The club was lit as usual with brightly coloured lamps and strobe lights, yet, it was barely visible to K, who could not see their colours with his grayscale vision. The photoreceptors of his optical sensors picked up the light and used that to make visible what he was focussing on, but colours were out of his remit.
As he sat on the stuffed high back chair of the booth, K barely managed to stop himself from gritting his pearly-white teeth while he waited. Stacked up chairs and tables littered one corner of the room and the digital infrared code of the ‘Emergency Exit’ sign straight ahead pinged his sensors.
The wall clock struck another hour off the day as Bobby, sitting opposite to him on the booth, snapped the end cap of a cigarillo, blatantly ignoring the ‘No Smoking’ sign above the bar to the right, and let out a puff of smoke that K could only sense by the ping of his sensors as they highlighted a potential hazard, and an unpleasant smell of the synthetic tobacco that suddenly filled the booth.
Bobby, an old contact of the resistance and owner of the club, was part of an exclusive circle of humans who had no qualms about dealing with the resistance, as long as they were paid. Bobby’s circle conducted business with both sides and stayed out of the way. Strict neutrality was the order of business — which meant one never knew whether a deal one made with him would be compromised by a deal someone else made with him.
For obvious reasons, the resistance only used Bobby when they had no other choice.
Bobby took his time, sending another puff of smoke in K’s direction, a tiny smirk greasing his fatty lips just for a second. He knew K couldn’t really sense the smoke. He liked to remind him of that every now and then.
Taking a third drag, Bobby continued, ‘Most of what you’re asking for is easy to get. The gun and ammo, my people can get from any number of places. The surgery is also not a problem. I have a medical team, and a pop-up surgery ready to go. The trick is the biochip. It’s a regulated item, and they keep a close eye on those things. Getting one is difficult and expensive.’
‘Two million, untraceable. Half upfront, half after the surgery.’
K reached into the waist pocket of his jacket and pulled out a credit chip. Placing it gently on the table, he slowly slid it across to Bobby.
‘There’s three million there. I need it by Sunday.’
‘Rush job. Okay. Okay. I can do that. Where do you want to do the surgery?’
‘There’s an old warehouse in the Lake district. Infrequent patrols. We should be safe for a few hours.’
‘Okay. We have a deal then.’
‘See you Sunday.’
K got up and walked out the nightclub. Outside the velvet- and satin-pressed walls of Bobby’s club, the staircase was slick with rain, the loose panes of cracked glass that passed for windows provided no protection against the torrential spray from outside. K gripped the handrail tightly as he slowly walked down the stairs to the foyer.
From the fogged-up glass-fronted door at the exit, K watched the rain beat down equally upon the pavement and the pedestrians. In the distance, a flash of lightning lit up the four-laned sea bridge of the Intercity Transit Corridor that linked the disparate quarters of Greater Hong Kong. The rains had become more and more frequent and unpredictable. A couple of decades back, the mega corporations had sprayed the atmosphere with experimental cryogenic material in what was later described in the news as an attempt to reverse the effects of climate change. Ever since, the city got colder. A lot colder.
K pulled up his mask to cover his face till his eyes and the hood of his jacket over his head before he opened the door. A cold gust of wind made him shiver as he closed the door behind him and started walking the long route back to his tenement. He took the Old Bay route, skirting the border between the old Continental district and the new harbour to avoid the crowded by-lanes of the commercial areas.
He made sure to keep his gaze down, avoiding eye contact with any fellow pedestrians, only catching quick glimpses to let his sensors detect traffic lights and obstacles.
Almost a century before his time, the neurologist Tanika Ashigura and trans-geneticist Agarvati Tumfan solved the issue of neuro-reintegration of a transferred mind with a host body. Their research suddenly made previously impossible procedures such as brain transplant, mind uploads and a host of other neurological operations possible, and the corporations were quick to take notice.
The Keretsais of Japan bought the rights to their discovery and promptly sold it to a dozen different corporations all across the world. Then, one of those corporations unveiled their creation. A dying workers’ mind transferred into a new host body made of artificial flesh and blood.
Following a newsbyte by a reporter who said that the corporations had pressed the reload button on Death, the name stuck. Reloads. Indentured servants built by combining a human mind with an artificial host body. Bodies differentiated from that of humans by the removal of certain key features such as external ears, nose, genitalia, or hair.
Within a year, thousands of Reloads were sent to work in the asteroid colony projects, the Jovian mining industries, the Venus Initiative, all custom-made to buyers’ requirements. It was a buyer’s market. One could get anything as long as there was credit in one’s account.
From there, it only expanded. In a world where a plank of wood cost more than most people earned in their lifetime, it was a perfect solution. As their popularity as cheap, disposable labour grew, legal measures were put in place to reinforce their servitude. International laws were enacted to prevent Reloads from voting, owning property, or precious goods, travelling without permits, assembling in large groups, organising or participating in protests. The corporations withheld Reloads from countries that refused to ratify such laws in their jurisdictions.
The Old Bay route led directly up to the low-income tenements which had been constructed over the bulldozed remains of Kowloon City.
His building, number 112D, was one of countless such prefabs that only remained standing as a result of near-constant patchwork by the residents and the government workers who came in to check once in a while to see if the residents were all dead and they could clear the building for the next batch of workers.
By the time he reached his tenement, he was soaked to the bone. Moving quickly, he went up the stairs, ignoring the snoring doorman, the screaming of children from the second floor and the loud droning noise of the water pump as it tried to prevent the lower floors from being flooded due to the excess rain.
His apartment was on the top floor of the tenement, a section of the roof closed off with walls and waterproof foam. Inside it was a bed and a workstation with a single chair beside it. Past that, partitioned by a screen he had purchased from a recycled goods shop, was a kitchenette with a small fridge, an electric cooker, and some utensils. Past a second screen was the shower and the chemical toilet. Stepping in, he discarded his wet clothes one by one as he moved past the kitchen and into the shower. Thanks to the rain, there was plenty of water, and he made the most of it, scrubbing himself with hard soap till he was ruddy.
After he towelled himself dry, he retrieved a shirt from a pile beside the kitchen and slipped it over his head, before he moved to the kitchen and opened the fridge. Inside were a number of ready-to-eat meal boxes, all labelled with digital infrared codes which allowed his sensors to read the contents. He picked up a box that read synth tofu and noodles, and grabbing a bottle of water, K moved to the bedroom.
He sat down on the chair in front of the workstation, setting the box down on the table, before twisting the heat cap off the top of it. Once it was warm, he had the contents straight from the container, not bothering to taste the food as he gulped it down. Once he was done, he threw the box into a corner where it landed against a pile of similar opened boxes and bottles, half-crushed. He then opened a bottle of water and drank all of it. The ritual was done for the night. He climbed into bed, pulling the cover over himself and fell asleep within moments of laying his head down on the pillow.
Two days later, he walked into the warehouse to find three people waiting inside the prefab that was the pop-up surgery where his operation would be done. The squat dark man who mumbled the name ‘Vint’ had K strip to his underclothes before handing him a sterile gown.
After K donned the garment, Vint led him to the operating table. It was a slab metal puffed up with cheap hard foam, and K saw it had a half-faded writing that read ‘Hospital Property.’. The bed must have been procured from one of the few hospitals that served Reloads. Reload hospitals didn’t have biobeds with self-adjusting foam and built-in medical AI that could perform surgeries on its own. No one saw the point in wasting money on damaged Reloads when one could just buy more for less.
Aside from Vint, and Bobby who had greeted K with a nod, there was one other person who he presumed was a surgeon, since she was already dressed in a sterile gown and was currently washing her hands with medical-grade soap. A tall, lithe woman, she acknowledged K with a nod as Vint strapped him down on the bed and retrieved the anaesthesia, which he proceeded to inject into K at her assent. The last thing K saw was the doctor pulling up close a mobile lamp stand with an overhead lamp .
Waking from the operation was disorienting. He felt as if something was wrong with his face, like his features were out of place. Sensing his confusion, Vint brought a mirror to him. Looking at his reflection, the sense of being out of place persisted. K knew it was his own face he was staring at, yet the mirror told a different story.
The face in the mirror had external ears and a nose and more shockingly, the top of the head was covered by a shock of black hair.
‘I’m staring at a human’, he thought he said to himself.
‘Well, it is what you asked for K.’
Bobby’s reply made K realise he had spoken the words aloud. He looked up to find the man staring at him with what could only be described as concern.
‘You alright, K?’
Resisting the urge to shake himself, K focussed on the task at hand, pushing the confusion away to a corner of his mind with practised ease.
‘Yes, I’m fine. We should move. There isn’t much time before the drones make another pass this way, and we don’t want to be here when they do.’
‘Yeah, okay. Let Vint spruce you up a bit, then we can talk.’
It took Vint 15 minutes to make K look more or less like a human with somewhere to be. Hair neatly parted down the middle complemented by a delicate bit of makeup to make him look more weather-worn. This was supported by his new sombre clothes. Vint made K wear a full-sleeved grey sweatshirt under a knee-length trench coat which was lined with a sophisticated anti-sensor mesh that would allow him to enter the court with a gun. Along with these, K wore a pair of black semi-formal trousers and grey heavy weather boots.
Once he deemed K sufficiently ready, Vint led him outside the surgery to another small prefab. Inside was Bobby, sitting on a folding chair and smoking one of his signature cigarillos. Beside him on the ground was a large briefcase. In the corner, there were a couple more chairs that were folded, leaning against the wall.
Upon seeing K, Bobby gave him a nod of appreciation.
‘You look human enough to pass the checkpoints.’
‘Thanks. Did you get what I asked for?’
‘Yes, it’s all here’, said Bobby, tapping the briefcase with his left foot.
‘You mind if I check it?’ K asked as he grabbed another chair, unfolded it in front of Bobby and sat down on it.
‘Sure. Be my guest.’ Bobby used his foot to slide the briefcase to him.
K picked up the briefcase and set it on his lap before opening it. Inside were travel documents, a gun and a box of ammunition. He picked up and examined the items carefully, before placing them back inside the case.
Satisfied, he closed the briefcase and put it down beside him.
Bobby reached inside his chest pocket to retrieve a black key fob and held it out to him.
As he reached out to take the keys, Bobby held it back. Surprised, K looked up to see Bobby staring at him with that same concerned look as earlier.
‘Are you sure about this, K?’
‘So you suddenly care now? Worried they’ll trace it back to you?’
‘No, I’m not worried about being traced. I made sure that couldn’t happen. I am worried about you. I didn’t say anything before, because business is business and I don’t get involved in political matters, but I know you, and this seems drastic, even for you.’
‘They killed her in front of me. Yes, I’m sure. Now hand me the key.’
‘Right.’ Bobby tossed the key to him, and K grabbed it with one hand. Picking up the briefcase with his other, he got up from the chair. Bobby got up as well.
‘Where’s the car?’
‘Outside. It’s an Auto A9, Macau district plate.’
‘Alright, Bobby. It’s been a pleasure.’ K gave the man a nod and walked outside the prefab and towards the door of the warehouse.
Bobby called out from inside, ‘See you around, K.’
K didn’t reply. Outside, the late afternoon air was cold, and the clouds were gathering once again. The morning forecast had warned of heavy rainfall in the evening.
The car was right where Bobby said it would be. It was one of the larger models, a four-seater, instead of the usual two. K opened the driver’s seat, reached inside and gently dropped the briefcase into the passengers’ seat before getting into the driver’s seat, and shut the door. He inserted the fob into the car lock and turned it once. The engine came to life with a slight hum, and he drove the car out of the alley and onto the road.
The guards on the compound liked to play a little game. They’d dangle out little things in front of newcomers — an extra hour of rest, leftovers from the main house kitchen, muted punishments — in exchange for informing on their fellow Reloads.
The first time, it took three broken bones for K to cough up the name of a fellow worker. After he was discharged from the infirmary, they gave him an apple. The next time, K got an extra break in return for ratting out another worker, Jensar, for dropping a crate of wine. As reward, he got a glass of wine which tasted good and a look of disappointment from their group minder, an older Reload. He ignored it and kept informing and each time he did so, she kept shielding them from the punishment, her eyes getting bleaker each time. Until one day, they dragged her out to the field, tied her to a stake and whipped her to death right in front of the rest of the work group.
He’d never meant for someone to die. He’d never meant to kill her.
The other Reloads shunned him from that moment. They hated him enough to be patient, until one day the guards slipped up just enough for a few of them to beat him to the ground. When he woke up, they put him on a transport headed to the city. Only it never got there. A resistance team ambushed it in the middle of the road. They brought him to a safe house, treated his wounds, gave him clothes and a new identity, and turned him loose in the city in exchange for a favour to be called in later. Ever since, he had been working his way up to make up for her death. Until now.
Three months before, the resistance had learned that the owner of the indenture compound where K had been was owned by a Judge Makashira Nomis of the Interplanetary Court’s Earth branch in the L5 district of the city. They also found out that the judge would preside over a hearing on a date three months later. The resistance had immediately called in K to do the job, one that K was more than happy to do.
K had spent the weeks since accepting the job finding out the exact time and date of the hearing, training himself and gathering the credit needed for the purchase of the equipment necessary for the job.
K didn’t stop the whole night, covering the corridor to the L5 district, a journey of 600 kilometres, in 15 hours. He parked kerbside opposite his target and watched the building of what he knew to be a bright red-hued mineral mined during the construction of the settlement dome over the Tharsis Valley in Mars. The stone and dust had been shipped by the overseers from their orbital colonies deep in the stable zone of Earth-Luna L5 orbits.
K had once had the fortuity to read from a stolen copy of the International Report that the supervisor in the collective he had been indentured in had left carelessly behind in one of the storage bins, that the red stone, polished by state-of-the-art architectural nanobots, glinted as a precious stone in bright sunlight, making it quite attractive to tourists from the orbital colonies who came down to the planet just to see it.
As the cars rushed by, blocking his view ever so often, all he could see was the giant building with towering columns that encircled a two-storey tall entrance with a door made out of real oakwood. On top of the door, faint to his black and white sight, was the inscription: ‘Interplanetary Court. Members Only.’
As he waited for the car, he opened the briefcase and pulled out the gun and the box of ammunition. The gun was a sophisticated 3D printed pistol. but the ammunition in the box was old, antiquated even. 9×39 subsonic, a cartridge manufactured by the Tokarev industry from the Russian Federation, back before the fall of the federation. The three bullets were hollow points with cyanide cores, just like he’d asked for.
He started loading the bullets into the magazine one by one as the cars started arriving, right on schedule. Just as Bobby’s intelligence packet had promised. The expensive, sometimes ostentatious, ground cars piled in quickly to the front of the building, letting out the nouveau riche from the orbitals who had interests on the ground side. At the same time, high above, aero cars flew in pairs to the rooftop pads, quickly dropping their passengers and flying away, allowing more aero cars to drop off their passengers.
Once the last cars had left, K waited for another half an hour before he got out of the car and closed the door behind him. He started walking across the double-laned street, tucking his hands inside the waist pocket of the knee-length trench coat as he did so.
He walked slowly, careful to emulate the little tics of the human pedestrians that he had spent weeks observing and emulating. The ankle-length heavy-weather boots, perfectly ordinary for this weather, also shaped his feet to human form, allowing him to match human walk and defeat the gait recognition software.
He went in through the door, avoiding the urge to stare at the security drones that lined the corridor outside on either side of the door, which no doubt scanned him as he passed them. He was quite certain that the holographic sensors on the doorframe or the drones would trigger an alarm, but nothing happened. He walked down the long hallway lined with large potted plants and cosy nooks that was the opposite of the 9×9 feet rooms that were his lodging back at the indenture compound.
Reaching the entrance to the hearing room at the end of the hallway, he held out his left wrist to the biometric chip reader, and the elegant coded tattoo pinged the system. After a moment, it turned green and he opened the door with his left hand, his right hand gripping the gun in his pocket as he entered the thinly populated room. Judge Makashira Nomis, sitting on the bench dead centre at the opposite end of the room, looked up from his reading at his entry with a frown on his face. It quickly turned into shock as K brought up his gun and fired two shots, staggering him back into his chair.
As the alarm began blaring in the room, and the people screaming, K walked to the pulpit, looked up straight at the camera, and placing the gun against the side of his head, pulled the trigger.