By Jeremy Szal
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Isaac Kopper tugged at his collar and snuck a glance behind him, just to be sure no one was aiming a gun at his head. He sucked in the syrupy air, struggling to fight the muggy heat that was doing its best to suffocate him. This skin-tight shirt wasn't helping, either.
He stretched out a hand and firmly pressed down on the intercom marked Saul Anders, hearing a buzz in one of the apartments. The dual moons, Azareth and Vakarien, hung in the sky. Their pale light spilled onto the street and the rows of high-tech houses with their neatly manicured lawns, wet with the recent shower of rain. The smell of bitumen hung heavily in the air. Damn it, why didn't he answer the door? There was only so long he'd be able to stand outside before--
A Council security drone hovered overhead, tiny speakers blaring news headlines and the usual propaganda. He felt a bead of sweat ride down his chest. Had they caught onto him already? He'd hoped they'd have the decency to give him a little head start.
Thankfully the drone drifted past without noticing him. He released a lungful of air. So they hadn't caught on just yet.
The gun-grey screen crackled to life, the polished monitor revealing the face of a hawk-eyed man with a fleshy jaw, studded with black bristles and faint scars. He presumed that it was Saul Anders. 'Hey Isaac, isn't it a little late to be calling?'
Kopper forced up a smile. 'I was in the area and thought I'd stop by.' He raised the bottle in view of the camera and dangled it seductively. It came with a sheath that insulated the bottle from heat and kept it cold inside. He popped it out and twisted it around so Anders could see the expensive Fornax label. 'I just happened to bring this along with me.'
Anders took the bait. His face lit up. 'Brilliant. Buzzing you in.' The screen flickered, spluttered and died. A moment later the large metallic door with transparent boltglass abruptly slid open. Kopper strode inside to a hall of dark marble tiles and a towering bronze statue with ornate insignias, the air-conditioning fast freezing his sweat. The red velvet carpet swallowed up his footsteps. A vending machine huddled in the corner, immaculately stacked with overpriced products. Even from here he could see the Council Seal of Approval that had been stamped onto each item. The vending machines were notorious for giving eighty-percent of their profit straight to the Council and their anonymous shareholders. Didn't stop people from buying 'em, though. He remembered the one night that he and a few others had gone along and torched a truckload of the things. You could see the smoke for miles. The next day it had been branded as a mechanical malfunction. That amused had him more than anything.
The conspicuous cam made a low humming sound as it detected him, its tracking lens following his movement across the carpeted hall. He allowed it to scan his face, the lazy blue light sweeping up and down before making a sound of confirmation.
'Isaac Kopper, welcome to Nordim Apartments,' purred the androgynous voice. 'It has been seventeen days, two hours, and fifteen minutes since your last check-in.'
Seventeen days, huh? Interesting. He made a mental note as he strode over to the elevator and stabbed the button for the penthouse, the doors clinching shut behind him. Hopefully Anders was as stupid as he was naive.
'You been sick? Haven't seen you around lately.'
The man was fat; his bulging stomach larger than it had any right to be. Kopper fumbled for a response as planted his bag down on the vintage sofa with a curlicue pattern. 'Been busy. A buddy died, so I spent the week with his family up in Saen.'
Anders seemed to accept this as he waddled into the kitchen. 'Fair enough. I'm worried with these new diseases popping up all over the place. I bet they're from all the refugees coming in from Wreth. Some are coming as far back as Earth, bringing all their infections with them. Vaccines cost a damned fortune.'
Kopper offered a watery smile. 'Had mine a while back.'
'Strange that they're come all this way and then complain about the conditions when they get here. Teach them to do a little more research next time. They probably wish they'd never left.'
Kopper knew Anders had hit a mark. People didn't care what the conditions were, as long as they could get away from the wars going on at home. An independently run government that spanned multiple star systems seemed ideal on paper. Arriving here on Nuvus slammed them back into reality.
He heard the distinct sound of frying and noticed the fat steaks that were shimmering on the stove, a draft of delicious air easing his way. He realized he hadn't eaten for almost two days now. No wonder he felt like hell.
For a penthouse, the apartment was quite small. But what it lacked in size it made up in style. The walls were covered in a caramel wood-paneling that seemed to drink in the light. Boltglass windows that stretched across the wall showed a stunning view of the sprawling city, towering angular structures that gleamed dark blue, black and a rich gold. On closer inspection the windows were also soundproof. Probably bulletproof, too. Kopper wondered how much of a selling point that had been.
'Expensive, but worth it,' Anders was saying as Kopper gazed at the windows. 'Damned drones keep me up at night. No price is too high for a good night's sleep.'
Kopper gave a nod as Anders walked over to the kitchen and fetched two pyramidal glasses and a chilled decanter from the cupboard. 'I'll throw a few more steaks on. Care to join me?'
'I won't say no.' Kopper noticed a modest fish tank against the wall, containing a single octopus. Its tentacles twirled like it was showing off, torpedoing from one side of the tank to the other.
'That's Houdini. Got him a few days ago for a killer price.'
'I figured they'd be expensive nowdays,' Kopper murmured.
Anders shrugged. 'Not when you know where to look. By the way, did you hear the news?'
Kopper's nape prickled as Houdini retreated behind a barnacle-studded rock and slipped into a tiny crevice. He wished he could do the same. 'What news?
'You know the rebel group, Octam?' Anders asked. 'The one that's been protesting against the Council, calling themselves freedom fighters? Anarchists?'
I'll be damned. The irony was almost overwhelming. He feigned ignorance. 'Yes?'
'We'll, it seems that they've been caught,' Anders said triumphantly, as if he had done the apprehending himself. 'Spec Ops Squads traced their signals to a base in the abandoned railway tracks. Over one hundred members captured.'
'All of them?' Kopper queried.
'Probably not. The SOS said that they've started the extraction process.'
Kopper stopped himself from shivering. He knew exactly what sort of extraction methods they would be using. It was only a matter of time now. No one lasted long under them. If I hung around for just another hour...
'Come on. Steaks are done.'
Kopper was almost tempted to have dinner now, he was that famished. But what if he slipped up during the meal? What if someone had tracked him here? The anxiety crept up again, threatened to envelope him. This was no time to back out. I've come this far.
He reached for the bottle of Fornax, grasping it by the neck. Making no effort to be stealthy, he strode over to where Anders was standing, oblivious as he tended to the steaks.
'You know, you should visit more often. Houdini doesn't say much, and I--'
The words never left his lips. Kopper smashed the bottle on the side of Anders's head, shattering the glass and splattering the wine on the walls, floor and stove, the pan hissing in fury. Anders collapsed to the ground without a word. Kopper grabbed the switchblade that had been concealed in the bottle, plunging it straight into Anders's potbelly. The man spluttered as the blood gushed from his wound, trickling to the floor and mixing with the wine.
'Isaac?' Anders seemed to be saying as crimson fluid leaked out from the massive gash in his gut. He didn't look like he was in pain. He looked confused. 'Why?'
Kopper didn't bother answering him. It would have been a waste of breath. He stepped over the glass shards and grabbed Anders's head, flexing his fingers and with a practiced move. Crack. Anders went limp, eyes glazing over.
Kopper didn't bother clearing up the mess. There was no point. After helping himself to the two steaks and a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice with a dash of illegal vodka for good measure, he dragged Anders's dead body into the dining room, a scarlet trail in his wake.
He cleared the mahogany table, covering it with a gel-padded foam sheet. Utensils clattered to the floor. He fished the necessary tools out of his bag and aligned them neatly, the metal winking at him in the light.
With a grunt he heaved Anders's flabby corpse onto the table and started to strip his bloody clothes off and bundle them up under his head to form a pillow. Houdini watched from his tank, tentacles fluttering in accusation. Kopper ignored it, snatching up the black surgery pen as he carefully stenciled the perimeter markings around Anders's face. He forced himself to be accurate, but quick. The man's flesh would soon start to decompose and would be impossible to use. He'd seen just how fast the human body could collapse into a stinking mess. He had done the deed a few times himself. Mainly to corrupt devils who deserved nothing better. The smell was the worst part. It snuffed out any satisfaction he should have gotten from giving these people their just desserts. It reminded him he was a killer. That he'd turned a man into a sack of meat.
Wiping a coat of cold sweat from his forehead, he placed the razorblade suction mask on the man's face and flicked it on. With a whine it expanded and shifted to fit its occupant, finding the perfect dimensions required to pull the task off successfully. There was a faint click as it pulsed with a lime-green light.
It was good to go.
Kopper clenched his teeth and tried to ignore the sound of razorblades cutting into dead flesh as they sawed away in an almost rhythmic fashion.
It was finally done.
The suction mask pinged like a microwave, de-pressurizing itself from Anders's face and peeling away flesh like a wet sock. Kopper tried not to look at the skinless and bloodied face as he inspected the suction mask. It had created a perfect mold of the man's face, right down to the diagonal scar on the left cheek and the ugly scabs on his chin.
Kopper hadn't been idle while the suction mask was doing its job. He'd set up Anders' bedroom while the operation finalized. He had prepared several insta-snacks and hooked up the radio. He wasn't going to be lying there for hours with nothing to do. The process would restrict him from using his eyes; so killing time with Anders's gigantic holovid collection was out of the question, even if he did have some vids that had been explicitly banned by the Council and Kopper had been dying to see.
After making sure that his bladder was indeed empty, and he wouldn't have to go during the operation like last time, Kopper scooped up the suction mask and headed for the bedroom. He lay down on his back, the necessary equipment within reach. Bracing himself for the familiar pain, he applied a thick ointment on his face as it burned and bubbled, eating away the top layer of skin. He smeared the second gel on his exposed skin. It felt like cold porridge. He quickly attached the suction mask with the face mold, pressuring and sealing it, cutting off his vision. He had set a timer for eight hours and started the countdown. Removing the mask before the operation was complete would tear half his face off -- something he preferred to avoid.
He settled back on the bed and listened to the slow melody that hammered out of the radio. He now wished he had taken the time to find proper channel that didn't play this garbage. Just when he thought he couldn't put up with it anymore, the news came to his aid.
Normally he didn't give a damn about what the news had to say, but his ears pricked when he heard the headline: "Man found murdered and faceless in home."
Now this would be very interesting.
"Isaac Kopper, a twenty-eight year old fusion core engineer was found dead in his home earlier this morning at his house on Laker Avenue. The victim had skin from his face removed by what is suspected to be a homemade surgery device. Security drones report no signs of forced entry. It is uncertain if the grizzly surgery was performed post-mortem. In other news, Chief Execute Ryan Kurtman has stated that funding towards--"
Kopper tuned out of the propaganda as he started to think. He could very well have told them if it was post-mortem or not. He had sliced the throat of the man formerly known as Isaac Kopper before skinning him. The operation had taken a lot longer as it was his first time, but he had managed to successfully skin and assume the identity of Isaac Kopper. From there on it was just a matter of finding the right person with a high enough Asset Level and had special permission to travel. He was surprised to find that Mr. Kopper did in fact have a lot of close acquaintances with these requirements, one of which had been willing to open the door to someone who was wearing his friend's face. He almost didn't choose Anders, but then he did a little rifling through some files and the decision cemented itself. He was corrupt as they came. He'd hurt the innocent, hurt women, hurt the defenseless. Just skimming the files made Kopper's stomach flip. And with the right credits in the right pocket the man breezed through it all without a second's thought.
He didn't fool himself into thinking he'd done some great deed. But he'd sleep just a little better knowing Anders was finished.
'...the leader of the terrorist organization known as Octam has been identified as Lauren Nior. According to witness accounts, Nior committed suicide before the Spec Ops Squad was able to capture and question her. This has been verified by an autopsy.'
Lauren...Kopper felt a needle plunge into his heart. He had been planning to take her out tomorrow. He'd even been considering marriage. He had been there for her on every crazy suicidal job she could dream up. Now she was dead.
If I had been with her...
No. He couldn't go there. There was nothing he could have done. It was a small comfort in knowing that she was already gone and wasn't in some dark room facing interrogation. But he knew she would never have killed herself. She would have gone down fighting to the last second, just like she always did.
All he could do now was get the hell out of here. For the both of them.
The face of Saul Anders gazed back at him in the mirror as he examined his new face, fingers trailing down the telltale lines left behind by the suction mask. They would fade away in an hour or so, just like they had when he had been Isaac Kopper.
He had to leave. He discarded the suction mask, bed sheets, tubes, into the shredder. Contrary to its name, the shredder would actually heat up to the point where anything -- or anyone -- inside it would melt into nothing in seconds. It was the perfect way to destroy the evidence. Anders stabbed the inconspicuous blue button next to the hatch. A whirling sound commenced, and at the bottom of the shaft, the evidence was hyper-heated, melted down into liquid and drained, where it would flow to into a giant sewer, destined for the underground waste pit on the outskirts of the city.
It was hard to throw the skinning device away. Lauren had been working on it with her techies down in the lab, and had dropped it off at his place a few days ago for safekeeping. It was the only thing he had of hers that was left.
But it had to be done.
I'm sorry, Lauren. His hands were heavy as lead, but he picked up the machine and dropped it into the shredder, ready to be melted down.
Everything that he had touched was wiped down with a thick cloth drenched in a mild acidic substance that burned away microscopic-size chunks from the surface of the said subject. You could wear a face, but fingerprints were another thing entirely.
He made sure there was nothing incriminating left lying around before heading out the door, wiping the door handle clean and closing it shut behind him with a heavy click. A gathering of drunk party-goers had clustered near the foot of the stairs, bottles of Council approved alcohol clasped in their hands.
What if they knew Saul Anders? It was just luck that him and Kopper had the same shock of blond hair, but Anders' was jet black. He was half tempted to dart back inside and find some hair dye, but it was too late now. Besides, this could be a test. If something was out of place, he would know soon enough. Better here than staring down the wrong end of a gun.
He ambled past them, his heart lodged in his mouth. He prayed they wouldn't look too closely. Thankfully, they were too drunk to pay any attention. They gave him the briefest of nods as he headed out the door, the vicious cold wind biting at his face. So far so good.
Preferring not to traverse the labyrinth of back alleys, dark streets and shady market stalls that led the way to City Central, Anders caught a transport pod, depositing a few credits into the slot as he climbed aboard, barely earning a glance from the driver as he punched in his requested destination. The pod was empty, bulletproof windows and brown leather seats pristine and clean. You never saw pods in this condition in the low-assest zones or in the City Central. It seemed they were only reserved for the wealthy suburban areas and the people with the money to pay for them.
Anders started out the window, glancing at the neat sprawl of houses and apartments, lovingly designed and built with polished wood, boltglass, rich steel and pure metals, all lavishly dressed up in pure paints and fine alloys, pristine marble swimming pools and gardens of perennials, clipped hedges and looping gravel pathways. They traveled closer and closer to the City, the view started to decline, offering rows of rectangular apartments with gap-toothed windows, slathered in flaking grey paint, connected with a network of rusty steel and eroded concrete.
And he was leaving it behind for good.
He had been planning to leave for a while. He told Lauren that there was only so much to be done fighting the government. He saw it bit by bit. Everything they did, everything they destroyed, everything they spread, every effort they made barely seemed to make a dent in the Council. And if it had an effect, they'd brush it off and rebuild themselves, twice as strong. He explained how relocating somewhere else where the Council had a looser grip was a hell lot safer. But she had been determined to stay and continue fighting against the Council, to finish what they started. For a while he had listened, but as time wore on he saw it gradually declining. He didn't know why she didn't see it. Dedication to the cause, he supposed.
And it got her killed in the end.
And he wouldn't be sticking around to join her.
He might have been a heartless bastard, but he wasn't going to be a dead one. His stands were stained just as much as her's. He wasn't going to add to it.
They were approaching the city now, soaring skyscrapers, gigantic billboards and flashing holodisplays clogging the night sky. Colour-coded cables slithered up walls and across roofs, strung up in a suspended web. The streets started to narrow as people swarmed around the pod, some of them stepping directly onto the bitumen road, painted a deep gold by the overhanging street lamps.
After nearly half an hour of crawling through the uncaring crowds, Anders hissed, 'Can't you go any faster?'
The driver gestured at the milling crowds zigzagging on the road. 'I ain't mowing dozens of folks down for you,' he said. 'Sorry.'
At this rate it would take all night. They'd have caught on by then, if he didn't come to a sticky end here first. He stared outside at the river of flesh that trickled by the pod, stealing glances his way. He was just waiting for the crowd to get ugly. Start pounding on the windows. Pulling him from the pod bleeding and beaten. Dragging him to a back alley. Planting punches in his jaw and tearing away his valuables, sticking a .44 in his mouth...
Anders fumbled in his pocket and brought out a thick wad of notes. 'How about now?'
The driver didn't think twice. He slammed his palm down on the siren, scattering most of the crowd back to the sidewalk. The remaining people followed suit once the pod bore down on them, nearly crushing them into the tarmac. Anders liked to think the driver would have avoided killing anyone, but in this city who could say?
He leaned back in his chair as the city became a sweeping blur of brothels, eateries, moonshine brewers, pharmacies, flashing concave screens and vehicles, only jostling from his trance once the pod docked at the port an hour later, a hulking dome of silver and sleek grey. He flicked a couple more notes the driver's way and disembarked, standing in front of the monstrous building. The blast-furnace heat raked at his skin, the air thick with cheap wheat beer and jabbering voices. Yet he ignored it all, a sickly coldness pooling in the pits of his stomach. It wasn't over. Not by a longshot.
Man, this line was long. The entire port was packed full of people from all walks of life. They all shuffled towards the dingy control booth where a Council employee would either permit or reject access to interstellar travel. He didn't know why these people even bothered; the chances of actually getting through were sickeningly slim. There would have been zero chance of him ever leaving this place if he didn't have this face, along with the asset level that came with it. Engineers were ridiculously useful, and thus came with a high asset level that was not given to other civilians. Part of that package was permission to travel.
Anders forced himself not to trace his cheek with his finger for line marks, a habit that would get him a lot more attention than he actually wanted. The air vents had blocked up, turning the air into syrup. A man in front of him took a deep drag of his cigarette, a spiral of smoke ribboning off the tip. He noticed that the line hadn't moved for a while now. What the hell was happening? He strained his neck to the front desk where an irate man was making wild gestures to the employee. Her face could have been chipped out of solid granite. He watched as the man was dragged away by two armor-clad androids, boots skidding on the polished floor, shrieking obscenities.
The line inched forward. Barely.
At least there were no more complications. People stepped forward, presented their IDs, got their faces scanned, had their profiles checked out, were rejected. They begged for permission to board, gave some lengthy sob story about their family, money, why they needed to get out of here. And they were rejected.
This happened almost every single time. Only five people -- four of which belonged to a family -- could pass. The other one was a black-suited businessman who either had special permission from the Council or simply had bribed his way through.
It was his turn next. The guy in front was kicking up a fuss. 'Listen, I have the files with me. They're Council-approved. Look at the stamps! Just let me in.'
'The files are not the issue,' the employee stated, her voice level and calm. 'The date is incorrect; you were meant to be here almost fourty-eight hours ago.'
'I got held up.'
'Sorry. I cannot let you through.'
'What?' The armored androids swiveled their heads at the man's rising voice. 'I've got the seal. Just let me in.'
'The decision has been made.' The woman was cool as ever. 'Please leave immediately.'
'Listen to me--'
'I will call security.'
'You stupid bitch! Wait--' his words were cut off as the android on the right clamped a heavy hand on his shoulder and started to drag him away. He struggled to get to his feet, shaking them off. 'I can walk! Let me go!' He gathered up his tattered dignity and strode out on his own accord.
Anders stepped up to the booth, eyes fixed on the woman. She scraped her hair back behind her ear. 'IDs?'
'Here.' He placed the various cards, codes and seals required for the process on the bench. The machine sucked them up greedily. He had nabbed them from an unlocked drawer in Anders' apartment, where they had all conveniently been placed together. It was great when people made your life easier like that.
The woman glanced at the monitor and gave the slightest of nods. He stepped to the right and placed his head in a circular mould. He felt the cold metallic bands fold over the back of his head, holding him in place as a blue-green light hovered in front of him, sweeping across his face. This was the crucial moment. If the machine detected an inconsistency, or if the scanners could read that something wasn't quite right, then everything would go to hell. And these things weren't failsafe. He'd seen banned footage where some guy struggled to get out of the clamp before the machine was done, and it had retaliated by tightening its grip, crushing his head like a mango, blood spraying, skull cracking, while he twisted and thrashed and struggled and--
'Scan complete.' The pressure lifted from the back of his head as the securing straps were removed and the scanner folded back into its place. The machine spat out his cards and IDs, like it was disgusted them with. He took them gratefully, nodding at the woman as the security doors in front of him parted like angelic gates of heaven. He strolled through, relief gushing out and flooding through his body.
He chose the earliest flight he could.
It would take him to Toh, almost as far away from here as possible. Even better would be Elva, but that flight wasn't scheduled for another five days. He wasn't planning to stick around that long. He might have gotten past the scanners and be wearing someone else's face, but it didn't hide the fact that he didn't belong here, in this playground of rich families and loaded businessmen. It would be easy to get a new ID and face in Toh. The Council's grip on the planet was so loose that contraband floated around the city like a disease.
He bought a meal while he was there. Chicken pamajama slathered in mushroom sauce. It cost a hefty price, but he remembered that it wasn't his credits that he was spending. The food wasn't fantastic, but would do for now.
Boarding was an effortless task. Everyone had been checked out already, so there was close to no security. They just took one look at his IDs and ushered him through without a word. He had the feeling they wanted to wash their hands of him. The feeling was mutual.
Anders settled back into his seat, clipping the seatbelt together. The flight would take around thirty hours or so. It had been an age before he'd had truly good sleep. Thirty hours with nothing to do except doze off was perfect.
There was almost no one else on board, just him and a handful of passengers and the family from earlier. Come to think of it, there hadn't been many in the departing lounges, either. It seemed that the Council were only letting a trickle of regular asset civilians go through. It was getting less and less each year and would likely only continue to lessen until no one could get through.
Not my problem.
It might have been selfish, but he was done with it all. There was no point in trying to fix anything there. He saw that now. The best he could do was go somewhere far away where they'd never find him. He should have done it years ago. He was done with killing, done with it all.
Anders gazed out of the tiny window as the spacecraft booted up. He noticed a couple of figures in the distance, sprinting towards them. He leaned forward and squinted in the gloom. The two androids from before were galloping across the tarmac at frightening speeds, a trio of human security guards sprinting behind them.
And they were all clutching pulse rifles. One of the androids even had a railgun, slapping in a clip.
He suddenly felt light-headed, his vision swimming. No. This couldn't be happening. He'd come so close. He'd--
The sudden movement of the spacecraft jolted him back to the present. The guards were screaming now, waving their arms, turning the heads of everyone around them. But the spacecraft had already pushed off the ground, slowly accelerating through the air. He seemed to be the only one who'd noticed them. The other passengers and crew were completely oblivious. The guards on the ground tried to shout out, but the scream of the engine drowned them out. He gripped the sides of his armchair and tried to calm his frantic heart as the spacecraft glided over the city, the frantic figures becoming smaller and smaller. He leaned back in his seat, breathing hard. That had been so, so close.
But he'd made it.
His ears popped as the ship reached space and booted up the warp drive, sending shivers down his spine, lights dimming above. The floor began to rumble, pulling him back into his seat picking up speed and winking out of existence.