A Short Story by John Bergin
Philadelphia is a dump. Mountains of garbage on every corner. DenRats shuffling up and down the streets in broad daylight. Toxic chemicals running through the gutters. It wasn’t always like this. The city used to be clean. Then again, maybe it’s relative. One hundred years ago, the citizens probably thought the same thing I’m thinking now: “This place is a cesspool.” They didn’t contend with packs of dog-sized rats roaming the streets or piles of trash that were four stories high, yet I’m sure they thought the place was a shithole. They had no idea.
The only way into Philadelphia is by dropship. There are still a few commercial lines that offer service. If you can afford it. They set down on the Delaware planks, though, and transportation across the river into the city is either dangerous or unavailable.
I needed to get into the city. Quickly.
If I were undercover, I’d suffer the pain-in-the-ass of finding my own way in, but I had no need for secrecy. Considering the massive Provo Militia dropship I’d hitched a ride on, stealth wasn’t an option anyway.
The Provo were bound for the Denver needle. They’d picked me up in DeeCee at NUL HQ and were making a detour for me. NUL has an informal agreement with the militia. We call on them for favors from time to time. In exchange, we ignore the more unsavory aspects of their activities. NUL’s primary objective is to track, contain, study, and eliminate Pushers. This is where the goals of NUL and Provo overlap. I could never bring myself to read the screeds the Provo zealots issued daily, but their views on Pushers were common knowledge. “Blah blah blah. Pushers are the spawn of Satan. Blah blah blah.”
I’d never seen the inside of a Provo dropship. Hope to never again. I had no problems with the soldiers. They ignored me the entire thirty-minute flight. My problem was with the inside of the ship itself. I swear the hold was lined with rotten meat coated with motor oil. Biomechanics gone rancid.
The crew had lined a soldier’s berth with a plastic tarp and jerry-rigged a harness so I could strap in. The niche was designed for a Provo soldier, though. Twice the size of an average person. I’m big, but not that big. I bounced around the entire flight and the tarp leaked, ruining my favorite overcoat. I’d have to set it on fire to get the stains out.
The setting sun outlined heaps of rubble with an orange glow as we came in low over the ruins of City Hall. Squatters and rovers ran for cover. At least I had a clean insert to look forward to. No one would risk approaching the ship. People know to keep the fuck away from the Provo.
Fifteen seconds on the ground. Barely enough time for me to jump from the hold. The dropship was airborne before I’d taken five steps from it. Can’t say I blame them for rushing off. Place smells like Hell’s asshole.
NUL had sent me here to visit an ex-agent. Dav Schell.
Twice-decorated, Schell retired five years ago with honors. Fell into disgrace mere months after leaving NUL. Eff, Secmeth, Exgen, Ninezein… not to mention trickbags, doggo-girls, and deviant transvassals. He lost himself in every drug and depravity he could get his hands on (and member into). It happens. NUL agents are defined by their vocation. We are hunters. When the hunt ends, so do we.
Schell lost his wife, his kids, his house, his money. Last anyone saw of him, he’d become a bony husk of his former self, haunting the Shitty Bottoms of DeeCee.
Half a year ago, I tracked him down, brought him in. Captain Hunley had personally given me the assignment to find him and drag him back for a face-to-face. Off the books.
NUL was bursting at the seams with internal political bullshit. Admins across the board were gunning for Hunley’s job. Leading the charge was Vvagner — real snake of an exec. Over the years, she’d maneuvered herself into a position that put Hunley’s authority in real danger. To make a long story short; Schell had dirt on Vvagner… Hunley sent me to fetch Schell… Schell gave the dirt to Hunley… Hunley used the dirt to drum Vvagner out of NUL and straight into ESPmax. She went down with a whole-life sentence.
Schell had earned himself a favor. He asked for money and detox… and he wanted out of DeeCee. Hunley obliged. Why Schell wanted a new address in Philadelphia, I can’t imagine. Penance, maybe.
Night fell as I made my way south, then east toward the riverfront, down old South Street. Sodium lamps flickered on, smearing the streets with a sickly yellow light.
I worked my way through crowded markets and bazaars. Peddlers sold their wares from rickety stalls and shops. Food, moonshine, drugs, prostitution. All of it spoiled, stale, and rotten (including the prostitution). All of it at rock-bottom prices (ditto).
Every human and every not-quite-human who lives in Philadelphia is of a single type: filthy and gray. I did my best to avoid physical contact. Kept my head down and pushed through the crowd. A human plow. Hands in pockets like I was gripping concealed weapons (I was).
Schell was living in an old movie theater that had been subdivided into ten apartments. The manager looked up from behind the smudged glass of the ticket booth as I entered the lobby. Probably the last remaining piece of unbroken glass in the entire city.
I gave the guy Schell’s description.
“You a cop?” he asked.
“I look like a cop?”
“You look like someone whose vocation includes activities such as breaking fingers and pulverizing kneecaps. Around here, we refer to such as Officers of The Law.”
“Fair enough.” I slid fifty n’Dollars through an opening in the glass partition. He made the money disappear.
“The man you seek is named David Skull. He is a quiet, reliable tenant who always pays his rent on time, so please do not injure him. Screening Room. Down the hall, take the stairs to the top floor.”
David Skull? Schell couldn’t have come up with a better alias?
Schell opened on the second knock. Unsurprised. Like he was expecting me. Considering his past, I suppose he figured it was inevitable NUL would one day come crashing back into his life. He stepped back into his place, left the door open for me to follow.
Schell’s loft took up the entire top floor of the old cinema. The front of the studio featured a kitchenette, a small bathroom, and a sitting area. A vegetable cultivator sat against a wall near the door, radiating purple light, and a meat incubator hummed away in the opposite corner. A sheet of silvered fabric marred with rips and stains ran the length of the room, splitting it in half — the theater’s old screen.
“Living in the lap of luxury,” I said.
“I’ve always liked old movies.” He shrugged.
Schell hadn’t changed much since I’d last seen him emerging from detox. He’d gained a few pounds. Looked a lot less haunted. He was doing better than anyone else in the city, I’ll give him that.
“Why Philadelphia, Dav?”
“Where else would I go?”
“Someplace with oxygen.”
On the other side of the screen, I saw a bed, a bureau, an over-sized toolbox, a workbench… and a young woman sitting at the bench, repairing an antique 35mm film projector. She wore black rubber gloves and HUD goggles.
“Iz,” Schell called to her.
She slammed her tools down, annoyed at the interruption. “What.”
She slid her goggles up and forced a smile, seeing that she and Dav had a visitor.
She joined us and Schell made introductions. “Izabel, this is Jake. A colleague from days at NUL. Jake, meet Izabel. My girlfriend.”
She shook my hand without removing her gloves. “Coffee?” she asked.
“That’d be lovely. Thank you.”
She stepped into the kitchen while Schell and I moved to the sitting area. He took a ratty recliner. I navigated around a plywood coffee table, dropped onto a couch missing half its springs.
“Let’s hear it,” he said.
“Vvagner is out.”
No reaction. “How long?”
“She busted out four days ago.”
“We don’t know yet. Lockdown at ESP is a mess. They’re still bagging bodies.”
“You came all the way out here just to, what, warn me?” he asked, rightfully suspicious.
“Vvagner knows you were instrumental in bringing her down. Only a matter of time before she gets around to thanking you for that. Hunley figured he owed you a warning.”
“Bullshit. You’re the best Hunley has. You should be out there hunting Vvagner. He would have sent someone else if all he wanted was to deliver a message.”
My turn to shrug.
Izabel set a percolator and three mugs on the coffee table. She poured herself a cup, carried it to the back room, and returned to her work on the projector.
Schell filled our mugs.
The coffee was strong, sharp.
I pulled a spent bullet casing from my pocket, placed it on the table between us.
The casing was unique, to say the least. Black chrome. Covered with tiny spikes and thorns. More organic than machined. Like a seed from a demonic plant. It was something NUL had never seen before… and we’d seen it all.
Most people, when presented with a strange little object, will pick it up, examine it. Schell recoiled. Spilled a drop of coffee. Aha.
“Vvagner?” he asked.
I nodded. “We found this in Lockdown. Only piece of evidence left in the wake of her escape.”
“We recovered the bullet that fired from this casing. The guy it killed was… Fuck, I can’t even begin to describe what it did to him. His wounds were — ”
“Twisted. Moving. Alive.”
“Yea. Something like that.”
He pointed to the object. “This is why you’re here.”
I nodded. “Hunley’s hoping you know what it is.”
He leaped to his feet, paced the room. “Shit. Shit. Shit. I can’t deal with this right now. I’m just starting to get my life back together.”
I let him pace.
I glanced at Izabel working in the back room, behind the screen. I could see her shoulder… her neck… the side of her face, engrossed in her work. She reached into the toolbox, withdrew a spanner. Her neck had a lovely curve. A well-defined sternocleidomastoid and trapezius. Her hair was glossy. Her ears looked soft as a lamb’s. She wore earrings made of tiny projector components. They swayed gently as she bent over her work. I wondered how a burnout like Schell had managed to capture her attention.
My Cord trilled. Schell stopped pacing. I held my finger up. One minute.
I pulled the Cord from my neck, jammed the tip into a jack behind my ear.
It was Hunley. Audio-only. I hate it when he does this. He’s impossible to understand. With a visual, I use overlays to help me decipher what the fuck he’s saying. With audio-only, all I get are the sounds of a mumbling walrus.
In actuality, Hunley is a waterlogged man-shaped slug. A fat mass of gray flesh floating in a vat of brine. He should have retired ages ago. Instead, he drifts in his tank, connected to life support systems on top of life support systems on top of life support systems, issuing orders.
Our standard greeting usually goes;
Me: Hey, Chief. Still swimming?
Him: Like a dead fish.
He skipped the greeting, got right to the point. “Everything has fallen apart.”
He clicked off before I could say a word.
I stowed the Cord.
Four words. Eight syllables. Worst news I could get.
Everything has fallen apart. Code for: “Pushers have taken NUL.”
We were finished. Every agent at NUL HQ was either dead or soon-to-be. Hunley would be the last to go, being in the most heavily fortified position. He was getting word out to every agent still in the field. A handful of us. Within the hour we’d be all that was left of NUL.
I was looking at a future of being on the run. A fugitive. No support. No allies. The few us left alive would avoid each other for years to come. Our lives would be ruled by suspicion, fear, doubt, and guilt.
My life would be worse than Schell’s ever was… or is. Here in Hell’s asshole, living in a spacious apartment with an attractive girlfriend, he was leading the life of a king compared to what my life would soon be.
Dav Schell and Izabel.
Izabel: beautiful… healthy… smart…
Dav Schell: a shell of a man…
It didn’t add up.
I shifted my position on the couch so I could see her hands. The projector components were intricate. Fragile. Working with them required supreme dexterity.
Why was she wearing thick rubber gloves?
She was a Pusher. Had to be.
Pushers don’t like to touch things. They see enough as it is. Direct contact heightens the intensity of their perception to the point where they feel pain.
“Damn fine coffee,” I said to Schell as I topped off my cup.
Schell plopped down in his chair, defeated by whatever knowledge the weird bullet casing had caused to rattle around in his mind.
“Look,” I said. “Sorry about all this. We’re just following leads, pulling threads. You remember how it is.”
He nodded, wary.
“We can talk about this later,” I told him as I pocketed the casing. “I’ve got a few hours to kill and this topic is obviously upsetting you.”
I led him into a conversation about the projector Izabel was repairing. Where did he find it? Why restore it? What was he going to do with it once it was running again? So on. He rambled on about finding it in the building along with a few cases of celluloid, wanting to see what was on the film, maybe project it on the screen and sell tickets.
I tuned him out. Launched an overlay, centered it on Izabel. Ran a scan. Heart rate, body temp, pupil dilation, digestive processes, eye movements, and aura coloration.
This is what I did. Hunt Pushers. Pushers shape circumstances to their advantage, bend chaos to their will. This leaves a trail of disrupted patterns. Some of us can see the wake. We sense it like intuition. Like déjà vu. Schell wasn’t exaggerating; I was the best NUL had.
Izabel was a Pusher. No question.
Why was she here? For Schell?
“So,” I interrupted him. “How long have you and Izabel been together?”
“Met her two weeks ago,” he said. “She was looking for a place to stay. I was coming into the lobby just as the manager was turning her away because the theater was full. I told her she could take a corner in my place. Just to sleep in. Didn’t mean anything by it. I got room to spare. Then I found that old projector and she said she could fix it. So she stayed. After a few days we just, you know, hit it off.”
Two weeks. Izabel was in deep. Only takes twelve hours for a Pusher to gain complete control over a person. They’re insidious. Before you know it, you’re doing things you never imagined yourself doing. Murder. Rape. Arson. Theft. Jumping off a bridge. Shooting yourself in the face. Planning neighborhood film festivals.
And it all feels like the most natural thing in the world to you.
She could have killed him by now. Easily. But she hadn’t.
She wanted something from him and she hadn’t gotten it yet.
Izabel was on the far side of the loft, working on the projector, but she’d heard every word Schell and I had said. She was listening through Schell. For all intents and purposes, my entire conversation with Schell had been a conversation with Izabel. If I told Schell his mind had been infiltrated by a Pusher, Izabel would know I knew.
“I’ve got a few other contacts to visit,” I lied as I got to my feet. “I’ll make my rounds and come back in a few hours. We can pick up our conversation then. Sound good?”
I said goodbye to Izabel. Shook Schell’s hand. Left the building.
I walked a block west and ducked into a narrow space between two buildings from where I could surveil the theater entrance.
Pulled my Cord and tried NUL. Nothing. Not even static.
I replayed footage of Izabel. Schell introducing me to her. Izabel working. Izabel making coffee. Izabel bringing mugs to Schell and me.
I ran a full spectrum on the shots.
Izabel wasn’t in Philadelphia for Dav Schell. She was here for me. I could see it in her eyes. Dilating pupils. An involuntary twitch of an eyelid. A slight shift to violet in the coloration of her ocular energy field.
Pushers have tells. I know them all.
She’d been waiting two weeks for me to show up.
Schell and Izabel exited the theater. Izabel headed north at a quick pace. Schell followed like a dog on a leash.
I slipped into Schell’s apartment, attached a skin to the wall above his bed, another on his door, and a handful of others scattered about his place. A skin is a palm-sized sheet of translucent material, one molecule thick. Once attached to a surface, a skin mimics surrounding patterns and textures, perfectly camouflaging itself. Striking the skin causes it to expand into an exoform. The exoform is invisible, indestructible. Too fast for the human eye to see, the form wraps around whoever strikes it, protecting them like a second skin. The form is synthetic, but it is indistinguishable from real human skin. It’s warm. It even bleeds.
With the skins installed, I hid in a closet.
An hour later, Izabel and Schell returned. Izabel was angry. Pissed that I’d given her the slip. She shoved Schell onto the bed. He laid there, a mute puppet.
“Useless piece of shit,” Izabel growled at him.
Schell levitated off the bed. Telekinetic abilities are unusual for Pushers. I’d had a hunch after studying my scans of Izabel.
“I am going to turn you inside out.” With a mere gesture, she slammed Schell into the wall above the bed.
When Schell hit the wall, he came into contact with the skin. The exoform ejected and wrapped around him — too fast for Izabel to see. Too fast, even, for Schell to see or feel, but now he was protected.
Izabel’s toolbox opened seemingly on its own as she dug through it with her mind. Box cutters, screwdrivers, hammers, and nails lifted from it.
The tools hovered around Schell.
Then Izabel went to work.
Within moments she had reduced Schell to a bloody mass of skin, hair, and cartilage pegged to the wall with nails.
Izabel left, knocking the film projector to the floor on her way out.
I stepped from the closet, peeled the exoform from Schell. He was covered with gore. Not his own; the skin’s. He was disorientated, slipping in and out of consciousness, but he was unharmed. I made him comfortable and left.
In the street, I opened my mind. Wide. Flooded it with ideas, concepts, maneuvers, and strategies for capturing and killing Izabel.
I did this so Izabel would sense me and come to me. You cannot scheme and plot against a Pusher. They know your plans before you do. To hunt a Pusher, you compartmentalize your intentions — bury them so deeply within your subconscious that you yourself do not know what they are.
Walking an empty back alley, I sensed I was being followed. Izabel.
It began to rain. A heavy downpour. Big fat drops splattered on the greasy street.
I picked my way around piles of garbage, focused on the sound of the rain. I strained to hear nuances in each individual spatter. Raindrops hitting a metal dumpster made a sharp echoing tap tap tap. Raindrops smacking against wet concrete ran together, a high-pitched white noise.
In this way, I kept my mind empty. I could feel Izabel poking around the edges of my thoughts, trying to force me to stop walking… to bite my tongue off… to gouge my eyes out.
The rain spattering on a fire escape. Tink tink tink.
Izabel stepped up behind me, put her hand on my shoulder. Her gloves were off.
The touch of a Pusher renders an average person utterly subservient.
I am not average. I am an agent of NUL.
I spun around, wrapped my hands around Izabel’s neck.
I felt her mind stab into me like hot irons poking into my brain.
I squeezed her throat. Hard. “Get out of my head, or I will break your neck.”
She backed off. My thoughts cleared. I kept my hands around her neck, but I eased up on the pressure so she could speak.
“You were waiting for me. At Schell’s apartment. Two weeks you waited for me to show up.”
She flicked wet hair from her eyes. “You should know.”
Bright blue eyes. She really was quite lovely.
“I’ve killed a lot of your kind. Revenge? That it? I off a friend of yours? Family?”
She laughed. It was a nice laugh. Like she was laughing at herself. Laughing at the world.
“Vvagner never wanted some fat fish fuck’s desk job,” she said. “Hunley had it wrong. You NUL assholes are fools to think that’s all she was after. You think NUL is gone? Wrong. She has plans for you. All of you.”
“You’re working with Vvagner? You? A Pusher?”
Izabel nodded, ran her tongue over her lips. “You’re hurting me.”
I let her go, took a step back.
She massaged her bruised neck. “Kneel.”
I did as she asked. Pleasing her felt good.
“Good boy.” She reached into her jacket, pulled out a scalpel. I couldn’t wait to feel its sharp edge against my throat. I ached to bleed for Izabel.
Rain hitting a broken bottle. Plink. Plink. Plink.
I rubbed my hands together. Vigorously. Like I was trying to warm them.
I held my hands before Izabel’s face, palms-out.
Rubbing my hands together had turned the skin of my palms to a polished silver. Like chrome. Only a few NUL agents have suffered through the pain of this enhancement. You could say it’s come in handy.
Izabel’s head exploded.
That’s what happens when a Pusher sees their reflection while pushing someone as hard as Izabel was pushing me.
Izabel had wormed her way into my mind while I was interrogating her. She was good. Slow. Subtle. Strong. My response had been automatic. My subconscious plan kicking in.
How did Izabel know NUL was gone? She knew about the internal dispute between Hunley and Vvagner. Was Izabel involved in Vvagner’s escape, or had she been reading my mind and using the information she found there to distract me, fabricating a bullshit story about Vvagner colluding with Pushers?
Sensing a free meal, DenRats emerged from drains and crawlspaces, nibbled at Izabel’s corpse. I kicked them away, riffled through her pockets. No money. No ID. Nothing linking her to Vvagner.
I had to get back to DeeCee.
With NUL gone, I couldn’t call in a favor from the Provo. So; no dropship. Getting out of Philadelphia and back to DeeCee was going to be one epic fucking adventure.
(illustration by John Bergin)