Titama

The following is a standalone story but operates as a prequel to characters and events seen in Kill Switch: Serial Escalation, available on Amazon in eBook and paperback form.

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Neon gleamed off the rain soaked streets of Neo Francisco. Titama liked the time after the city’s frequent small showers. Grime was washed off the buildings, trash hosed off sidewalks and into gutters, down drains, making everything look clean. Standing under a red and yellow awning, Titama avoided the last of the drizzle.

Squawking seagulls made the most of artificial daylight provided by the neon signage and holoscreens covering buildings as the rain passed. Some, the mutants, bristled with extra wings, legs and eyes. Swooping into gutters and alleys, they went rooting through trash for soggy morsels. Vehicles and pedestrians started filling the wet street and sidewalks again. Little Kiwitown, as one of Neo Francisco’s seedier entertainment districts, was filled with bars and nightclubs, love hotels, restaurants, VR dens, and brothels both sexbot and the traditional, fleshy alternative for cheaper customers, tattooists and bodymodding shops, and the local crack dispensary. Floating in front of one nearby building, a holo of a giant purple sexbot turned stiffly in place, hip cocked, gesturing as it blew kisses. A gaggle of bots poured out of the building below, their skins smooth, unable to feel that their skimpy clothing was impractical for the chill of the night. They began catcalling passersby again. In letters five metres tall, the word ‘CONSUME’ was projected from a holoscreen on a building across the street. A VR junkie stumbled along the sidewalk, arms windmilling, with a black band covering their eyes.

Tall, broad and heavily muscled, Titama’s biceps filled the sleeves of a leather coat that reached halfway down her thighs. A dark shirt and dark pants were under the black coat. Knotted behind her head, thick, brown hair exploded into a ball of frizz. Her complexion dark, the left side of Titama’s face was covered by a complex tribal tattoo, like overlapping thorns. The tattoos extended down her left side, covering her left arm. Stabbing a plastic fork into a white cardboard box held in her other hand, Titama withdrew a chunk of quivering meat and ate it.

Directly above Titama, over the awning she was protected by, a red skull with ‘X’s for eyes and tongue sticking from its mouth buzzed and crackled constantly. A blue knife and fork crisscrossed behind the skull like crossbones, snapping on and off. The neon, holograms and flashing lights in Little Kiwitown almost drowned out the glow of the rest of Neo Francisco. The huge spires and art deco towers. The city was still hilly, even more so after The Big One, and sloped down to the Neo Francisco bay.

“Titama, I need you.” Jojo said.

Titama’s partner, Jojo, appeared in the doorway of the restaurant. Taking the box of food, Titama moved back inside. It was small and warmly lit. The place was more takeout than eat-in but a few plastic tables and chairs were squeezed into the available space, currently unoccupied. Titama, Jojo, and the restaurant’s owner, Keith Kahura, were the only ones in the shop. Seeing Titama, Kahura backed up until he hit the cooking equipment behind him. Both of the men were New Zealand native, Maori, like Titama, both also taller than her but with leaner builds. Jojo dressed like he was one step above homeless, in baggy jeans ending in filthy boots, and an olive military jacket.

“G’day, Keithy.” Titama said, “I like this, spicey, new recipe?”

“Y-yeah, new recipe, new spices.” Kahura said.

“It’s good, it’s so good in fact it’s almost worth us continuing to supply you pro bono.” Titama said, “Almost.”

Titama tossed the white box onto the counter, fork still sticking out of it. The half-eaten contents looked like jambalaya. Bits of meat, grains of rice and spice sprayed across the clean countertop.

Kahura’s takeout store was called ‘Cannibal Chow’, although there was no sign on the roof except the neon skull. Legally, the restaurant chain ‘Long Pig’ was the only outlet licensed to serve cloned human meat in the New United States. That didn’t stop places like Kahura’s from advertising and selling freely, however. It just required payouts to the right police and health inspection officers, and a paperthin claim that what he served was actually vat-grown artificial human flesh substitute, which was more like tofu and tasted like ass, metaphorically not literally. An illegal trade needed an illegal supplier though, and that was where outfits like Titama and Jojo’s crew came in.

“What’s the problem here then, brother?” Titama said.

“He won’t pay! He’s got to pay but he won’t pay!” Jojo said, “I said he’s got to pay, he said he won’t pay but he’s got to pay!”

“Alright, alright, I got the picture, Jojo.” Titama said.

Jojo was pointing one long finger at Kahura as he spoke. He was older than Titama, in her early twenties, by a couple of decades, but he sounded like a child. Titama liked Jojo as a partner, he was loyal and stronger than he looked. However, he’d been in the military in the time before New Zealand sank below the waters of the Pacific Ocean and he’d taken a bullet to the skull in some Polynesian border skirmish. A thick, metallic band wrapped around the left side of his skull. Now half a kilo of government plastic and circuitry supplied by the lowest bidder did a little too much of Jojo’s thinking for him.

“Keithy, this isn’t hard, you demand, we supply, you pay us.” Titama said, “You’re late on last month’s bill.”

“You can’t keep raising the prices on me like this!” Kahura said, “I pass those kind of increases onto my customers, nobody will buy!”

“Nobody forcing you to buy, Keithy.” Titama said, “You agreed to the new price when you took last month’s delivery, you think my heart’s going to break for you? You can always switch to the artificial vat-shit, most of your customers are late night drunks with rumbly tummies, looking for some nom after getting their dicks wet. Maybe they won’t be able to tell the difference?”

“You know that’s bullshit.” Kahura said.

“You remember when you were opening up this shop?” Titama said, “Muturangi invested money in you then, you weren’t quick to pay back that either. You remember what happened?”

Titama nodded at Kahura’s right hand, resting on the countertop between them. Veins of metal ran through Kahura’s fingers. Rings were looped around the joints, the knuckles metal and protruding through the skin, and more metal struts ran across the back of his hand. The metal all formed a kind of brace that knitted Kahura’s hand together. Kahura yanked his hand away from the counter. Titama moved the lip of her coat aside. The handle of a small mallet with a rubber head was pushed through a loop in Titama’s belt at her right hip.

“You want the left hand to match?” Titama said.

“No, no no, I don’t want anything like that again, Titama.” Kahura said.

Titama moved past Jojo, circling around the counter. She took Kahura by the shoulder and steered him toward the back of the store. Although he was taller, Titama was considerably stronger than the restaurant owner and he didn’t want to resist and risk a worse punishment. Behind the kitchen was storage and walk-in freezer. Titama pushed the freezer open and forced Kahura inside.

“I want you to take a little timeout, and think about your debts.” Titama said.

In the freezer, hanging from their ankles, were two human corpses in different stages of dismemberment. Their skin was pale, decorated with frost. Barcodes on their necks proved they were clones, illegal or not. Kahura was forced to stand between them.

“At least you haven’t resorted to street meat yet, Keithy, good on you.” Titama said, “You want to keep paying back your loan to Muturangi, you keep this business afloat. You want to keep this business afloat, you keep paying what prices we tell you for these bits of meat.”

Titama pushed the freezer closed again. Removing the hammer from the loop in her belt, she brought it down on the handle for the door. Bent pieces of metal were knocked off the handle and clattered on the floor. It wouldn’t keep Kahura in there forever but he’d be stuck for a little while at least, long enough to think about his options.

“It’s cold in there, cold, he’ll be cold and-,” Jojo said.

“He’ll be fine, Jojo, calm it down.” Titama said.

Titama picked up the half-eaten box of food on their way out, stirring it with the fork. Somehow, however, she had lost her appetite even though the food really was as good as she had told Kahura. Her mind lingered on the pathetic, frozen creatures locked in Kahura’s freezer. Sighing, she dropped the food in a trashcan as they left.

“Never see how the sausage gets made, Jojo.” Titama said.

Neon was still glittering on the buildings around them and off the wet streets and sidewalks. Groundcars and walking vehicles filled the road. The engines of aircars streaked through the sky like falling stars and a police drone idled by overhead, watching the crowds below. Titama pulled Jojo back for a moment and waited for a young Chinese man to pass. Glowing dragon tattoos snaked down both of the young man’s well-muscled arms, exposed by his black vest, and cybernetics stood out on his arms, neck and head. One of the local Tong, the real criminal power in Neo Francisco. He stared Titama and Jojo down with eyes like chips of black glass. Titama met his gaze without blinking until he moved on. The Tong was out of his territory but probably just enjoying a night out like all the other punters, hardly worth starting a gang war over.

Neo Francisco was located on the smaller of the two main landmasses that made up the California Islands, San Angeles occupying the larger one. After New Zealand went under, refugees had been forced to flee in all directions, Samoa, Tahiti, and other remaining parts of Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, and, of course, Australia until they started blowing boats out of the water as part of their aggressive border protection policies. Many, like Titama, made it to the West Coast of the New United States and settled in Neo Francisco, which was how Little Kiwitown was founded.

Titama and Jojo walked back to their headquarters, the same building that hosted Little Kiwitown’s biggest illegal clone farm. On the outside, it looked like some kind of English manor, painted black, away from the neon and traffic of the main strip. On the ground floor was a huge function room. Tables and hundreds of chairs ran the length of the room, covered in dust cloths. Curtains covered the massive windows and most of the room was dimly lit. A long bar lined one wall, dozens and dozens of glass bottles glittering on shelves in the dull light.

“What’s the game?” Titama said, “Deal me in.”

Five of Titama and Jojo’s fellow gangsters sat around an uncovered table near the bar. All originally from New Zealand, they went by nicknames as well. In a way, they had all left their original names behind along with their old lives in their old country. Bash and Thrash, Jupiter, Riotgrrrl and Skux. They were dealing cards around a blue holographic tower that glowed in the middle of the table. Titama went over to join them but Jojo hung back. The cyborg didn’t feel welcome among the others, only with Titama.

“Playing card games instead of doing the job I pay you for, Titama?” A deep, male baritone said, “That sounds about right.”

Muturangi, Titama’s boss, emerged from his office across the room. Broad shoulders were clad in an expensive suit. Huge hands extended from the ends of his sleeves, a black jacket over a purple shirt. He had a thick and curly beard and hair swept back from his forehead. Facial markings not unlike Titama’s were tattooed on his weathered features although his were faded and on both sides of his face above his beard, not just the left.

“Oi, I just got back from working, what the fuck are these five doing?” Titama said.

“You’re right, what do I pay any of you for?” Muturangi said.

Muturangi’s eyes shone with humour. Also like Titama, he had taken his name from legend when he arrived in the New U.S. Muturangi was originally the name of a powerful tohunga, a navigator and high priest. According to the stories, Muturangi had a totem animal, a giant octopus or wheke, which Titama assumed was why Muturangi had chosen the title. Just like an octopus he had ambitions to have tentacles in everything, loansharking, drugs, street viruses, genemods, extortion, sex, hacking, street samurai, illegal cybernetics, gambling, porn, every vice imaginable, as well as of course the illegal cloning. Even guns, despite the fact the California Islands had the most draconian firearm laws in the country. Almost no private citizen had a license to legally own a gun and the few that made it to the streets were usually stolen or 3D printed and used rarely given ammo had to be smuggled in from Arizona Bay. Plus, police drones responded rapidly to any sound of gunfire.

“We’re guards. We’re guarding.” Bash said.

“Yeah, we got dozens of clones downstairs, growing in those vats.” Thrash said, “You want for someone, some other gang or the cops, to come and take the whole Farm?”

“Yeah, right.” Titama said.

Bash, Thrash and Jupiter were all white boys. Bash and Thrash were brothers, both with muscular builds, thuggish features and dark hair. Jupiter was taller, sandy haired with a badly healed broken nose, a contusion of cartilage in the middle of his face, but otherwise handsome, and with a gym bunny body. Riotgrrrl was Maori like Titama. She had a leaner build, skinny but hard muscled, dark skinned and with a heavily pierced face. Her hair was done in some neo-punk fashion, shaved and ravaged and twisted into tall knots. Skux was short and fat with a babyish face, youngest of the crew, wearing brightly coloured hip hop gear. The others were all wearing darker clothing, black shirts, jeans and leather, like Titama.

“Come on, I’ve got another job for you.” Muturangi said, “Something more profitable than shaking down tuck shops.”

“More profitable?” Titama said, “This something to do with the secret room under the Farm?”

“Ah, girl, you are too smart for your own good.” Muturangi said.

“Don’t know about any secrets, don’t ask don’t tell, no, sir.” Jojo said.

Titama and Jojo both followed Muturangi out of the function area and into a kind of service tunnel. The cyborg scratched idly at the edges of the metallic plate welded to his skull. Climbing into a large freight elevator, they rumbled downward. Muturangi hummed to himself while Titama stayed quiet, waiting and wondering.

Once used for growing marijuana hydroponically, the large and well-lit basement beneath the building now hosted a stranger and more profitable crop. Known as the Farm, the long, wide room was filled with glass cylinders that ran from floor to ceiling and were each almost a metre across. Every cylinder was hooked up to monitors and boxy pieces of equipment that filled the Farm with soft, irregular beeping. Each held a clone suspended in dimly glowing, greenish fluid. They ranged in size from ready to harvest, adult men and women, to embryonic.

Titama was reminded of the others hanging upside down in Keith Kahura’s freezer. Naked, with arms folded across its chest, tubes ran in and out of the clone’s body. Of course, they weren’t human. Whether they were made for food, fighting or fucking, baseline clones were grown with only their brainstems intact to run basic living functions like breathing and keeping hearts pumping. Porno clones or fighters had their skulls cracked open and were installed with wetware CPUs once they were decanted that allowed them to be programmed to act out basic tasks. They were basically biological computers though, flesh puppets who couldn’t think for themselves, or feel pain or any form of emotion. Any clones with full-cog, intact frontal lobes, although easily possible, would be magnitudes more illegal than these ones. Visiting the Farm was a good reminder of their inhuman nature. Clones didn’t grow the same way as real people. Half the vats were filled with half-grown clones, shrivelled bags of skin that looked like deflated balloons suspended in liquid, filling out as their bones knit together, and as flesh and organs sprouted and bloomed.

“This place is creepy, creepy, gives me the creeps.” Jojo said.

“You need us to make a delivery?” Titama asked.

“Exactly.” Muturangi said, “Where are those geeks? I told them to be ready.”

Two large doors dominated the far end of the room. Previously, the area behind the doors had just been another part of the Farm, filled with more clones growing in glass tanks. A few months ago, however, Muturangi had it sealed off for a secret project. Only he and the ‘geeks’, the technicians who worked in the Farm monitoring the clones, were allowed in there. It had been a source of mystery but now seemed ready to bear fruit.

Crossing the room, Muturangi hammered the intercom beside the heavy doors. Titama glanced over at a fully grown male clone in a nearby tank. Its chiselled chest rose and fell even though it was suspended in liquid. The fluid was thick, more of a gel, and oxygenated so much that even a normal, conscious person could have kept breathing while inhaling it.

“Come on, where is it?” Muturangi growled into the intercom, “I’ve waited long enough to turn a profit on this little enterprise.”

The doors opened but the room beyond them was still hidden by thick strips of plastic hanging like a curtain across the doorway, too opaque to see through. Two technicians, the geeks, appeared wearing brightly white cleanroom suits. Like papery coveralls, the suits started at their ankles and covered them all the way up to the hoods that hid their hair and ears. Blue gloves covered their hands and even hairnet-like stockings were pulled over the geeks’ sneakers. The two men rolled a large plastic crate on wheels through the strips.

“This is it?” Titama said.

Titama was disappointed by the lack of a reveal. The crate was clearly big enough to hold a clone tank. Grey and mostly featureless, it was marked only with ‘Fragile’ and ‘This Way Up’, and the logo of a popular furniture store as if to suggest the crate might be carrying a bookshelf or couch. It was the same ruse they often used to move and deliver the illegal clones.

“Here’s the address.” Muturangi said.

He handed her a holopad with a fake delivery manifest. The address was uptown, one of the high scale apartment buildings in Upper Neo Francisco. Titama studied it and handed it to Jojo.

“Not a fight pit clone then, that side of town.” Titama said, “New porno clones? Something special about them?”

“Curiosity killed the crook, girl.” Muturangi said, “Take the crate to the buyer, let them decant it and then bring the equipment back here. Don’t look inside, don’t ask any questions.”

“Worried I might recognise someone if I take a peek?” Titama said.

“What did I just say? Go!” Muturangi said.

Muturangi tousled Titama’s hair in a brotherly way. The two geeks rolled the crate over to Titama and Jojo. Heading back past the ranks of clone tanks, the pair returned with the crate to the freight elevator.

“Remember, all business is customer service.” Muturangi said, “You treat the customer right, be helpful. Big smiles, no questions.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.” Titama said.

A groundcar van was parked outside in the building’s loading dock, white and nondescript. After Titama and Jojo loaded the crate there was just enough room in the back for Titama to sit beside it. Jojo drove, as he always did. Although his brain implant caused some difficulty with thinking and speech it worked as a great GPS, projecting the route he needed to take right onto the optic centres of his brain.

Sitting and staring at the crate, Titama went over the possibilities in her head. Muturangi was still working with clones behind the closed doors of the Farm’s secret section, that narrowed the options. As a fight fan, Titama had been hoping for fight pit clones with heavy, rule-breaking levels of modding, but given the address they were delivering to it didn’t seem likely. Porno clones were already a pretty dicey area, especially depending on the kind of wetware they were programmed with. The other top possibility that Titama had alluded to with Muturangi was that they were transporting a celeb clone. Rich weirdos could pay huge sums of money for stolen pieces of genetic material from their favourite celebrities. Hair, or spit, or skin flakes. With that they could create a carbon copy in a cloning tank. That, again, would be far more harshly punished than their regular business at the Farm. The genetic code to grow clones had to be taken from somewhere but usually it was sourced somewhat legally, either bought from someone desperate enough or taken from someone using a DNA-mapping service that hadn’t bothered to read all the fine print. Keeping the crate company, Titama decided celebrity cloning was probably the most likely theory.

Passing back through the neon lights of Little Kiwitown’s main drag, they headed uptown. Giant holograms and glowing billboards dominated the road. Lower buildings gave way to skyscrapers. Some looked like Chinese pagodas but dozens and dozens of stories tall, brightly coloured with sloped roofs jutting off each level. Other spires and art deco towers sprouted and twisted hundreds of stories into the clouds. The sky was dark and some skyscrapers disappeared into the black. Rows of flying cars, headlamps and engines glowing, drifted between the buildings. Most of them moved from garages suspended high in the air to others hundreds of metres above, never coming close to the ground. Meanwhile, their van crawled through traffic.

A police drone flew overhead, red and blue lights blinking on and off on either side of the stingray-shaped hovercraft. Cameras and scanners jutted from the drone in all directions. A fifty calibre machine gun and a tear gas cannon were slung under the craft. Jojo kept driving. Even if the drone did a deep scan on the van, the clone tank was shielded.

Parking the white van under the building they’d been directed to, Titama and Jojo unloaded the crate. The parking lot was almost abandoned, only a few groundcars that looked like service vehicles scattered around the spaces. The residents would all have aircars and private garages attached to their apartments on every level. The client had buzzed them in. Rolling the crate onto an elevator, they were whizzed up smoothly and rapidly to the sixty-fifth floor.

When they left the elevator, Titama realised their client’s apartment took up the building’s entire level. Deep runnels were made in the entryway carpet by the wheels of their crate. The client hurried to meet them. He looked like a man on the verge of closing a massive corporate deal. Trying to keep his face neutral in case of last minute negotiations, his eyes still shone with excitement.

“You’ve got it? Just as I asked for?” The man said, “Come on, come on, bring it inside!”

Probably in his early forties, the client was neither attractive nor unattractive. He was a little too pale and his cheeks too hollow, dark hair eschew. Skinny but not in shape. He was, in a way, forgettable. Wearing a dark suit and white shirt, open at the collar, he seemed like he was not long home from the office.

“Where do you want it?” Titama said.

“Anywhere, there’s fine.” The client said.

“You sure? You got to decant the-, delivery, it’s going to make a mess of your carpet in here, cousin.” Titama said.

The apartment was old fashioned ultra modern, white walls, white floors and ceiling, every piece of furniture either glass or white leather. What art existed was plain and unfeeling, and there were almost no personal touches. The carpet was just as plush as it had been in the entryway. The crate’s wheels and Titama’s boots sunk deep into the fibres.

“I know that, I have cleaning bots for a reason.” The client said, “You can go.”

“Hey, I know you’re paying big bucks but we got to go back with the equipment.” Titama said, “You just get what’s inside.”

The client hesitated, “Okay, okay, I was already set up.” He said, “Bring her in here.”

Wheeling the crate across the living room, Titama and Jojo headed deeper into the apartment with the client. Multiple rooms branched off the wide central hallway. In one room were floor to ceiling windows offering a breathtaking view of Neo Francisco, the lights of the city aglow. The client led them to a bedroom at the far end of the apartment.

Titama couldn’t help noticing there were multiple locks on the bedroom door, including a dome-shaped retinal scanner. The door only locked from the outside. As it opened, Titama was struck by how glaringly different the bedroom looked compared to the rest of the apartment. The walls were hot pink and decked with lace. It had a bed, a dresser and mirror, and a large closet, with a rainbow-coloured rug in the middle of the room and a massive dollhouse. Stuffed animals clamoured for every available surface. It was a little girl’s room but too perfect, too clean, like a little girl’s room from a movie or a furniture store catalogue. Several large plastic sheets, designed to catch fluids such as those from the clone tank, were laid across the rainbow rug and the bed.

“What is this?” Titama said.

“Come on, hurry up.” The client said.

Titama’s boots crinkled on the plastic sheeting. Still in the hall, Jojo undid the latches on the corners of their crate. The sides and lid fell away, revealing the long glass cylinder of the clone tank and its transportable monitoring system on one end. Outside the shielded crate, the monitor beeped softly.

“Oh, wow.” The client said, “She really is perfect.”

Inside the cylinder was a young girl, one that looked only nine or ten-years-old. She floated in the viscous liquid, breathing shallowly. Tubes and wires ran out of her body. Like all the clones, the little girl was naked. With the adult clones, Titama had become so desensitised to nudity that she hardly even noticed anymore, but the clone’s prepubescent frame looked heartbreakingly fragile. It didn’t seem to bother the client. For a few moments, Titama tried fooling herself into thinking the man had wanted to clone himself a surrogate daughter. The look on his face though, as he admired her ‘perfection’, was not fatherly.

Titama felt herself breathing hard. The bed, she realised now, was much too big for a little girl’s bed. Mirrors on the dresser and on the doors of the wardrobe were angled to point toward it as well. One of the closet doors was ajar and Titama could see the clothes inside. Except they weren’t really clothes they were costumes, like school girl uniforms and puffy princess dresses.

“You sick motherfucker.” Titama said.

“What-, what did you say to me?” The client said.

Titama circled around the room, ignoring the flush of anger that crossed the client’s face. She went to the clone tank and studied the monitor attached to one end. Titama’s tattooed face darkened.

“This thing-, it-, she, is full-cog, not wetware.” Titama said, “Full frontal lobe job, sensory input and learning ability.”

“I paid your boss a lot of money for this!” The client said, “I don’t know who the hell you think you are, coming into my home-,”

Titama whirled away from the monitor, Jojo still looking confused more than anything else. Titama snatched the client by the throat. He was roughly as tall as Titama but she easily hoisted him into the air, lifting him by the neck and slamming him into the nearest wall. The man gagged and started clawing at her hand.

“Why?” Titama said, “You said she was exactly as you ordered, why the full-cog, why?”

“Her-, it’s the-, closest you can get to owning a real-, human being.” The man choked, “At least-, in this country.”

“Titama, what are you doing?” Jojo said, “This isn’t right, we got to make the delivery! Make the delivery to the client, bring the equipment back! All business is customer service!”

“This is bullshit, disgusting, I can’t believe Muturangi made me a fucking part of this.” Titama said.

Titama let go of the client’s throat. Grabbing at his bruised neck, he slithered back down the wall. There was no strength in the man’s legs so he slipped and sat down hard on the hallway carpet, sounding like he was about to weep. Titama rounded on the tank with the young clone in it again.

“Come on, Jojo, let’s get this fucking thing out of here.” Titama said, “We’ll take it back to-, I don’t know, but we’ll take it back.”

“You can’t treat me like this!” The client said, “I paid a lot of money!”

Leaving the sections of the crate behind Jojo followed Titama, pushing the clone tank back through the apartment the way they had come. They returned to the elevator. Voice breaking, the client yelled in protest behind them but was left alone with his empty, creepy room.

“You can’t go back down there with her! You can’t let people see!” He said.

They returned to the parking garage downstairs. The fluid in the tank was still glowing dimly. Titama fumed, she had no idea what she was going to do next but she just knew she couldn’t be a part of what the client had been expecting upstairs. They wheeled the tank back to the van and locked its wheels. Titama sat in the rear again while Jojo returned to the driver’s seat.

“Uh, where are we going now, Titama?” Jojo asked.

“Take us back, Jojo, back to the club.” Titama said, “I don’t know how, but we’re going to straighten this out one way or another.”

Towering skyscrapers loomed behind them as they headed back through the surface streets of Neo Francisco. Titama stared at the clone tank beside her. The skinny body sloshed in the liquid inside, the cylinder too big for the child-sized body. Titama’s phone implant started buzzing. She tapped a spot behind her left ear and an image of Muturangi appeared, projected over her optic nerves.

“Girl, what the hell did you just do?” Muturangi said.

“What did I do? What the fuck did you do?” Titama said, “What did you try to make me part of?”

“Made you a part of-, you’ve delivered clones hundreds of times before!” Muturangi said.

“Not like this and you know it, or you wouldn’t have tried to keep the whole thing secret.” Titama said, “It’s a kid and it’s got full cognition, full sensory input, it’s not the same!”

“It’s still not a human being, it’s a soulless biological machine!” Muturangi said, “It’s a piece of meat, just like the ones we send out to all the cannibal joints. Tell me how it’s different?”

“There’s a reason they don’t make child bots.” Titama said.

“Better that they go after some real kid?” Muturangi said.

“How’d you come into this? You wanted one for yourself?” Titama said.

“Girl, come on now, you’ve known me for years, I ever strike you as a kiddy fiddler?” Muturangi said, “There’s a demand from these sickos, whoever makes the supply can name their price!”

“No, no, you got to draw the line somewhere.” Titama said, “Growing braindead food clones I got no problem with. Porno clones and meat for the fight pits, wetware, fine, but this-, this is growing a real person. A kid who’s not going to know nothing but-, but-,”

“We need to talk about this.” Muturangi said.

“Talk’s over.” Titama said.

Titama tapped the implant again, cutting him off. Muturangi’s ghost disappeared in front of her eyes, replaced by the words ‘Call Terminated’ and a duration for the conversation that quickly faded. Titama looked over at the tank as Jojo pulled back into Little Kiwitown.

When they arrived at Muturangi’s building, Jojo reversed down the alleyway and against the loading dock. Riotgrrrl and Skux were waiting for them. Titama knew why Muturangi would have sent them, she liked them better than Bash, Thrash or Jupiter, and he was hoping they could reason with her.

“What the hell do you do, sister?” Skux said.

“Boss man said you turn the van around now, salvage this deal, then all this can be forgot.” Riotgrrrl said, “We’ll come with you to make the drop.”

“Not a chance.” Titama said, “Do you know what he’s doing? What he sent me to?”

Riotgrrrl shrugged, “Yeah, he told us.” She said, “New part of the business, we all going to be handling it soon.”

“What? And you’re okay with it?” Titama said.

“Think it’s fucking gross but they’re just clones.” Riotgrrrl said, “We chop ‘em up and sell them for food, and did you hear the money these fucks will pay?”

“Not these ones, shit, they’re grown with full brains, they’ll be able to think, to feel everything done to them.” Titama said.

“They’re grown in a fucking fish tank, they ain’t going to know anything else.” Skux said.

“Exactly.” Titama said, “Now you can either help me or get out of my way.”

Titama went to shoulder past the other two. Skux stopped her, throwing his weight in front of her and grabbing her arms. He was fat but he had a strong grip. Jojo had followed Titama up onto the dock but only watched.

“Give me the keys, sister!” Skux said, “We’re making the delivery.”

“Get your bloody hands off me!” Titama said.

“Give it!” Skux said.

Titama moved her head back, spine flexing like a spring. Before Skux could make a move to block her, Titama lunged forward and butted him in the face. Skux’s nose imploded. Releasing his grip on Titama’s arms, he stumbled back with blood spewing from his nostrils. Tears filled Skux’s eyes and blinded him. Titama used the distraction to grab Skux by the shoulder and sweep one leg into the back of his right knee. She threw the fat man to the ground. His head rebounded off the concrete with a noise like a melon being smacked against a wall. As soon as he was down, Titama kicked him in the side of the head. The steel toe of her work boot hit Skux just above the right ear and whiplashed his face to the side, knocking him unconscious.

The one-sided fight had only lasted seconds and Riotgrrrl hadn’t had time to react. Titama gave her a hard look and she backed away, raising her hands. Riotgrrrl’s hair was still tortured and falling across her face, half-hiding the dark rings of makeup under her eyes. She was wearing a black jacket with sleeves that pooled around her wrists. Riotgrrrl looked like she was surrendering but Titama knew exactly what was coming next.

“Never liked you anyway, bitch.” Riotgrrrl said.

Riotgrrrl’s raised arms shot suddenly down to her sides. Two extendable batons slid out of hidden holsters that were strapped to her forearms, covered by her sleeves, and into her waiting hands. She unsnapped both batons in one brisk movement. Given California’s extreme gun laws and enforcement methods, unlike the good old days all gang members had to be skilled in hand-to-hand combat and usually carried close quarter weapons like knives, knuckle dusters, or batons like these. The batons extended in three sections, black and metal with a bone-breaking round bulb on their ends. Yelling, Riotgrrrl spun toward Titama like a whirling dervish.

One of the batons cut through the air as Titama threw herself backward. Titama retreated as Riotgrrrl swung with both, seemingly wildly but Titama knew there was a pattern to the movements. One baton bulb swept past Titama’s head as she jerked back. Seconds later, another slashed by one of Titama’s knees, missing by centimetres. Titama waited for an opening and then struck out, driving a fist into Riotgrrrl’s collarbone. Riotgrrrl folded up and was knocked backward, gagging, and Titama caught one of her arms with the crook of her elbow.

“Get off of me!” Riotgrrrl said.

Riotgrrrl swung one of her batons into Titama’s left arm and the limb instantly went numb. Titama yelled and it dropped to her side. One-handed, she shoved and almost spilled the skinnier woman off her feet. Riotgrrrl lost her grip on one baton and it rang off the concrete, rattling across the dock.

“Motherfucker, that hurt!” Titama said.

Darting back toward Titama, Riotgrrrl swung her remaining baton. This time, the swing was genuinely wild and angry. Titama swivelled out of its path, Riotgrrrl telegraphing her movements, and the weapon hissed through the air. Riotgrrrl overextended herself and stumbled right into Titama’s fist as the bigger woman heaved around. There was a loud crunch and Riotgrrrl’s head almost left her shoulders. The blow threw her across the dock, her remaining baton spinning away from her hand. She crashed to the concrete, rolling onto her face. Spasming for a few moments, she lay next to Skux and went still.

“Jojo, are you still with me?” Titama said.

“Still? Y-yeah, yeah, yeah.” Jojo said, “I mean, we’re partners, you and me, I’m with you.”

Titama flexed and rubbed the bicep of her left arm where Riotgrrrl had hit her. A siren howled from somewhere nearby but it wasn’t coming toward them. There was no sign of Muturangi or any of the others.

“Come on then, Jojo.” Titama said.

Titama felt a trill of guilt as she headed into the building. It wasn’t for the two unconscious bodies she was leaving behind, Riotgrrrl and Skux were scumbags. Just like, in her heart of hearts, Titama knew she was a scumbag. Until tonight, Titama didn’t even know what lines she had that she wouldn’t cross. Even fighting alongside Riotgrrrl and Skux in the past, Titama had known someday the tables could turn and she could end up fighting or even killing them. Titama felt guilty for dragging Jojo into it. This work was the only kind of work he could find apart from pushing a mop around and Titama was destroying it for him. But then, if it wasn’t for Titama then Muturangi would be involving Jojo in something potentially unforgivable. The girl in the tank wasn’t just a piece of meat or a toy, not with a brain and the ability to feel grown into her.

The back hallway was still abandoned. Cameras watched along the corridor and outside the doors though, and there were monitors in Muturangi’s office. Jojo followed Titama to the freight elevator and they rattled down to the Farm again, unhindered.

The Farm looked exactly as it had before, empty except for the growing clones bubbling in their vats. The doors to the ‘secret’ area were closed off again and the two techs must have been inside. Titama crossed to a massive cabinet on one side of the room. The cabinet was filled with a variety of tools used in maintaining and decanting the tanks, and surgical tools, all potential weapons.

“We only have one shot at this, we’ve got to shut this shit down.” Titama said, “He went too far, I’ve worked for Muturangi ever since I got to Neo Francisco, seen a lot of shit, but this time he’s gone too far.”

Titama removed a long-handled sledgehammer with a brick of a head from the cabinet and passed a crowbar to Jojo. The cabinet was cluttered with other tools and weapons. In the bottom was a grey tank like a scuba diver would use attached to a hose and small, gun-shaped object. It was a boltgun, the tank full of compressed air and the gun portion capable of driving a steel rod through several centimetres of solid bone. Slaughterhouses used to use them to kill cattle before they went extinct. Since they didn’t need to transport food clones alive they used the boltgun to put them down, or the sledgehammer Titama was holding if the boltgun was out of gas. If the geeks didn’t open the double doors for her then the bolt gun might help take out the lock.

Carrying the hammer and boltgun along with its tank, Titama headed over to the doors. Muturangi might have warned the geeks that she was coming but before trying anything else she hammered the intercom beside the doors.

“Oi, it’s me, Muturangi sent me back.” Titama said, “There’s a problem.”

After a few moments, the intercom lit up. One of the geeks stared back at her through a thick pair of goggles, still wearing his hooded cleanroom suit.

“What’s the problem?” He asked.

Titama didn’t say anything. The geek repeated the question but then got frustrated. He stepped away from the screen and moments later the two big doors opened. The white-clad figure stepped through the thick strips of opaque plastic that hung inside the doorway.

“Hey, what’s the problem?” He said for a third time.

Titama casually jabbed the head of her sledgehammer into the man’s stomach and the air left his body in one explosive rush. He doubled over, clutching his midsection. Jojo, scratching the metallic band that wrapped around half of his skull, stood back looking nervous. Titama shoved the geek aside.

“Me.” Titama said, “I’m the problem.”

Titama swept through the plastic blocking the doorway. Jojo followed, circling around the downed tech. The second room was almost the same as the first but slightly smaller, with only room for a dozen of the cloning tanks. Only one of the mounts was empty, the monitors still there but the cylinder gone, clearly the one belonging to the cloned girl Titama and Jojo still had in the van. The cylinders were all full-sized but the clones inside them were smaller. Just like the adults in the other room, the child clones were in various stages of growth. Some were like grapes that had died on the vine, shrunken and shrivelly, while others were ready to be plucked. It was hard to tell the boys from the girls without looking down. Prepubescent, they all had undeveloped chests, skinny limbs with narrow shoulders and hips, as well as peaceful, sleeping faces. Floating in the fluid, they all looked as vulnerable as the girl Titama had almost delivered. Evenly divided between girls and boys they came in a mix of different ethnicities.

“What’s going on?” The second geek said.

Just to be sure, Titama went from monitor to monitor beside the tanks. The clones were all designed to be fully cognitive just like the girl in the van, capable of thoughts, emotions, the ability to learn and feel. The closest you could get to owning a human being. The second geek circled through the rows of tanks, keeping his distance from Titama and Jojo. The first geek stumbled back inside through the plastic strips, holding his midsection.

“Get out of here, or I’ll kill both of you.” Titama said.

The geeks weren’t fighters, and they could tell by Titama’s voice that she was serious. The second man looped around and took off running. The first limped after him and disappeared.

“Jojo, watch the door.” Titama said.

“Okay, Titama, okay, okay.” Jojo said, “What-, what are you going to do?”

Without answering, Titama set the boltgun and its tank down and took the sledgehammer in both hands. She swung it with all her strength at the base of the nearest cylinder. The glass was reinforced and the hammer bounced off with a loud clunk, almost without leaving a mark. Titama hit it again, muscles bunching, and a spider web-shaped crack broke out across the surface of the tank. A third blow and the cylinder imploded. The thick, glowing fluid started to pour out of the hole and across the floor. Titama stepped back from the rapidly growing puddle. The boy in the cylinder hung from his tubes as the fluid drained away. The monitor next to the cloning tank stopped beeping and started to flatline.

With the first monitor wailing, Titama turned on another tank. Lifting the hammer, she brought it down on the monitor and machinery attached to it. The monitor disintegrated in an explosion of sparks and debris. Ripping the sledgehammer free, Titama swept around and slammed into another monitor. Quickly, she took out several more. The clones couldn’t survive without the machinery attached to the vats if they weren’t properly roused and decanted.

Titama supposed by her own logic she was murdering children, but until they came out of the tanks they were only the potential of children, blank slates. Sledgehammer abortion was a better fate than being born out of a test tube, used and abused then disposed of, she decided. For good measure, Titama turned and hammered the reinforced glass of another cylinder until she created another crater. Goo emptied out through the hole, covering the floor, and the twisted half-child thing attached to the tubes inside the cylinder dangled free.

“Stop! For the love of God, girl, what are you doing?” A voice roared.

“T-, Titama! Titama! It’s Muturangi!” Jojo said.

Jojo was standing in the corner by the doorway and watching as instructed, holding his crowbar. Muturangi and the three others from upstairs, Bash, Thrash and Jupiter, filled the entry to the room. The three younger men were all armed. Bash had a machete, Thrash a length of chain, and Jupiter was carrying a pair of knives. It was obvious they were ready for a fight to the death, her death.

“Thanks, Jojo.” Titama said.

“Do you know how much this is all worth?” Muturangi said, “What the fuck are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking I can’t let you do this.” Titama said, “Maybe-, maybe if you had let us know what was going on with your little secret project, we could’ve talked about it. I could’ve tried to talk you out of it, but now-,”

“Too late for talking now.” Muturangi said.

“Yeah, figured if you had already grown a bunch of them it was too late for that.” Titama said, “Only one way to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

“Hey! All I’m doing is supplying a demand!” Muturangi said, “I don’t like kiddy fiddlers any more than you but what’s better? They buy one of these test tubes or try to grab a real kid? If we don’t get in the market, someone else will.”

“You chose to grow them with real brains, so they could think and feel.” Titama said.

“They’re meat!” Muturangi said.

“So are we.” Titama said.

“They’re meat, you’re dead meat.” Bash said.

Bash was turning the hilt of his machete in his hand. The two brothers looked hungry for a fight. Muturangi looked disappointed. He waved one big hand and walked back through the thick strips of plastic hanging across the doorway.

“Kill her.” Muturangi said.

They were definitely past talking. Even though Titama knew she had started down a path of no return when she began destroying the equipment and tanks, hearing Muturangi say those words was still a punch in the gut. After knowing each other for years, the respect they’d once had for one another had collapsed. Muturangi left as if he couldn’t bear to watch.

“Happy to, this uppy cunt has always gotten on my nerves.” Bash said.

Bash, Thrash and Jupiter all started across the room with their weapons raised. They had to circle around the pools of greenish fluid from the tanks Titama had broken. Titama tightened both hands on her sledgehammer.

“No! No!” Jojo said.

Jojo ran forward, swinging his crowbar. Jupiter was forced to spin out of his reach and the weapon cut through the air, nearly clipping Jupiter’s ribs. He slashed at Jojo with his two knives, the pair orbiting one another.

“For Christchurch’s sake, take the retard, we’ve got the bitch.” Bash said.

The two brothers threaded around the tanks and puddles of goo. Monitors were still beeping and screaming, and the sweet but chemical smell of the oxygenated fluids from the broken tanks was starting to fill the room. The clones in the tanks, both living and dead, floated by looking peaceful.

“You don’t want to do this.” Titama said.

“Think I do, you hori bitch.” Bash said.

Bash ran at Titama, machete raised. His equally hulking brother hung back for a moment, a pair of predators working in unison. Titama brought the handle of her sledgehammer up to block. The machete glanced off the hammer near Titama’s fingers. Bash feinted, pulling the blade back and then trying to drive it into Titama’s stomach. Titama twisted out of its path and swung the hammer, quickly but without a lot of force, into Bash’s shoulder.

Thrash whipped around with his chain. Thick links of metal jangled. Titama was forced to twist and turn to avoid Bash and avoid being hit by the chain at the same time. Titama had seen Thrash in a few streetfights before and he was good with the chain.

Titama had been measuring herself against guys like Bash and Thrash since she was a skinny stripe of a kid playing Junior Rugby in the days before New Zealand sank into the Pacific. She was heavily muscled but they were naturally stronger. Take a hundred men and a hundred women off the street and pick out the strongest one hundred among them, you ended up with maybe ninety-seven men and three women. Bone density and natural mass went a long way. Titama would have counted herself among that theoretical three percent of course but that didn’t mean she could get cocky. Against the two brothers, probably both stronger, both armed, Titama had to fight smarter.

Bash lunged again, swinging his machete from side to side. Titama moved just enough to avoid it and the blade glanced off one of the cloning vats. Feinting high, Titama went low. She kicked Bash in the kneecap so that his leg buckled and drove him back for a moment. Rather than push the advantage, Titama darted at Thrash who had been closing in from her other side. Surprised, the second brother didn’t have time to use his chain. Titama pushed him and Thrash stumbled into the pool of viscous cloning tank fluid on the floor behind him. He slipped and fell in the goo, suddenly flailing.

Meanwhile, Jojo and Jupiter had been circling one another until Jupiter lashed out with one of his knives. The weapons were hunting knives, big and black with razor sharp blades and serrated backs. The blade slashed through Jojo’s left forearm. He cried out and blood spilled through the tear in his old jacket.

“You fucking cyber-spastic!” Jupiter said.

“I’m not going to let you hurt Titama!” Jojo said, “We’re partners!”

Jojo whipped around with his crowbar. It connected with Jupiter’s left wrist and the knife flew from his hand, spinning away from them between the broken equipment and cloning vats. Jupiter yelled and stumbled back, protecting his wrist.

Titama raised her sledgehammer and brought it down, aimed at Thrash’s head. Even on his back, however, Thrash had enough sense to roll sideways and avoid it. The roll covered him in sweet-smelling goo. Titama’s hammer cracked the floor tiles. The blow travelled through the hammer and up Titama’s arms. Thrash turned back around, grabbing Titama’s sledgehammer by the handle before Titama could pull it away from him. They wrestled for a few moments over the weapon before Thrash, leaning back with his weight, managed to twist the hammer out of Titama’s grasp. He threw it backward and it also went rattling across the room.

“Come here, bitch.” Bash said.

Grabbing her by the collar, Bash yanked Titama’s head backward. He had his machete raised in his other hand. Titama turned and grabbed Bash’s raised wrist with both hands. Wrenching it around, Titama twisted his arm and rammed it into one of the cloning tanks. It took several attempts but Bash released and it clattered to the ground. Titama kicked and sent it spinning away from them.

Titama and Bash wrestled while staying on their feet. This was exactly the kind of fight Titama didn’t want to find herself in and it’d be worse if Bash got her on the ground. Grabbing the side of his face, Titama gouged a thumb into Bash’s eye. Thrash was back on his feet, covered in goo. He hit Titama from behind and looped his chain over her head and shoulders. Automatically, Titama shot a hand up between the chain and her neck to stop herself from being choked. Thrash yanked her backward, pulling the chain up and trapping her hand under her chin.

“I don’t need-, I don’t need a machete to finish you, bitch.” Bash said.

Thrash yanked Titama backward, immobilising her. Panting, Bash moved in with his fists and punched Titama in the stomach. Grunting with pain, Titama tried to free herself as Bash hit her a second time. Her eyes darted around and spotted Jojo but he was still fighting with Jupiter and couldn’t help her. One of Bash’s fists crashed into the side of her head, dazing her and knocking her face to the side.

“You know what I’m going to do?” Bash said, “I’m going to beat you to shit, and I’m going to crack open your fucking skull, put in one of those wetware CPUs we use for all the porno clones, and then put you back together. You’re going to be my personal muscle girl fucktoy!”

“Don’t think it works like that, bro.” Thrash said.

“Shut the fuck up, I’m going to make it work.” Bash said, “You think I give a shit we’re selling kids, clone or not? We’re going to make so much money off this shit and when you’re dead, Muturangi’s going to make whatever we want happen.”

Bash hit Titama again and again. Titama had managed to steer Thrash back toward the cloning tank fluid covering the floor but although his feet slid around a little he kept his footing and his grip didn’t slacken on the chain around Titama’s neck.

Suddenly, taking another blow to the midsection, Titama lurched forward. Bending over, Titama pulled Thrash and threw him over her back and shoulders in one explosive movement. Thrash was heavy and tall but caught by surprise and his footing too slippery to resist. Titama flipped him into his brother in a bundle of limbs. The chain came loose from her neck. Bash fell, crying out with Thrash on top of him. With booted feet, Titama kicked at the pile created by the two bodies, just keeping them down.

Jojo was bleeding from a deep gash on the side of his stomach as well as his left arm. He wielded the crowbar in his other hand. Jupiter circled around with his remaining knife, but he didn’t have the same range as Jojo’s long arms and crowbar.

Across the room, Jupiter saw Titama flip Thrash and take Bash down with him. He needed to finish this with Jojo and go help them. Faking in one direction, Jupiter lunged at Jojo the other way. Jojo was faster than expected though and swung the crowbar into Jupiter’s right arm. There was a loud crack, one of the bones in his forearm snapping. Jupiter dropped the second knife and went to grab the break, although his left wrist was still throbbing.

“She’s my partner! She’s my partner!” Jojo said.

“Jojo, wait!” Jupiter said.

Jojo swung the crowbar into the side of Jupiter’s face. His chiselled jaw gave way like a popsicle stick. Jupiter stumbled into the wall, spitting out blood and fragments of teeth. His eyes were wide with terror but there was nothing he could propel his body to do to avoid the next blow. Jojo swung again, striking him straight across the face. Yelling, Jojo kept hitting him in the skull, again and again.

“She’s my partner!” Jojo shouted.

Titama stripped off her leather coat, freeing her musclebound arms. As she threw it aside she searched for a weapon. The closest that she spotted was the boltgun with its hose and tank. Bash and Thrash struggled to get up. Titama crossed to the tank and grabbed it, careful not to slip in the cloning tank fluid. Chain still wrapped around his fists, Thrash was getting to his feet.

“You fucking bitch.” Thrash said.

Body aching, Titama swung the boltgun tank into Thrash’s face. There was a hollow noise as it bounced off Thrash’s head and he flailed backward. Titama hit Thrash again with the tank, hammering him in the neck and dropping him to the ground. Titama grabbed at the boltgun on the end of the stiff hose. Twisting the nozzle on top of the tank, she drove the muzzle into the side of Thrash’s head and pulled the trigger. The bolt shot out of the gun and punched through Thrash’s skull like tissue paper, driving fragments deep into his brain. The man spasmed and died, hands clawing at the tiles. Titama pulled away as the boltgun’s shaft retracted back into its barrel.

“Kevin, no! Bro!” Bash said.

Bash was on his hands and knees, trying to get up. Titama slammed the boltgun’s tank into the top of Bash’s head as well, dazing him. The sledgehammer Titama had been forced to give up was lying against the wall not far away. She dropped the boltgun and tank and went to grab her original weapon instead.

“Who’s the bitch now, Bash?” Titama said.

Titama swept the sledgehammer down and around, into Bash’s head, and the blow drove him face first into the tiled floor. Crunching, Bash’s skull split open between the hammer and the ground. Gore splattered across the tiles. Blood and red-pink lumps mixed with the greenish fluid already pooled across the floor.

“Titama, are you okay? Are you okay?” Jojo said.

Titama was battered and bruised but still in one piece. She rolled her shoulders now that they were free of her leather coat, the sleeve of tattoos down her left arm rippling. Jojo was bleeding in several places but was covered in a great deal more blood than just his own. Red painted its way up his right arm, across his chest, and sprayed onto his face. Propped against the wall was Jupiter with his head demolished and a starburst of gore behind him.

“I’m good, you okay, Jojo?” Titama said, “Come on, help me finish these tanks.”

Thick electrical cables snaked away from the machinery and the tanks. Titama was tired. She and Jojo moved around the already busted monitors and the two of them yanked and unplugged the tanks, throwing the heavy cables aside. The glows from the cylinders and beeping monitors died. One by one, they killed the remaining clones.

Titama kept carrying her sledgehammer as they removed the cables, covered in blood and gore. Jojo was still holding his bloody crowbar. Supporting each other, the two of them walked out of the room together and back into the main area of the Farm.

Muturangi was waiting for them across the room, blocking the exit. He looked like he’d dashed upstairs and come back down while they were fighting the other three. Nodding slightly, Muturangi looked outraged but also impressed.

“It’s done, boss, just walk away.” Titama said.

“Did you really kill them, girl?” Muturangi asked, “All of them?”

“Who, the clones or the boys? Bash, Thrash, Jupiter?” Titama said, “Suppose it’s not much difference to you, you could always get more of both, clones and foot soldiers.”

“You were always soft-hearted, Titama.” Muturangi said, “You were the only one who’d work with the retard cyborg right there without even questioning it.”

Muturangi lifted a small, rectangular object like an old TV remote into the air so that Titama and Jojo could see it. Jojo gave no reaction, he’d been called a lot of names before and he obviously didn’t recognise the device.

“You ever wonder why I’d let some halfwit like Jojo work for me? Before I took him in, I had a console jockey poke around in that brain implant of his.” Muturangi said, “Had them install a few hidden subroutines and master programmes. Like watch this, Jojo, kill this ungrateful bitch for me.”

Muturangi mashed several buttons on the remote. Jojo went stiff and started jittering as if being electrocuted. Dropping his crowbar, he screamed and fell to his knees with blood-covered hands going to the sides of his head.

“Jojo! Jojo, what’s happening?” Titama said.

Titama tossed her sledgehammer to the floor as she knelt beside Jojo. Her partner collapsed, thrashing and grabbing at his head as Muturangi slipped back out of the room. Jojo’s eyes were bulging out of their sockets. Just as suddenly as he’d been hit by whatever Muturangi had done, however, Jojo stopped screaming and sat up. He snatched Titama around the neck and shoulders. Titama was shocked and didn’t resist as Jojo heaved her backward.

Letting out an inhuman screech, Jojo got up on his haunches and shot toward Titama. Whatever Muturangi had activated inside his skull had filled Jojo with berserker rage. He moved more like a chimp than a human being, shrieking. Leaping onto Titama, Jojo hit and clawed. It was all Titama could do to protect her face and eyes.

“Jojo, stop! It’s me!” Titama yelled.

Twisting, Titama slammed the heel of her hand into the base of Jojo’s throat. He let out a horrible gagging noise but didn’t stop. Jojo smacked Titama across the face and her head whipped around, nose bleeding. Another punch and her head bounced off the tank behind her. The male clone drifting upright in the tank showed no reaction, deep in its dreamless sleep.

Still gagging and shrieking like an animal, Jojo wrapped both hands around Titama’s throat. Getting on his feet, Jojo lifted Titama up the side of the tank. She kicked and thrashed. Jojo’s hands closed around Titama’s neck, cutting off her airflow.

“Jojo, stop.” Titama said.

There was no reasoning with Jojo. He was also incredibly strong in his berserker state. Titama knew her lanky partner was stronger than he looked but not like this, the programming in his cybernetic brain must have caused his adrenaline to spike through the roof and drive his body to extremes. Titama chopped her hands into Jojo’s elbows but couldn’t make his arms budge. Her lungs were burning. If she couldn’t get the pressure off her throat then she would pass out and there would be nothing she could do to stop Jojo killing her. Titama had no idea whether Jojo could come back from what Muturangi had done to him or not, but she had no choice.

“Jojo, I’m sorry.” Titama rasped.

Pinned against the tank, Titama bent and brought both of her knees up. She kicked and then hooked one leg over Jojo’s right arm. Titama pulled down and Jojo lost his grip. The two of them fell and Titama turned so she had her back to Jojo. He snarled in confusion. Titama kept his arm pincered between her muscular thighs.

Jojo fell to his knees, leveraged by the arm. Titama twisted the limb as his other hand clawed at her hip and then wrenched it sideways. There was a sickening crack as Titama snapped Jojo’s right forearm just below the elbow. Jojo fell to the ground but didn’t seem injured, just angry. His right arm was useless but he swung around with his left, trying to tackle her.

On her feet, Titama grabbed Jojo by the shoulder and shoved him into the tank. His head bounced off the glass. Jojo was only momentarily dazed. Titama used that split-second to snatch Jojo by the side of the head more firmly and then she hammered him into the curving side of the tank again and again and again. Blood dripped out of Jojo’s ear. The area around his implant was bruised and discoloured.

“So long, partner.” Titama said.

With fingertips calloused from weightlifting, thick and powerful, Titama dug into the edges of the metal band running around the left side of Jojo’s skull. Jojo kept howling and fighting until the end. Titama pulled down and twisted. Sparks erupted from the implant as Titama ripped it out of his head. Bloody streamers of circuitry came loose from Jojo’s grey matter. Jojo jerked around, eyes rolling back in their sockets and blood pouring down the side of his face.

Jojo dropped at Titama’s feet, seizing and dying. Removing the implant revealed a square hole cut right through the side of his skull. Titama waited until she saw the last breath leave Jojo’s body. She looked down at the curved implant in her hand, covered in blood and brain, and tossed it aside.

“Alright, you’re going to fucking die for that one, Muturangi.” Titama said.

Titama returned to where she had dropped her sledgehammer. Hefting it easily in spite of her bruises and contusions, Titama set off across the Farm and down the hallway to the freight elevator. Her head moved from side to side, cracking her neck.

Muturangi was in his office upstairs, on the ground floor. The huge function room was dark and silent. The noise of the freight elevator groaned through the backroom halls. Muturangi’s office was also, for the moment, dimly lit. It was a small room for a man of his size with bookshelves and filing cabinets clustered around his narrow desk. One set of shelves was filled with classic Maori weapons and memorabilia, connections to a lost past and a lost country. Several flat monitors on the desk displayed camera feeds from around the building. Titama, holding her sledgehammer, moved from screen to screen.

Hands shaking, Muturangi unlocked the top drawer of his desk. The gun in the drawer was chunky, inelegant, and made of bright blue plastic. Since firearms were so heavily restricted and regulated across the California Islands most of the ones illegally available were 3D printed from the most basic of materials. Ammunition was also hard to come by and incredibly expensive. Although the gun looked like a child’s toy it fit six rounds snugly inside the fat, plastic grip. Watching the monitors, Muturangi withdrew the weapon from his desk. Given the possibility of gunfire being picked up and the police coming down hard on all offenses it was a holdout weapon, an emergency backup in case all else failed.

With a slam, the door to Muturangi’s door was smashed open. Titama filled the frame holding the sledgehammer she had taken from the cabinet downstairs. Muturangi raised the chunky 3D printed weapon but he didn’t expect Titama to close the distance. Titama pitched her hammer from across the room. The sledgehammer swung across the small office and struck Muturangi’s shoulder with a loud snap. Muturangi’s arm was thrown sideways and the gun exploded, firing one of its rare and overpriced rounds into a filing cabinet. The gun fell to the floor beside his desk. Rebounding off Muturangi’s broken shoulder, the sledgehammer landed on the desk in front of him.

“Ah, damn it! Titama, girl, wait! Wait!” Muturangi said.

“We could’ve talked this over, boss. Even with the clones, even you telling Bash and Thrash to kill me.” Titama said, “Until you did that to Jojo.”

Muturangi’s right shoulder was broken, a contusion under the material of his suit that clearly pained him. Raising his left hand, Muturangi struggled to stand as if to defend himself. His muscular bulk dwarfed the desk. Titama reached for one of the shelves as she circled around the office, the one covered in traditional weapons and old mementos. Her hand found a heavy Patu Onewa made of basalt. The Patu Onewa was a simple but effective weapon shaped like a small paddle but rounded and thick like a club. Without hesitation, Titama raised the club and swung it into Muturangi’s outstretched hand. The delicate bones in his fingers and hand shattered. Muturangi screamed as his arm was tossed aside by the blow. With another sickening crack, Titama swung the Patu Onewa into the side of Muturangi’s head. Muturangi fell, dropping to one knee on the carpet beside his desk.

“I’m not-, the bad guy, we-, we can-,” Muturangi mumbled.

Titama hit him in the top of the skull and the skin split open. Blood sprayed out of the wound as Muturangi went boneless and tumbled to the floor. Titama raised the Patu Onewa again. The smooth and heavy club came down over and over with bone-breaking power and precision, cracking Muturangi’s skull open like an oyster and turning his brains to jelly.

When Titama was finished she dropped the traditional club onto Muturangi’s desk, blood splattering the wood finish. Her arm ached and her body was covered in pains. A red handprint was left on the side of the desk as Titama supported herself. At least she knew the secret part of the Farm downstairs was shut down. With Muturangi’s death it would be shut down for good. Titama wasn’t sure if it was worth it for the sake of a dozen clones but it was the decision she had made. Bending over as she circled around the desk, Titama picked up the bright blue gun Muturangi had tried to use on her.

Carrying the handgun, Titama left Muturangi’s office and wandered back toward the massive function room. Two figures were waiting for her. Fat and thin, both half-hidden in the shadows, were Skux and Riotgrrrl. Both were bruised but had recovered consciousness from their earlier beating. Riotgrrrl was carrying her pair of batons again. Skux had picked up a club, nothing fancy like the Patu Onewa Titama had just used but a plain metal baseball bat.

“Where’s Muturangi? We heard the shot, you shoot him?” Riotgrrrl said.

“Dead, you want to join him?” Titama said.

“I’ll kill you!” Riotgrrrl said.

Riotgrrrl screamed, running at Titama. Her two batons were drawn back, ready to sweep around and batter Titama. Titama lifted the handgun and fired almost offhandedly. The bullet punched Riotgrrrl in the chest and threw her backward. Batons flying from her hands, Riotgrrrl dropped. Skux was standing in the same spot, stunned and maybe a little concussed as Titama moved the gun toward him. She fired and the second shot cut Skux down as well. He fell over, blood streaming from the side of his head. Titama let her arm fall to her side, the 3D printed gun’s thick barrel smoking.

“I’ve got to get out of here.” Titama said.

The building was abandoned now that Titama had killed everyone except the geeks, who had fled. She tucked the handgun into the back of her belt, covering it with her shirt. Her coat was still downstairs and she didn’t have time to retrieve it. Scrubbing her hands together, Titama moved toward the front doors. One leg lagged behind her as she did.

As soon as Titama stepped outside she was painted by light. Blue and red strobes splashed the walls and her face. Titama looked up and saw a police drone and a hovercar flying directly above. Their spotlights blinded her.

Titama could only sigh. They were there so fast, there was no way she could have gotten away. The two escaped clone techs wouldn’t have called the cops so it must have been the gunshots that had drawn them. Titama had heard how the drones’ parabolic mics could pick gunfire up from half a city away, she’d just never seen it for herself. The hovering drone’s .50 cal machine gun and tear gas cannon were both pointed at her on the stoop.

“Get down on the ground! Remove any weapons you are carrying and put your hands above your head!” A boosted voice from the cop cruiser said.

Using only two fingers, Titama removed the bright blue gun from the back of her belt where she’d just placed it moments ago. She held it out, dangling from her fingertips so the cops could see she was cooperating, and tossed it into the nearby bushes. Raising her bloodstained hands, Titama sunk to her knees in resignation. The police vehicles descended on her with more on the way.

Sean E. Britten — 2019

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If you enjoyed that, please feel free to share and if you haven’t already check out Kill Switch: Serial Escalation on Amazon, available in eBook and paperback.

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