Altered Carbon


Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting. Millsport had long since put itself to bed, but out in the Reach currents were still snagging on the shoals, and the sound came ashore to prowl the empty streets. There was a fine mist drifting in from the whirlpool, falling on the city like sheets of muslin and fogging the kitchen windows.

Chemically alert, I inventoried the hardware on the scarred wooden table for the fiftieth time that night. Sarah’s Heckler & Koch shard pistol glinted dully at me in the low light, the butt gaping open for its clip. It was an assassin’s weapon, compact and utterly silent. The magazines lay next to it. She had wrapped insulating tape around each one to distinguish the ammunition; green for sleep, black for the spider venom load. Most of the clips were black-wrapped. Sarah had used up a lot of green on the security guards at Gemini Biosys the previous night.

My own contributions were less subtle. The big silver Smith & Wesson, and the four remaining hallucinogen grenades. The thin crimson line around each canister seemed to sparkle slightly, as if it were about to detach itself from the metal casing and float up to join the curlicues of smoke ribboning off my cigarette. Shift and slide of altered significants, the side effect of the tetrameth I’d scored that afternoon down at the wharf. I don’t usually smoke when I’m straight, but for some reason the tet always triggers the urge.

Against the distant roar of the maelstrom I heard it. The hurrying strop of rotorblades on the fabric of the night.

I stubbed out the cigarette, mildly unimpressed with myself, and went through to the bedroom. Sarah was sleeping, an assembly of low-frequency sine curves beneath the single sheet. A raven sweep of hair covered her face and one long-fingered hand trailed over the side of the bed. As I stood looking at her the night outside split. One of Harlan’s World’s orbital guardians test-firing into the Reach. Thunder from the concussed sky rolled in to rattle the windows. The woman in the bed stirred and swept the hair out of her eyes. The liquid crystal gaze found me and locked on.

“What’re you looking at?” voice husky with the residue of sleep.

I smiled a little.

“Don’t give me that shit. Tell me what you’re looking at.”

“Just looking. It’s time to go.”

She lifted her head and picked up the sound of the helicopter. The sleep slid away from her face and she sat up in bed.

“Where’s the ‘ware?”

It was a Corps joke. I smiled, the way you do when you see an old friend, and pointed to the case in the corner of the room.

“Get my gun for me.”

“Yes ma’am. Black or green?”

“Black. I trust these scumbags about as far as a clingfilm condom.”

In the kitchen, I loaded up the shard pistol, cast a glance at my own weapon and left it lying there. Instead, I scooped up one of the H grenades and took it back in my other hand. I paused in the doorway to the bedroom and weighed the two pieces of hardware in each palm as if I was trying to decide which was the heavier.

“A little something with your phallic substitute, ma’am?”

Sarah looked up from beneath the hanging sickle of black hair over her forehead. She was in the midst of pulling a pair of long woollen socks up over the sheen of her thighs.

“Yours is the one with the long barrel, Tak.”

“Size isn’t—”

We both heard it at