past the startled monkey, along the jetty, and into the coolness of the stone fort.
The corridors were dank with rainwater, and she was surprised to feel a sense of homecoming. Despite the frosty welcome, this little manmade island felt more like home than anywhere else on this timeline. She’d spent the past six weeks in Europe, but it hadn’t been her Europe. Everything about it had been different and, to her, somehow wrong. She looked forward to getting back to the familiar cabins and gangways of the armoured airship, and Paul.
Would he even remember her?
Dragging Berg, she stomped her way across the fort’s main flagstone courtyard.
Standing in the English Channel, several miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, the circular fort had been built in the 19th century to defend Portsmouth from the French. Made of thick stone and surrounded by water on all sides, the structure had lain derelict until the turn of the millennium, when an enterprising developer had converted the stronghold into a luxury hotel and conference centre, complete with open-air swimming pool. Fifty years, and two stock market crashes, later, the weeds and rust had returned; and now that the place had been ‘liberated’ by the monkey army, it more resembled an unclean zoo than an exclusive resort. The water in the swimming pool lay brown and stagnant, its scummy surface speckled by shoals of empty beer cans and the wallowing bleach-white bones of broken patio furniture. Shards of glass littered the patio area.
The steps up to the base of the radio mast were where she remembered, still overgrown with lichen, grass and mould. The grass whispered against her leather boots, and she knew suspicious eyes watched her from the fort’s seemingly empty windows.
She’d only been gone six weeks.
Once aboard the airship, Victoria led Berg to the artificial jungle built into the vessel’s glass-panelled nose. Cut off from the rest of the craft by a thick brass door, this leafy enclosure formed Ack-Ack Macaque’s personal and private sanctuary and, at first, the monkeys guarding it didn’t want to let her in.
“He’s in a foul mood,” warned the one wearing a leather vest.
Victoria tugged at the rope around Berg’s neck, making him stumble forwards.
“He’ll be in a worse one by the time I’m through with him. Now, are you going to let me past or not?”
The monkeys exchanged glances. They knew who she was, yet were obviously nervous about troubling their leader. Finally the older of the two, a grey-muzzled macaque with a thick gold ring in his right ear, stood aside.
“Go ahead, ma’am.”
Victoria pushed open the heavy door and stepped inside. The chamber was a vast vault occupying the forward portion of the airship’s main hull. The floor had been covered in reed matting, on which stood hundreds of large ceramic pots. Palm trees and other jungle plants grew from the pots, forming a canopy overhead, and it took her a minute or so to make her way through the trees to the wooden verandah overlooking the interior of the craft’s glass bow. Birds and butterflies twitched hither and thither among the branches. The air smelled like the interior of a greenhouse.
Ack-Ack Macaque stood at the verandah’s rail, hands clasped behind his back and a fat cigar clamped in his teeth. He didn’t turn as Victoria walked up behind him.
“You’re back,” he said.
From where he stood, he could see the sea fort and the blue waters of the Channel.
She took her prisoner by the shoulder and pushed him down, into a kneeling position on the planks at his feet. Ack-Ack Macaque looked down with his one good eye.
The monkey gave the man an experimental prod with his shoe.
“Didn’t you kill that fucker once already?”
“Not on this timeline.”
Ack-Ack frowned at her. Her face was pale despite her exertions, and her eyes were red and tired-looking. He could see she hadn’t slept well in several days. “And your other self? Did you find her?”
“We were too late.”
A wrought-iron patio table stood a little way along the verandah. Behind it stood a wheeled drinks cabinet filled with bottles of all shapes and sizes. Victoria left Berg kneeling where he was and walked over and helped herself to a vodka martini.
A parrot squawked in one of the higher branches, its plumage red against the canopy’s khaki and emerald.
Six weeks ago, Ack-Ack Macaque had tried to talk her out of getting involved with another version of herself but, predictably, she hadn’t listened—and he’d had more than enough to do trying to keep control of his monkey army. The problem with being the alpha monkey was that they all looked to him to tell them what to do and arbitrate all their pathetic squabbles. When faced with any kind of decision, they were more than happy to pass the responsibility up the chain of command until it dropped into his lap. It was the way primate troupes worked; it was also the way the military worked, and he didn’t like it. It was a pain in the hole. He was used to being a maverick, a grunt, an ace pilot rather than an Air Marshal. Being a leader cramped his style.
Considering the figure at his feet, he said, “What are we going to do with him?”
Victoria took a sip from the glass, and wiped her lips on the back of her gloved hand.
“He’s a cyborg, same as before. A human brain in an artificial body.”
Ack-Ack Macaque twitched his nostrils. The man smelled like an old, wet raincoat. He gave the guy a nudge and, arms still cuffed behind him, Berg tipped over onto his side.
“It’s definitely him, though?”
He watched as Victoria swirled the clear liquid in the bottom of her glass.
“Mais oui,” she said. “And you realise what this means, don’t you?”
Ack-Ack Macaque scowled at her.
“It means Nguyen’s on this parallel, too.”
Ack-Ack Macaque’s hackles rose. His scowl turned to a snarl, and his fingers went to his hips, where two silver Colts shone in their holsters.
“Where is he?”
“Paris, I think. An operation calling itself the Malsight Institute. I had K8 pull up some information on it.”
“Officially it doesn’t exist. There’s nothing about it until two years ago. Rumours, conspiracy theories, that sort of thing. Very secretive, government money. Black research. Heavy security.”
“If he’s there, and he’s building another robot army, we have to stop him.”
Ack-Ack Macaque growled, deep in his throat. Doctor Nguyen had been the man responsible for creating them both in his laboratories—their own personal Frankenstein. He took the cigar from his lips and rolled it in his fingers.
“We leave in an hour,” he decided. He was overdue for some action, and, after spending the last six weeks trying to sort out the complaints and squabbles of a troupe of irritable, irresponsible monkeys, he was itching to bust some skulls. “Reactivate your husband and recall the crew.”
“What are you going to do?”
“What do you think I’m going to do?” His lips curled back, revealing his sharp yellow fangs. He clamped the cigar back between his teeth. Leathery fingers bunched into fists. “If Nguyen’s here, I’m going to grab the bastard by the ears and rip his fucking head off.”
Macaque Attack is out January 2015
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