I stand in the elevator, watch the floors click past: 22, 23, 24. Outside, the sweeping vista of Singapore’s neon nightscape flashes and sparkles. I clasp my hands at my waist; roll my shoulders forward so my Eli Nasir designer jacket better hides my shoulder holster and ultrathin body armor. If I keep my head up and slightly cocked, my long golden hair falls over my ear and hides my earpiece. No point in slouching here. I’m taller than most of the men. The women – ha! Even in their most ambitious stilettos, I’m a giant, towering over them.
Floor 42. Almost there. Behind me, the rider in his matching black and red jacket and pants stops fondling his comm and looks up. He’s still wearing his black and red D’Vitio e-glasses, so I can’t read his eyes, but I know he sees me watching him in the reflection from the door. He frowns and flicks me off. Punk. His outfit costs more than most bikes, certainly more than mine.
These rich kids, the spawn of corporate moguls, have no idea what life is like outside the fortresses their families built. None of them have to worry about kiri-kiri.
Like my charming partner, Philip, says, “It’s a different world here. Crystal, china, and caviar. Everything is five star.”
Everything, including the protection. Philip’s with the bride right now. Once I’ve completed security checks on the groom’s representatives, negotiations can begin. We’re facilitating a corporate merger, thinly veiled as a marriage. Black Dragon with their wonder drug “Awakened” and Lee Global, a power player in the logistics industry.
The rider suddenly pushes past me, jabs the button for the next floor. I look away. I’m not paid to notice what these people do, only protect them from harm.
The doors open silently. The aroma of night blooming lilies is thick, wafting in from the hall. The rider charges out, hooks left and disappears. I frown. I’ve studied the blue prints of the Sky Cantik building. There’s nothing to the left of these elevators.
Except the fire escape.
But why would he…?
I look up, meet my own reflection’s gaze in half closed mirrored doors. A small O as in ‘oh, shit’ forms on my lips as I see the black and red backpack the rider left.
I key my comm. “This is Talia. Philip, get the princess out. It’s a-”
The bomb goes off.
They’re called the Kuat, the Strong. It’s a rebel movement so far below the notice of those at the top they never even thought to worry until it was too late. They want Awakened, the cure for kiri-kiri, and not at the First World price of $1,000 per pill.
I hunch over a bowl of sour asam laksa soup, light on the splice-mackerel. Around me the swirl of the night market is just getting underway. Vendors yelling, tourists gawking, security trolling for anyone they can find to rough up. They need to maintain the idea that someone can keep the Kuat at bay.
My contact is late. She slides onto the bench next to me and sets down a napkin on the table. I pick it up, feel the crinkle of data-foil and nod to her. She checks her comm, sees the confirmation that I’ve linked her access to my American ID, now useless to me.
I can’t afford a room, so I find a coffin hotel. My height is a curse this world, but what choice do I have? After the blow-out at Sky Cantik, I lost access to nearly everything, including my documents and ride home. The only way back is to prove I wasn’t involved, wasn’t paid off, didn’t look the other way. The only proof is Philip’s testimony. And he’s in no shape to talk.
I huddle in the tiny coffin hotel room, opaque the window-door and don my e-glasses. They’re bottom of the barrel and give me a headache. If I ever see that punk rider again I’ll fold him up so tight I’ll be able to hang him from a mirror as an origami good luck crane.
The data-foil shows me a 3-D interactive scan map of Black Dragon’s facility on Little Sister’s Island. Everything looks clean and corporate and good, but I’ve got years of experience. I know where these people bury the bodies. I used to work for them.
I flip through several overlays, hunting clues, until finally there it is. A pulsing blue line of electricity, way more than would be needed to a normal lab. That’s got to be the cryolab. Slumberland, where the inconvenient rest. Philip is there. It’s only taken five years, but I found him. Now all I need is a way in.
“Time. Get out. Time’s up.” The manager bangs on the window-door. I check my comm. It’s 0500. I paid for a full night, but I can’t argue with him. He knows no Western woman would be in a place like this if she had options, if she had protection, if she had connections. I’m not the golden princess any longer.
I crawl out, unfold in aching stages. All that time spent studying the Black Dragon and I still have no idea where her weakness lies. Philip is in there, waiting form me to wake him, to save him, to save us both. But how do I get in? I can’t sneak onto the supply flights. They’re unmanned drones. I can’t hire a boat. The auto-targeting turrets on the island’s perimeter would blow me out of the water.
Out of the water…but what about under the water?
I step out of the coffin hotel; join the rush tide of humanity in the street. My comm tells me the currents are traitorous around the Sisters’ Islands. Little Sister’s Island is well known for its spike coral, the hardy splice species engineered to bring back the oceanic flora and fauna after the Great Pacific Die Off. One wrong move and a swimmer could be cut to ribbons. One cut and the blood in the water will call the sharks.
Someone pushes me from behind. I bump into the woman in front of me, nearly knock her over. I brace myself against a street sign, and turn, looking toward the financial heart of Singapore.
People are running. First just a few. Young men in perfectly cut charcoal gray suits. Then older men in executive black. Women hiking up their skirts and kicking off their pumps. A stampede.
“What is it? What is it?” The question ripples through the morning crush in Manderin, Tamil, Malay, English, Thai, even Russian.
Panic. No one knows what’s going on, but we can smell fear. It flickers through the crowd like heat lightning. Now we’re all running, but there’s nowhere to go. We’re packed together. I see a small older man fall. He doesn’t come up. I cling to the street sign, thankful for my size. In this flashflood of fear, I’m a large boulder, not a tiny pebble.
Hours later, I wash up in Ali Baba’s, an Arab café on the edge of the electric district. I’m bruised, bloodied, exhausted, and I’m one of the fortunate ones.
“Talia, what is it? What’s happening in the streets?” Om Abdullah cradles her son, her dark eyes wide as she pours each of us a tiny cup of strong tea, sweetened with condensed milk. I wrap my fingers around the cup, let the warmth seep into my joints, try to forget, or at least bury, the wild helplessness of being washed along.
“I hoped you’d know. Has Jasmine come home yet?”
As if summoned by her name, Om Abdullah’s oldest daughter hurries in from the back alley entrance.
“It’s the Kuat.” She’s breathless, her hijab askew. “They released a poison gas bomb in the tube system. Anyone who breathes it goes to sleep. They say the winds will blow it all through town by morning.”
“They” are the people in the market, the faceless voice of the city. I’ve learned to trust Jasmine’s read on “Them”. No one survives in the shadow of the mighty without friends. I’m lucky Om Abdullah and I get along.
“But why?” Om Abdullah stands, paces. Her baby, Abdullah, fusses and she soothes him. More softly, she says, “Why?”
“They want the cure for kiri-kiri. They say if the poor must die, then the rich will, too.”
“So if Black Dragon doesn’t give them Awakened, they’ll put all of Singapore to sleep?” I frown.
Jasmine nods. “We’re all dying, Talia. Some fast, some slow.” She pulls up her sleeve to show the dark patches of scaled skin. “Better to die in our sleep, than suffocate in our own skins. Not all of us will make such a beauty of a corpse as you.”
“What if I could get into Black Dragon?” I ask. It’s cruel to give them hope, but I have to try. It’s not just me now. It’s the whole city. It might be a fool’s errand, but if there’s a chance to save people from the slow death by kiri-kiri, I have to try. I protect people. At least, I did once.
The water is piss warm. While I stand in the shallows, adjusting my rig, plastic bottles and Styrofoam peanuts eddy around me. Little fish dart through the water, their lithe bodies iridescent. These shallow water fish have adapted to match the pearlescent film from oil pollution.
The first part of the swim is easy. All I have to do is make sure I’m deep enough to pass under Black Dragon’s sonar net. My comm sends a red pulse to my dive mask if I get too close. I skim the bottom like a flounder.
Ahead looms the line of spike coral. Once past that, I’ll be in the relatively protected inner waters of Little Sister’s Island channel. I rise, letting my BC carry me up, letting the current push me forward. I’ll clear the coral by inches.
The wave comes out of nowhere, an evil phantom curling up from the sea floor. It dashes me against the coral. Another wave. I can’t get my baring. Another. I’m flailing in the water. I can’t risk rising too quickly – decompression. I smash into the coral. It’s designed to be tough and it is. Spike coral looks like a delicate mass of twisted briars and thorns. It’s not delicate at all. When I hit, the spikes tear through my wetsuit. I feel them dig into my soft, pink skin. I know I’m bleeding.
First things first. I need to get control of my dive. I reach out, ignore the pain as I grab the spike corals. The waves try to pound me into a wetsuit-contained jelly. It takes all my strength to hang on. My dive gloves provide almost no protection from the razor sharp snaggles of the spike coral.
I have to keep calm. Panic equals death at this depth. The waves slow. Blood swirls around my mask, a scarlet streamer flowing from my hand. I might as well be ringing a diner bell.
I let go, use the next swell to drive myself forward. I check my coordinates on my comm and correct my course. I can’t do anything about my hand, so I ignore it and kick away.
A tiger shark can grow to 25 feet in length. The shadow of one over me seems a lot bigger. There’s no way I can fight it off. All I can do is dive and hope it won’t follow me back into the spike coral. It’s a gamble. The shark above or the spike coral below. As long as no more rogue waves hit me, the coral is a better option.
The shark follows me for nearly fifteen of the longest minutes of my life. When the current pushes me towards the coral, I kick and flail my limbs to raise a cloud of silt. Eventually, the bleeding slows and the shark gives up.
The water is nearly black by the time I crawl up the beach. I drag out my waterproof dive bag with my gear. A flashgun and a vibromachete don’t seem like a lot when facing the might of the Black Dragon Corporation. Overhead the clouds hang low. Across the water, Singapore lights their bellies like a multicolored bruise.
I pull out the data-foil, double check my entry route and wriggle out of my shredded wetsuit. My hands smart and the cuts reopen. I press them against my thighs; use pressure to staunch the bleeding.
From the beach, Little Sister’s Island seems quiet and tourist friendly. Frangipani and hibiscus flowers drip from palm trees. Bats wheel and dive drunkenly through the purpling evening. The only sound is the waves lapping and night birds calling.
I head inland, toward the heart of the island, and Black Dragon’s lair. Out of the water, the humidity strikes with full force. I’m exhausted from the swim. My limbs tremble. I should have brought something to eat, but no turning back now.
There is a stunning lack of security in the island’s interior. If the data-foil is accurate, Black Dragon is nearly 100% automated. Guess you don’t need a lot of human interaction to guard the various political and corporate enemies kept in stasis “for the common good”. Besides, Black Dragon doesn’t want to worry about workers stealing Awakened.
The moon hovers over the trees, a thin sliver like the rind of an orange. I trudge up the final hill. Below, the building rises from the base of a depression at the heart of the island. Tier upon tier, the sleek black tower stabs at the sky. There are no lights on. Am I the only waking soul on this island?
I start down the hill and my question is abruptly answered.
Gunfire erupts. It spatters around me. A rain of palm fronds falls and I dive for cover.
The mech that fired on me is designed to look like one of the splice komodo dragons, complete with neck frills. On the mech, these function as armor. Back when Philip and I were the prince and princess of personal security, we guarded a Russian tycoon who owned a dragon mech. I know its specs, which means I know how small my chance of survival is.
I pop off a round with the flashgun, but the dragon’s armor ripples as its reflective nanobots deflect most of the energy. I adjust the setting; try flechettes. I send a spray of needle sharp projectiles at the mech’s joints. Its left forelimb buckles, but only for a second.
The dragon mech flips onto its side and prepares to fire its tail section at me. It’s only a little missile, a Svizo 320 anti-personnel, but it’ll be enough to reduce me to a fine mist of DNA. I have seconds to live.
I smash the flashgun against a rock. The casing cracks. I hit it again. The casing breaks open. Inside the core is white phosphorous hot. I hurl it away and down. It hits a palm, leaves a burning spatter across the tree’s trunk, before it tumbles and bounces away toward the facility.
The dragon fires. All I can do is duck behind a tree.
The missile follows the rolling, bouncing flashgun. It’s a beautiful sight, like a pinwheel of magma, until the missile hits.
The blast knocks the wind out of me. The dragon turns downhill, trying to confirm its kill. I draw the vibromachete and charge.
Just before I reach the dragon, it twitches, turns, aware of me. Its slowed just for a fraction of a second by the joint I damaged earlier.
I leap, using my uphill position to full advantage. Blade first, I plunge down on the dragon’s back. The vibromachete sinks in to the hilt behind the dragon’s head. I yank the handle back and forth, sawing at the neck. If I separate the central processing unit in the head from the weapons in the body, I kill it.
The dragon twists and bucks, but somehow I hang on until, with a final screech of metal, the head detaches. The body freezes, awaiting instructions. The dragon’s eyes close as it conserves power.
I stumble away. I’m sure the dragon sent a distress call. Time is running out. I have to find Philip, find the cure to kiri-kiri.
Breaking into the facility is easy for me. Inside, all is dark and still and blessedly air-conditioned. It’s so cool I shiver as I stroll through the ranks of stasis chambers.
I smile as I pause at the central control console. Why not give Black Dragon something else to worry about besides me? I pull up the controls and flip, swipe, and tap through the menus until I find what I’m looking for.
Awaken. It’s a simple process that will stop the stasis and awaken the sleepers.
All of them.
I kiss my fingertips and press the button.
Philip and I stand on the balcony of the American embassy, watching the fires smolder in Singapore. Fire crews are out in force and the city is quieting.
“They found Awakened in the water supply. Looks like someone rerouted Black Dragon’s delivery to the central water purification facility.” Philip smiles at me.
“Funny that.” I flex my fingers under the bandages on my hands.
“Yeah, considering that stealing about 17 billion dollars worth of corporate property would be a pretty huge crime, I can see why the hero, or heroine, wouldn’t want to claim responsibility.” Philip lowers his voice, glances as the Marines who guard the embassy. They ignore us. Just a couple ex-pats trying to leave the country after the rioting settles down, that’s who we are to them.
“Makes sense to me.” I turn to face him, wrap an arm around his waist. “Just glad your awake. Feels like it’s been a hundred years.”
About the Author
M. K. Martin is a motorcycle-riding, linguistics nerd. A former Army interrogator with a degree in psychology, she uses her unique knowledge and skill set to create smart, gritty stories that give readers a glimpse into the darker corners of the human mind. Her debut novel Survivors' Club is available now from Not a Pipe Publishing. She writes primarily speculative fiction. Enjoyed the story? Discover more from M. K. Martin on her website.